The SMH and Age Red Alert is unwarranted and dangerous

Mar 14, 2023
A photograph of Taiwan and China on map.

The articles published last week by the SMH and Age under the heading, Red Alert, are deeply flawed. The intent seems to panic us into war. But the many assertions are not supported by evidence or credible argument.

Last week over three days the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age endlessly repeated the claims by five so-called “experts” that Australia faces an immediate danger of war with China, for which we are dangerously unprepared. The purpose of these repetitive articles seems to be to panic the Australian public into a massive increase in defence expenditure and increasing hostility to China.

Numerous other commentators – many of whom are really expert on China – have written in Pearls & Irritations about why war with China is unlikely unless we choose to provoke it or join America in its provocation. Former Prime Minister, Paul Keating, for example, accused the SMH and Age of “the most egregious and provocative news presentation of any newspaper I have witnessed in over 50 years of public life.”

I am not an expert on China, and in that respect there is nothing I can add to the criticisms already expressed by real China experts. Instead, as someone with a long engagement with public policy, this contribution focuses on the flaws and lack of supporting evidence in the SMH/Age articles. As a result, Hartcher (international editor of the SMH) and his hand-picked five so-called “experts” make many assertions, but fail to really argue their case.

Why could there be a war with China?

The starting point must be to properly assess the SMH/Age assertion that there will be a war with China, and within three years.

Certainly, it is true that since Trump, US policy has sought to contain China, but Australia should not support that. Our starting point should be that like most other countries in our region, China is our largest trading partner on which much of our future prosperity depends. America may not like having China as a peer competitor, but that is not our problem.

Australia also knows that China is not ever going to go away. It will always be a major power in our region, although not necessarily the only one. It is for these reasons that in the past Australia has been reluctant to choose between the US and China.

Indeed, until recently Australian governments remained determined to preserve a clear sense of Australia’s separate interests and approaches in dealing with China. For example, as late as July 2020, Marise Payne, the Foreign Minister in the Morrison Government, publicly told the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, that “Australia’s position is our own. We make our own decisions, our own judgements in the Australian national interest.”

In other words, to repeat an old adage, no country has permanent friends or alliances, all countries only have permanent interests.

In response to present tensions, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and widely acknowledged China expert, said recently “it was Australia’s role as a friend and ally of the US to help build ‘guard rails’ into the [US-China] relationship to avert a dangerous deterioration …. so that we do not end up with a crisis, escalation and war by accident.”

A war over Taiwan?

But according to the SMH/Age articles, the immediate cause of an unavoidable war will not be America’s policy of containment, but China’s determination to reinsert its sovereignty over Taiwan, and within three years.

That assertion begs a number of questions:

  1. Why will this war occur within three years?
  2. Why should Australia join such a war?
  3. Would the US really risk a war with China over Taiwan given it may not win?

First, the five “experts” assertion that a war over Taiwan will break out within three years is hardly convincing. Their only reason is that because they think China believes the West has been weakened by the Ukraine war, China will strike soon while the iron is hot.

Frankly, that is unconvincing. China is known for its patience, and it is more likely that China will not make any aggressive move to absorb Taiwan until it is sure that it will prevail. Indeed, as since reported in Saturday’s SMH, “The US intelligence community assesses that China doesn’t want a military conflict over Taiwan, even as it is determined to bring the independently governed island under its control.”

The reality is that time is on China’s side. Despite the ignorance of many commentators, on the only measure that matters, China’s economy is already significantly the biggest in the world and China will continue to outgrow the US as China still has a long way to go before its GDP per capita catches up.

Second, Australia should not join such a war over Taiwan if it ever occurs. Ever since the US and Australia separately recognised the Communist government of China, both have also recognised that Taiwan is part of China, as indeed did the Government of Taiwan for a long time. In that sense, Taiwan is nothing like Ukraine which was universally acknowledged as a separate country from Russia. Furthermore, as recently reported by Geoff Miller , “Recent polls show that a large proportion of Taiwanese believe that in the end Taiwan will be reunited with China, and are not keen to fight China to prevent that.”

For these reasons, both the US and Australia have always maintained a policy of strategic ambiguity as to whether or not they would help defend Taiwan’s independence. But the reunification of Taiwan is not a vital interest for Australia, or even the US, and Australia should not go to war over it. Furthermore, there is no reason other than Taiwan to fight a war with China as China is not seeking any other new territorial expansion.

Third, the five experts do not consider the possibility that the US also will not be prepared to go to war with China over Taiwan’s independence. As a real Defence expert, Hugh White, argued in his Quarterly Essay last year:

“It is impossible to win a war over Taiwan without winning the battle for control of the air and sea around Taiwan itself. America has no clear way to do this, because China has decided advantages. It is fighting close to its home bases, while America has to fight from distant bases or from very vulnerable ships.”

And in this context, bases in Australia are not sufficiently close to make any useful difference to Taiwan’s defence.

The main reason why the US might nevertheless be tempted to go to war with China over Taiwan’s independence is what it would see as a loss of status and trust with its allies if it did not. But the US Administration must also understand if the US did go to war with China and then lost, that would result in an even bigger loss in status and trust in US alliances within the region.

Furthermore, as Hugh White says: “Both sides of the [US] congressional aisle like to talk tough on China, but neither side shows any appetite for the burdens and dangers of actually confronting it.” As White goes on to say: “No President will be able compete effectively with China for primacy in East Asia unless it is absolutely clear to the American people that the risks of doing so are truly essential for their security and prosperity.”

Indeed, in this respect it is hard to see why Taiwan would differ from Ukraine, where American help is limited to supplies. It is therefore likely the same would apply for Taiwan. And even that amount of help is uncertain, when less than a year into the Ukraine war the US Republicans are starting to question the cost of helping Ukraine.

But this cost is not only financial. There is a real risk that if the US cannot quickly win a conventional war, it might escalate to a nuclear war, with terrible consequences. That is another reason why the US may well draw back from actually confronting China, as it has done with Russia in the Ukraine.

In any event, Australia should maintain its policy of strategic ambiguity, but decide now that it would not become engaged in the defence of Taiwan. In fairness it should privately warn the Americans of this, but not publicly so as to avoid embarrassing the Americans. In addition, the Australian Government should also make it clear that Australia cannot be used as a base for fighting China, unless Australia itself is attacked, although that is not likely if we are not a participant in a war over Taiwan.

Strengthening our national security and military capabilities

As Kevin Rudd said last week: “China’s rapid militarisation has required Australia and the US, as well as other regional powers, to review their military capacity, especially in response to the expansion of China’s navy.

That is basically why I too have argued in favour of the purchase of nuclear submarines and the acquisition of new high technologies under AUKUS. Furthermore, as Rudd went on to say: “The fact that China reacts of itself does not mean the actions we’ve taken to sustain our national security are invalid.”

However, we need to structure our defence forces primarily to defend Australia, not to fight alongside the US in the pursuit of policies that may make sense for the US but not for Australia. Indeed, my support for Australia buying nuclear submarines is because they can provide an independent deterrent in the event that America pulls back from our region. I assume Albanese is getting this point, in his recent insistence that Australia will maintain its sovereignty.

But Hartcher and his five “experts” do not recognise this distinction between Australian and US interests before concluding that we “need to dramatically strengthen our military and national security capabilities.” Furthermore, some of the suggestions in the communique by the “five experts” about how this strengthening should be done are frankly ridiculous and again cast doubts about their expertise. For example, the five experts propose (i) reintroducing compulsory military service and (ii) basing US long range nuclear weapons on Australian territory.

But given that it is universally agreed that the defence of Australia must be a maritime defence, it is hard to see how conscription would help, even after war broke out. People conscripted for twelve months are not suitable for the air force or the navy.

While basing nuclear weapons in Australia would break all our treaty commitments and risk the spread of nuclear weapons more generally, with all the accompanying dangers of that.

Basically, the best national security strategy requires a judicious combination of “soft” and “hard” power. If Australia tried to acquire nuclear weapons that would inevitably result in a loss of soft power. Indeed, already Australia found it difficult to reassure its neighbours that its planned acquisition of nuclear submarines did not mean that Australia was also going to acquire nuclear weapons. Our future national security is better guaranteed by maintaining good relations with neighbouring countries, rather than relying upon dangerous nuclear missiles.

And finally, there is Australia’s future relationship with China itself. As Hugh White put it: “In the long run Australia will have to learn to live with a more powerful China, and America will have to do the same. … If we step back from the illusion that America can make our China problem go away, it must be clear that we need to find a way to live and work with the China of today.”

Conclusion

Australia does need to increase its sovereign defence capabilities, but the focus should continue to be on a maritime defence, and certainly should not include nuclear missiles. Most importantly, the increase in defence expenditure should also be accompanied by efforts to build our relationships in our region so that war can be avoided. And even if war between the US and China does break out over Taiwan, although whether and when is far from certain, it is not in Australia’s interests to be involved.

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