The Defence Strategic Review: We should regard the Taiwan issue as one for us to ‘sit out’

Sep 10, 2022
South Pacific
Image: Flickr / Adam Fagen

It is almost impossible to imagine any realistic circumstances, short of general war in the Asia-Pacific, under which China would launch a military attack on Australia.

The Review’s interim report, due on November 1, has many very major issues to deal with. It would have been preferable for it to have preceded, not followed, the nuclear submarine decision.

The two leads for the Review, former Defence Minister Smith and former CDF Houston, have said that they will provide an interim report by November 1, less than two months away. It will have to deal with many very major issues, including the international strategic situation, Australian defence capability, “the most concerning” security threats to us, and what we might do about them.

Strategic Situation

Sir Angus Houston commented, after the announcement of the Review, that “the deteriorating strategic environment facing Australia is the worst I have seen in my lifetime”. That is quite a statement: he was born after the end of World War II, but lived through the depths of the Cold War, and “Mutual Assured Destruction”. But leaving comparisons aside, there is no doubt that the current international situation contains many points of serious concern, which include Russia in Ukraine; this in the context of the “no limits” Russia-China pact; China’s growth in military strength, including in the air and at sea, and its unrequited ambition in regard to Taiwan; reduction in trust, and thus in security dialogues, between the US and Russia, including in the nuclear area, resulting in a reduction in operative nuclear arms control agreements between the two; reduction in adherence to the “rules-based order”, though this can be and is interpreted in different ways; a possible revival of Islamic terrorism using Afghanistan as a base;  the Pandemic and its consequences; and economic and other dislocations caused by both the Pandemic and the war in the Ukraine. Exacerbating all the above is climate change, becoming ever more manifest around the world with instances of catastrophic heat, drought and flooding, while efforts to contain it remain uncoordinated and unconvincing.

There are also two underlying geo-political trends of great significance, one the collapse of the so-called “rules-based international order”, which Australian politicians, exemplified by Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles, still extol; and US-China rivalry, which at times seems to be reaching existential proportions.

First, a word about the “rules-based order”. What is this? It’s pretty clear that it is short-hand for the international state of affairs, based on US predominance and power, that has applied since the establishment of the post-World War II international institutions—the UN, the Bretton Woods economic institutions like the IMF and the World Bank—as accentuated by the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the then weak state of China.

But is this state of affairs widely recognised and accepted today? According to US Secretary of State Blinken it should be, as the order embodies “the universal values that have sustained so much of the world’s progress over the past 75 years”. But according to a recent perceptive article in “Foreign Affairs” it is not. In an article entitled “Nobody Wants the Current World Order” Shivshankar Menon, former Indian National Security adviser, says that “the world is between orders; it is adrift”. While the US led two “orders” after World War ii, one a Keynesian one and one neo-liberal, both rested on “the dominance and imperatives of US military, political and economic power”. Menon says that while for much of the era that followed the demise of the Soviet Union most powers, including China, went along with this, it is now a thing of the past. Major powers, with Russia a prime example, exhibit what he calls “revisionist” behaviour, pursuing their own ends to the detriment of the international order, and even seeking to change the order itself.

Indeed, he argues, the US, which played the leading part in the establishment of the post-World War II institutions, has itself become a leading revisionist, abandoning the UN for “coalitions of the willing”, declining to join important Conventions like that on the Law of the Sea, and even playing a leading part in the weakening of the World Trade Organisation by imposing country-specific trade restrictions on other countries—China, for example—while not agreeing to new appointments to the WTO’s appellate tribunal, so preventing that body from functioning.

There is no doubt, from public official US documents as well as from speeches and commentaries by senior American personalities, that many in the US see the rise of China as an existential threat, if not to its actual existence then certainly to its “exceptional” role as the world’s dominant power. Not all, but many Americans would agree with the statement by Prof. John Mearsheimer, of the University of Chicago, that “the United States can not tolerate a peer competitor”, which China certainly has become. Many in the US, not only in the military, assume that a war with China will eventually occur. Another recent “Foreign Affairs” article, titled “China Hasn’t Reached the Peak of its Power”, argued against the contention that China would act soon to take control of Taiwan because this is its moment of maximum comparative advantage. “Not so”, the article’s academic authors argued, China can realistically expect to grow stronger over the next ten years—so the US should expect to go to war with China then!

For their part, most Chinese interested in international relations would take it for granted that while the West is declining and the East is rising, the US fears the rise of China and seeks to keep it down and contain it, making it necessary for China to respond in all fields, including militarily. As we know it is doing that impressively, though still well behind the US in overall strength, and thereby doing its share in raising the overall level of tension and concern, particularly among some of its neighbours.

As a final word on the “rules-based order”, it’s interesting that in regard to actual institutions that countries have signed on to, China can in some ways claim to be a better supporter of “the order” than the US. Because of its diplomatic attention to the “Third World”, and its economic inducements and inter-actions through the “Belt and Road”, China has been able to win some significant votes in the UN over American opposition, and is therefore more inclined to use it and give it standing, as Politburo member Yang Jiechi pointed out to American interlocutors at talks in Anchorage in March last year. And in its parallel economic body, the WTO, China, like Australia, is part of a voluntary grouping that those involved have set up to function in place of the official appellate body rendered inoperative by the US refusal to allow positions on it to be filled.

So despite its invocation by Richard Marles and others it’s hard to contend that maintaining what the “rules-based international order” now actually represents should be a major goal of Australia’s strategic policy.

Australian Defence capability

My comments under this heading are brief. First, Australia, with a total of about 60,000 permanent personnel in its armed forces, is not strong militarily. Secondly, while our oceanic geographic position is in a way a safeguard, in another way it is a weakness, since we are dependent on sea lines of communication remaining open for various essential supplies. Third, in this regard we have some particular weaknesses in regard to fuel storage and refining capacity—the major part of our so-called strategic fuel reserve is actually held in the United States—and in regard to the absence of Australian-owned merchant shipping that could be mobilised by the Government in an emergency.

There is no doubt that it is a good idea to have a Strategic Review in part to “consider the priority of investment in Defence capabilities”, given the extraordinary cost of Defence programs. For example an article by Cameron Stewart in “The Australian” of August 24 listed new naval projects “planned but not yet built” as amounting to $235 billion! This included 8 nuclear-powered submarines at an estimated cost ranging from $116 to $171 billion.

“Defence capabilities” of course includes Army and Air Force equipment as well as Navy, and I think it is fair to say that a lot of people will share Greg Sheridan’s doubts about the essentiality of existing plans to procure tanks and heavy armour infantry fighting vehicles for the Army (“Weekend Australian”, 27-28 August), given our maritime environment.

But given the enormous expense involved, the facts that we have no nuclear power industry nor trained nuclear workforce and the fact that there has as yet been no systematic identification of the actual threats Australia may face, it is hard not to focus on the Navy, and to conclude that the whole process involving AUKUS and the Strategic Review is unfortunately being done the wrong way round. The Review should have been undertaken by the former government before it took its decision on nuclear submarines, and the current government, then the opposition, should not have been so quick to support that decision. It is, as I said, a good idea to have a Strategic review at this time: but what if it concludes that nuclear submarines are not the top priority?

Security threats to Australia

There is no doubt that the major factor, sometimes made clear, sometimes tacit, behind current Australian concerns about our strategic situation, is the growing military strength and more assertive behaviour of China under Xi Jinping. But given what China has become should its assertive behaviour be a surprise, and is it directed at Australia in particular? China is now a country of 1.4 billion people, the second largest economy in the world, with more than 1 million men in its armed forces, a population that largely supports its government and a past history of both regional predominance and incursions and invasions by foreigners, both Western and Asian (Japan). It’s no wonder that as it has “risen”, generally peacefully, it has sought to assert itself more, both regionally and globally, as a major player in international events that should have a significant voice in how they are run. United States Secretary of State Blinken sees China’s ambition as in fact extending “to be the leading power not just in the region, but in the world” – of course a challenge to the US which at present is the actual leading power.

China now is certainly “feeling its oats” and acting to expand its influence in ways not too dissimilar from – but more peaceful than – those used in the past by imperial powers like Britain and the United States. But this assertiveness does not represent a particular focus on or threat to us. Certainly we have been singled out by China for some measures of economic coercion but that was at least to some extent a reaction to what China saw as particular hostility on our part – the ban on Huawei, the call for a COVID inquiry – and in any case has not prevented record sales of major commodities to China. (We have also taken many more anti-dumping cases to the WTO against China than it has taken against us).

It is almost impossible to imagine any realistic circumstances, short of general war in the Asia-Pacific, under which China would launch a military attack on Australia. Certainly, in the context of expanding its influence in the region, China is approaching some countries, in the South Pacific in particular, that we have become used to thinking of as “ours”, but that should act as a spur for us to pay them more attention rather than anything else. The basic fact is that China has become the major resident power in the Asia-Pacific region and is, and will remain, active in it, and we simply have to accept and get used to that.

What about all the talk of “war” (Mike Pezzullo) and the “strategic danger from China” (Paul Kelly in “The Australian”). That really comes down to a fear that China will use force to take Taiwan, and a belief that the US will use force to prevent that, and that we will join in on the United States’ side.

That belief that the United States would use force to defend Taiwan may or may not be correct: there are plenty of people in the United States, including very senior ones, who strongly believe it should, but one only has to read a fraction of current writing by US commentators to realise how divided the US polity currently is, so much so that its ability, let alone wish, to intervene effectively in such a situation can’t be taken for granted.

And if China did make a move on Taiwan, and the US did respond militarily, what should we do? Many voices, including senior ones like Peter Dutton, have said that it is hard to envisage us not joining with the US to defend “democracy in a country with a population the size of ours”. Certainly we are very used to joining with the United States in post-World War 11 military endeavours, and our degree of military enmeshment with the United States would make it embarrassing and possibly difficult to opt out. But other close US allies like Britain and Canada have been able to say “we’ll sit this one out” – in Vietnam, for example—without ruining their relationships with the US. And some of the ventures in which we joined the Americans—Vietnam itself, Iraq, Afghanistan—were certainly not successful ones.

Moreover, Taiwan is a very special case. We have no formal obligation to it. We recognised China acknowledging that it maintained there is only one China, and that Taiwan is part of that. The current situation is complex and complicated: for example despite all the mutual abuse China and Taiwan have a substantial economic relationship; many people from Taiwan live and work in China. The current state of affairs has come about as the result of the Chinese civil war which ended 70-odd years ago, and is also the scene for the playing-out of the present struggle for predominance in the Asia-Pacific between the US and China, the world’s two largest economies, both nuclear-armed and themselves in a complex and many-sided relationship.

Australia, with its very small and presently ill-equipped armed forces, could contribute almost nothing to such a clash between the two that has nothing to do with us. John Key, the former National Party Prime Minister of New Zealand, said recently in an interview with “The Australian” (September 8) that “it was important to maintain a relationship with his country’s biggest trade partner which was also emerging as one of the world’s economic superpowers”. If that is true for New Zealand it is certainly true for Australia. The US is such a large and globally important country that its relationships can in the end be repaired even with countries with which it has been in conflict. That does not apply to us, and if we joined the US in fighting China over Taiwan, not only would we not make any appreciable difference but our relationship with our biggest trading partner would be destroyed for years. We should regard the Taiwan issue as one for us to “sit out”.

So what should we hope the Review will do?

We should hope that the Review will:—

Draw a clear distinction between the general international situation, which is alarming and in some areas and on some issues already dangerous, and the situation in our region, which is the area through which threats to Australia would have to come. South East Asia, in particular, is in general stable, quite prosperous and soundly run, with leaders like Lee Hsien Loong in Singapore and Joko Widodo in Indonesia.

Analyse potential threats to Australia not only in terms of capability, e.g. China’s increased military strength, but also in terms of discernible intent. In that regard we should note that the first part of the recent speech to the National Press Club by the Chinese Ambassador—before it turned into a Q and A on Taiwan—was positive, looking towards a restoration and “re-set” of relations. In speaking as he did, the Ambassador would certainly have been reflecting his government’s


Consider our position in terms of Australia’s safety, security and prosperity, not in terms of playing a part in supporting a decaying “rules-based international order”, or a global struggle of democracies against autocracies, or the United States’ continued predominance in the Asia-Pacific. We want the US to continue to play a major role in the Asia-Pacific, but there must be an appropriate place for China as well.

Enable the most efficient possible use of the enormous amounts of money involved in Defence procurement to provide us, within a reasonable time, with a practical and flexible suite of capabilities, inter alia addressing existing deficiencies such as our inadequate fuel reserves, able to give us some confidence in our ability to protect our country’s, and our immediate region’s, security and safety in an uncertain world—perhaps indeed becoming a “porcupine”, as Richard Marles has recommended.

Read more in our Defence Strategic Review series of articles.

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