The casual talk of war

Feb 12, 2019

The casual talk of war heard today is of great concern. War is treated as if it’s a board game and the only pieces are military forces. The experiences of the twentieth-century, and to a lesser extent those of this century, have demonstrated the widespread destruction and death, social dislocation and economic collapse, political disruption and often revolution, or geopolitical realignment, that accompany major wars. War is an unreliable tool of statecraft and unpredictable pursuit.

Take Paul Dibb’s refrain that Australia must contemplate committing in advance to joining the US in military actions in the Indo-Pacific and East Asia. Previously Professor Dibb stressed that Australia should plan on ‘crisis situations in which the US may look to Australia to join it in military contingencies such as the South China Sea, Taiwan, the Korean peninsula, the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific’. Now, he argues ‘[I]t’s in our interest to stand up for the defence’ of Taiwan.

For Professor Dibb the Taiwan contingency is urgent because ‘[R]esorting to a serious external crisis over Taiwan would serve to divert the attention of the Chinese people to a major issue of national pride’. And it certainly would! But the Chinese regime faces no unmanageable challenge justifying such an extreme and costly subterfuge.

A Chinese attempt to regain Taiwan, the professor believes, would inevitably lead to conflict with the US as ‘the days are gone of the US not standing up to an increasingly aggressive China’. But surely the US in any decision would weigh the prospects for success and the possible consequences. Nevertheless, a Chinese military assault on Taiwan is not improbable and warrants serious thought.

A failure by the US to resist Chinese aggression would be primarily of strategic importance to Australia because of the effect on US alliances. Professor Dibb says that were the US not to defend Taiwan it would ‘threaten the balance of power in the region by significantly undermining the trust and confidence of US allies’ bringing about ‘the end of the alliance system in the Asia–Pacific region’. In turn, he surmises, ‘Japan and South Korea would be likely to quickly develop their own nuclear weapons’. Professor Dibb claims, if ‘Australia refuses to make a military contribution, that will threaten the very raison d’être for ANZUS’.

Prominent in all is this is an implied assumption that the status quo ante would be restored following hostilities. Along with the chorus urging dramatic ramping up of defence spending, Professor Dibb avoids any discussion of how war in East Asia would play out or how the post-war environment in the region might affect Australia’s interests. There are many possible scenarios in which China might seek to regain Taiwan by force.

If an assault on Taiwan had become unavoidable for China, it might seek to coordinate with Russia and North Korea. Massive and threatening troop movements on Eastern European border or near the Korean demilitarised zone, accompanied by Russia placing its nuclear forces on high alert could effectively divert the US and deter it from committing forces into the Taiwan Strait.

Even if China did not bring others into the conflict the possibility exists that proximate to its mainland China would prevail anyway in the sea-air battle. Presumably, the Chinese leadership would not act unless victory was likely. Additionally, even an inconclusive conflict would leave the US appearing impotent and bring instability to the region. China could wait for another chance at Taiwan and the US appetite for a second round would be questionable. North Korea would likely be emboldened and South Korea and Japan would be seriously alarmed.

In any event, a major conflict between China and the US over Taiwan would have impacts more widely in East Asia. Would the US strike at operational, support and logistic bases and facilities on the Chinese mainland? The struggle could quickly escalate, transitioning from Taiwan to China fighting in defence of its homeland, and maybe spilling over into Southeast and Central Asia..

In other scenarios, anticipating North Korea feeling its own survival at risk with a Chinese defeat the US might strike pre-emptively precipitating a devasting war on the peninsula. Russia would view war on its borders and the possibility of US regional dominance in North Asia as a direct threat to its security interests.

Conflict might see the Australian mainland subject to attack, Australian shipping interdicted, trade with China evaporate, and, in the aftermath find Australia left somewhat isolated in the Indo-Pacific and faced either with a victorious and hostile China or with a hostile defeated China. Perhaps with a US so chastened by the experience it would withdraw totally from East Asia.

These things are unknowable. Once the dogs of war are freed they roam where they will and whom they bite is impossible to predict.

Successive Australian governments have deepened and broadened the strategic relationship with the US to the point where Australia is heavily dependent on the Americans for intelligence, materiel, technology, and logistic support on operations. This has been a cost-effective route to building a highly capable military force. The price has been to play the faithful ally.

In the past this policy had a lot to recommend it. But planning to join the US in a war against China simply because of past relations is not to act in Australia’s interest. To the contrary, it is not difficult to conceive of a situation where in the aftermath of a major war in East Asia ANZUS has become irrelevant and Australia’s economic and security situation dire.

The highest and most crucial foreign and defence policy objective for Australian governments is the pursuit of peaceful resolution to any crises in the region. Professor Dibb’s invitation to predetermine a unqualified commitment to war to preserve ANZUS is not in Australia’s interest. Although he does raise an important issue and one which should feature prominently in the coming election. The world is becoming more dangerous. How do our politicians assess Australia’s strategic policy options?

Mike Scrafton is a former senior Defence executive, former CEO of a state statutory body, and former chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.

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