What would war with China look like for Australia? Part 1

Feb 21, 2023
Silhouette of military aircraft on background of sunset and China flag. Air Force concept.

If Australia sleepwalks into a war with China, as many analysts fear is happening right now, then amid our strategic slumber we should at least ask one question: what would war with China mean for Australia?

Put bluntly, the repercussions of Australia joining the US in any war with China over the status of Taiwan — or any other issue — may have catastrophic consequences.

Of all the uncertainty and conflict in the world at the moment, for Australians this surely is one of the most important discussions we must have.

There are still hundreds of diplomats and politicians around the world — including in Canberra — working openly and behind the scenes to ensure tensions between China and the US never escalate into war.

Rising tensions or unforeseen circumstances that could lead to war, however, can sometimes overtake those working for peace.

So to contribute to this discussion, I’ve sought analysis from four of Australia’s most experienced military strategists and asked them exactly what Australia’s involvement in a war with China could look like. The four have more than 100 years of high-level military and strategic experience between them.

The analysts are:

Professor Hugh White, a former Deputy Secretary for Strategy and Intelligence in the Department of Defence

Admiral Chris Barrie, Australia’s most senior military leader as Chief of the Defence Force from 1998 to 2002

Allan Behm, a former head of the International Policy and Strategy Divisions of the Defence Department

Professor Clinton Fernandes, a former intelligence officer in the Australian military.

All four analysts have held the highest security clearances that it’s possible to have. All have been involved in sensitive military operations. And all are watching with great interest as the drums of war beat in some quarters regarding a possible war with China.

They have different opinions on a range of issues, but one thing that is striking about the four is what they agree on. All agree, for example, that the United States — with or without Australia’s assistance — cannot win a war against China.

Hugh White, who is also Emeritus Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University, is clear in his analysis:

“I do not think there is any credible chance that America, with or without Australia’s support, could win a war with China over Taiwan.”

Any such war, he says, would primarily be a maritime conflict and would be on a scale unprecedented since World War II.

“Washington would expect Australia to contribute the full range of our air and naval forces to the maximum extent of our capability, including surface warships, submarines, F-18 and F-35 fighters, P-8 maritime patrol aircraft, airborne early warning aircraft and tanker aircraft.”

‘War would impoverish us all’

Admiral Chris Barrie makes the point that it’s possible the impact on Australia of any war with China could be greater than any other participant because of Australia’s low population.

“The consequences for us would be very serious in terms of the Australian economy, the impact on the Australian people and the ravages to our way of life throughout the land,” he says.

He says that unlike the experience of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan that affected only the members deployed into the conflict and their families, a war with China would have an impact on all Australians — “economically, financially and personally it is likely to impoverish us all; it may even kill most of us if it goes nuclear”.

Allan Behm, now head of the international and security program at The Australia Institute, says were the US and China to go to war over the next five to 10 years the best potential outcome for the US is a stalemate. He says given the rate at which Chinese forces are modernising and building capability and capacity “a Chinese victory over the US is the more likely outcome beyond 2035”.

Behm says a war with China would be “profoundly and devastatingly different” from any other war Australia has participated in since World War II. He says Australia has a “fundamental strategic pathology: to support the interests of the US at the expense of our own”.

Professor Clinton Fernandes is a former intelligence officer in the Australian military and now Professor of International and Political Studies at the University of New South Wales.

He believes a blockade of Taiwan by China is more likely than a cross-strait invasion. A blockade, he says, would mean 80 per cent of ships and aircraft would be unable to pass.

“China’s leaders could discreetly offer negotiations to Taiwan’s leaders during a blockade before the risky step of ordering an amphibious invasion,” Professor Fernandes says.

“It they think the blockade is failing they may declare victory by pointing to the damage already inflicted, or they might escalate to attacking US forces that are supporting Taiwan. Major combat against the US means two nuclear-armed states fighting each other.

“For China, the worst-case scenario is to have to conduct high-intensity operations against Taiwan, the United States, Japan and other US allies and partners simultaneously.”

Hugh White says a war between the US and China over Taiwan would “probably be the biggest and most disruptive war the world has seen since 1945”.

“Because the stakes for both sides are so high, and both are so well armed, it would swiftly escalate into a full-scale regional maritime war,” he says.

“No one can be sure how that war would play out, because there have been no major maritime wars since Japan was defeated in 1945, but by far the most likely outcome would be a costly stalemate in which both sides lost heavily but neither side could secure a decisive, war-wining advantage.

“For Australia the conflict would be devastating whether we joined the fighting or not. Our economy would be paralysed as all trade with China and other major East Asian partners would stop dead and may not resume for a long time.

“If we joined the fight, or allowed US forces involved to operate from bases here, then there would be a clear chance that Australia would face direct attack from Chinese long-range forces.”

Q: If Australia was to be in a coalition with the US, what particular roles would Washington be likely to ask from Australia?

“Any US-China war would be primarily a maritime conflict, and it would be, as we have seen, on a scale unprecedented since the Second World War. US forces would be fully committed to the maximum of their capacity, and they would expect and indeed demand the same of us.”

Q: We often hear suggestions that China may invade Taiwan — given Taiwan’s fortifications, would an invasion be a realistic prospect or would a blockade be more likely?

“It is not clear how formidable Taiwan’s defences would prove to be in the face of a Chinese invasion. The war in Ukraine reminds us of how uncertain these things can be — for both sides. But it has always seemed to me that China, if it decides on military action to force “reunification” is more likely to mount a blockade than an invasion.

“This would be a far cheaper and less risky way to achieve its objectives. It would be relatively easy for China to establish a credible air and sea exclusion zone around Taiwan, and thereby put immense pressure on the Taiwanese to accept Beijing’s terms.

“America would then have to decide whether to go to war to break the blockade.”

Q: Given China’s air-defence systems, particularly in the south, would the US’s or Australia’s air capabilities be rendered ineffective?

“China’s air defences are likely to prove formidable, but so are US and allied air capabilities. So it would be an even match.

“They would probably inflict a lot of damage on Chinese targets, but they would suffer very serious losses in the process. And, crucially, they would probably not be able to inflict enough damage to decisively defeat the Chinese.

“That is one reason to expect a stalemate.”

Q: Obviously people die in wars. Would defence planners in Canberra have made assessments of the likely number of Australian casualties and what is your assessment of the number of casualties Australia may suffer in any war with China?

“I do not know whether Defence planners in Canberra would have made such estimates.

“In the past, when I was working in government, we sometimes offered ministers some indication of the possible cost in lives if things went badly in the kind of lower-level commitments that we made in the 1990s.

“But the prospect of war with China raises very different possibilities — including for example, the significant likelihood that aircraft, ships and submarines we committed would be destroyed, with the potential for very high casualties among the crews.

“There would thus be a high chance that involvement in a war with China would swiftly exceed the toll in casualties suffered in Vietnam and Korea.”

Q: I realise there are all sorts of qualifications and unknowns, but given current capabilities who would be expected to win a war with China on one side and the US and Australia on the other?

“This is the critical question. I do not think there is any credible chance that America, with or without Australia’s support, could win a war with China over Taiwan.

“The forces are relatively evenly matched, because US advantages in technology are balanced by China’s advantages in geography — fighting close to home. But China has more at stake, because in the long run Taiwan matters a lot more to China than to America.

“Ultimately, I do not see how America could inflict enough damage on China to force Beijing to concede over Taiwan, without using nuclear weapons. And I cannot see America being willing to risk Chinese nuclear retaliation against the US homeland for Taiwan’s sake.

“That is why I think it would be a mistake for America, or Australia, to go to war with China over Taiwan.”

Admiral Chris Barrie says that with all the “overblown rhetoric” about the possibility of war against China he thinks there is a danger of forgetting that war should only ever be taken as the last means of resolving insurmountable differences between nation states.

“The contemplation of war can only be justified after all other means of settling differences have failed, and we are a long way from reaching this position (over Taiwan),” he says. “I worry when politicians start to think it is acceptable to use the media to make threats about war. I draw here an important difference between politicians and statesmen.

Q: Has enough been done to avoid conflict?

“In Australia do these commentators truly believe what they have been saying or is it bluff? Do they think an all-volunteer defence force can do the job? If not, what steps have been taken to change our posture? I am sure that survivors of war may have a more considered view. Where are our statesmen?”

“For my part Australians may be able to defend our nation because of our geographic good luck. No other country on the planet, save New Zealand, is better placed from a purely defensive perspective. In providing for our own defence we ought to be able to make sufficient and good quality plans provided we have the will to do so.

“But, in a large-scale war involving many hundreds of thousands of people in offensive and defensive operations, even before reaching the attendant prospect of reaching a nuclear war threshold, Australia is unlikely to make a substantial difference.

“Relatively, we are a small country today and becoming even smaller in comparison to the company we keep. Even by 2050 our 37 million people could not amount to much alongside countries having a population base of over 100 million people — many of them in our region.

“Practically this limits the sinews of war available to us: they would be insufficient. Thinking of scale I am reminded that In 1944 the US alone out-produced the rest of the world combined in all war stores before the wars ended in 1945.

“Australia should take a position where averting war is a serious policy objective. This is a statesman-like response to the challenges we are addressing today wherein the risk of war has grown since 2017, in my opinion.

“Australia has been there before. We once had a praiseworthy reputation for the quality of our leadership and our officials. Our former role in the establishment of the UN is an exemplar of the kind of country we should aspire to be.

“In the history of the 20th century, it took two world wars to deal with the difficult policy question of dealing with rising powers prepared to challenge the status quo. Then, it was mainly Germany, and from the 1930s Japan. Now it is China.

“When I was born in 1945 the world population stood at about 2.7 billion people. In 1947 with setting up of the United Nations, after the catastrophes of both world wars and the more limited wars in the intervening years, we tried to build a system of managing international relationships without the recourse to war.

“People in those days, in the spirit of compromise and understanding, were prepared to work together, if only for a short time. The collapse of the League of Nations and the dreadful cost of war held hard lessons for how we had to manage international relationships better.

“Even so, the UN has not been able to avert war. There are debates today about how reform of the UN is needed to deal with contemporary security challenges but not much progress has been made.

“Now, as we approach reaching 10 billion people on earth, we see more difficult problems arising from this population burden. Humans have become a predatory species. We seem incapable of arresting trends towards existential climate change threats. These threats from nature pose potentially disastrous outcomes that look inevitable; we have yet to find the statesmen to deal effectively with them.

Q: In your view, is Australia doing enough to avert a war with China?

“Australia has always had a fascination about China, going well back in our history to pre-federation days. But rhetoric about the international rules-based order and China’s failure to sign up to all its provisions seems to be “lecturing and hectoring” rather than working assiduously on overcoming differences of perspective.

“Even in Australia, with our record of setting up the basics of a rules-based order, governments have sometimes overlooked the provisions of the rules-based order, when it does not suit them.

“It would also have to be true that if any of the commentators were taken seriously the impact of this reality of preparing for war with China would now be affecting us all. An earlier government tinkered with the concept of a reduction in the ten years of warning but did almost nothing about demonstrating seriousness.

“Unlike the experience of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan that affected only the members deployed into conflict, and their families, a war with China will have an impact on all Australians — economically, financially, and personally. It is likely to impoverish us all; it may even kill most of us if it goes nuclear.

“The fundamental assumption that we could win a war against China is wrong-headed and hawkish; it is also very risky.

“Australia should use all the means at its disposal to avert a war with China. This is what a statesman should do as a risk averse response.

Q: Is there a danger Australia may ‘sleepwalk’ into a war with China?

“We have done work that shows that ‘risk aversion’ is the critical factor in avoiding war. To walk countries away from war we have concluded that statesmanship finds more purchase on risk aversion than on hawkishness.

“Today we can see change for the worse all over the globe. Looking into the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Europe, and in the wider context NATO, is being drawn towards having to deal with an unacceptable risk of war.

“In the case of war with China the questions we need to ask ourselves are:

  • what would be the range of circumstances in which Australia might think it sensible to participate in such a war at an enormous cost to our economy and to our people, let alone taking on the possibility that such a war would go nuclear
  • is this a consequence of hawkishness or risk averse thinking?
  • would war against China be a ‘low-cost’ war?”

Q: Before Australia joined the war in Iraq, was there, in your opinion, sufficient consultation with Australian politicians and public?

“When I stepped down as the Chief of the Defence Force in July 2002 I had not seen any information leading to the conclusion that an invasion of Iraq was inevitable.

“Furthermore, in the lead up to March 20, 2003, I was working at Oxford and bearing witness to significant questioning of the intention to invade Iraq through public dissent — “”not in our name Mr Blair“. I did not see anything like the same discontent in Australia.

“As I see the decision for the invasion of Iraq I think it was made by the Prime Minister . Maybe, the record would show otherwise in time? Also, we do not have the equivalent of the Chilcott report to illuminate the story.

“At the time what I could see was the possibility that our intelligence had uncovered the spectre of WMD in Iraq. Maybe, that explained why President Bush and Prime Minister Howard, from the right of politics, and Mr Blair from the left of politics, shared the view about the need for the invasion.”

Q: As a long-time military leader, in your assessment what could be the consequences for Australia of being at war with China?

“I cannot conceive that there are any benefits in Australia being at war with China unless the circumstances were so serious as to make the cost in lives and treasury worthwhile.

“It is possible that the impact on Australia could be greater than any other assailant because of our low population. The consequences for us would be very serious in terms of the Australian economy, the impact on the Australian people and the ravages to our way of life throughout the land.

“There would also be a possibility of exceptionalism if most other countries in Asia did not get involved.

“This decision over the possibility of war with China could be made more difficult because of ANZUS. The context for decision making would be vitally important weighing the potential costs to the country, domestically and internationally, against the value of that cost for maintaining the ANZUS relationship.

“This looks like another reason for statesmanship in averting this possibility.”

Q: If the US decided to go to war with China, should Australia join?

“It depends. There are always a few possibilities that the right thing to do is to go to war irrespective of the expectation that we could ‘win’ — whatever that means. Such possibilities seem remote at present. Scenarios in which it would be right thing to do are few.

“On one hand, if China attacked the US homeland, similar to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, the US would respond with war. No doubt Australian passions would run high. But would Australia immediately take up the fight? Would Japan? What would all the other countries in Asia, such as South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia do?

“It may be argued that ANZUS would inevitably push Australia to war but we should not be lazy in coming that conclusion.

“On the other hand, if the US decided to attack China the provocation becomes essential to decision making. Would parallel circumstances that led to the invasion of Iraq be “acceptable” in this case?

“Would Australia have taken steps to make sure its own intelligence is based on Australian information and assessments? Would any divergence of perspectives be thrashed out before going to war?

“The scenario of a Chinese attack on Taiwan is often considered the catalyst but even in this case the reasons for, and management of, the breakdown in China-Taiwan relations in the lead up would be critical. Hopefully Australian statesmen would have played a significant role in the lead up to a breakdown in cross straits relations.”

What War with China Would Look Like, Part 2, will be published on Tuesday and feature interviews with Allan Behm, former head of the International Policy and Strategy Divisions of the Defence Department, and Professor Clinton Fernandes, a former intelligence officer in the Australian military.


First published by abc.net.au/news February 20, 2023.

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