What would war with China look like for Australia? Part 2

Feb 22, 2023
Soldier in protective uniform with machine gun on background of Chinese flag.

Australians could wake up one morning to the news that we are at war with China.

Confronting as that would be, perhaps more confronting is something many people do not realise: such a decision would not require any consultation in parliament.

The decision to go to war would not require a public discussion. It would not require the assent of the Governor General and is entirely in the hands of the prime minister of the day.

Current Prime Minister Anthony Albanese would presumably discuss the matter with his National Security Cabinet before any decision is made but there are no checks and balances built into the system before the PM makes the biggest decision that a leader can make – to send our young men and women to war.

Should US tensions with China flare into a war there is no question that these days Washington would put enormous pressure on Albanese, or any future leader, to join them in that conflict.

To use the words of one leading military analyst, Australia could find itself “sleepwalking” into a war with China.

For the US, the bigger the coalition of countries joining it in any war, the better.

As with the Gulf War in 2003, Washington is always keen to enlist as many countries as possible to spread the cost and political risk. It also allows the US to try to promote the notion it is not “an American war”.

With that in mind, I sought the views of four of Australia’s most experienced military strategists, with 100 years of high-level military and strategic experience between them, to discuss what joining the US in a war with China could mean for Australians.

In the previous column the analyses of Hugh White — a former Deputy Secretary for Strategy and Intelligence in the Department of Defence — and Admiral Chris Barrie — who served as Australia’s most senior military leader as Chief of the Defence Force from 1998 to 2002 — were explored.

Today, the analysis of Allan Behm, a 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, are investigated.

Allan Behm, who is 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 one might envisage for the US is a stalemate.

He says given the rate at which Chinese forces are modernising and building both capability and capacity, “a Chinese victory over the US is the more likely outcome beyond 2035”.

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

Q: For Australia, how different would a war with China be compared with other wars that Australia has fought?

“In its causation, [war with China] would be no different from any of the wars Australia has participated in since World War II. In its consequences, it would be profoundly and devastatingly different.

“Australia is never reluctant to support and participate in American adventurism. Korea was an unnecessary war, as were the conflicts in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Vietnam and Iraq were illegal wars, with the US Administration(s) lying to their citizens and their allies about the strategic necessity and the morality of the use of armed force.

“Australia has a fundamental strategic pathology – to support the interests of the US at the expense of our own. A war with China over Taiwan, awful as that would be, involves no Australian national interests.

“Yet, as both [Opposition leader] Dutton and [Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence] Richard Marles have indicated in their various pronouncements on the matter, our default position is “all the way with the USA” wherever and whenever.

“Melissa Conley Tyler and I (and others) have dealt with the Taiwan question in our joint paper.

“Notwithstanding their entirely different circumstances, for Australia to support Taiwan against China would be similar to Australia’s supporting Catalonia against the Castilians. A separatist democracy against a legitimate government? I don’t think so!

“In their use of armed force, the American operational paradigm is largely unconcerned by its own casualty rates, so long as they are lower than those of their adversary. The attrition model appears to be deeply ingrained in the US approach to land warfare. One of the reasons for that is the land force preponderance of the US over the opposing forces.

“But it is an entirely different story with China. According to the late Sir James Plimsoll [in conversation with me], Mao Zedong said to Prime Minister Nehru when the two met in 1954 that, in a war with any adversary China could afford to dedicate 100 million dead. That is massive!

“For its part, Australia is casualty averse, as it should be. It has been since at least Monash’s time. The Australian army is extremely careful to preserve the force-in-being by keeping casualties to a minimum.

“So, how would China prosecute the war? Fundamentally, it would follow the strategic prescriptions of Sun Tzu in The Art of War.

“Specifically, China would probably favour four principal avenues for marginalising or defeating Australia.

First, it would seek to ensure that Australia had no allies or support in Asia.
Second, it would seek to spread Australia’s forces thin by generating as many responses to feints as it could. It would try to generate war fatigue as quickly as possible.
Third, it would try to drive a wedge between Australia and the US by encouraging as much US overreach as it could.
Fourth, it would seek to impose an economic blockade on Australia by closing the sea lines of communication.

“Given the size of the Australia’s forces and the logistic constraints on the US forces, a war against China would be a very hard war to fight.

Q: What would be your assessment of China’s military capability compared to that of a joint US-Australian capability, on the assumption that Australia decided to join any such war?

“Australia’s armed forces add very little by way of capability to those of the US.

“Conventional submarines offer some additional intelligence gathering capability, and the other force elements provide a small additional capacity to the US.

“The question is really about a force-on-force comparison between China and the US.

“In a war involving Taiwan, US forces would be deployed over long distances from CONUS [Continental United States].

“The bases in South Korea and Japan may not be available, and Guam may also be unavailable. It may be possible for the US to operate from bases in northern Australia, though whether overflight rights would be granted by Indonesia is unlikely. And the operating distances are enormous.

“Were the US and China to go to war over the next five to 10 years, the best scenario one might envisage for the US is a stalemate. Beyond 10 years, who knows?

“Given the rate at which the Chinese forces are modernising and building both capability and capacity, a Chinese victory over the US is the more likely outcome beyond 2035.

“As Carl von Clausewitz noted [in his book On War], defence is the stronger form of war. And in a defensive war, China has the enormous advantage of mass, as Stalin demonstrated after the end of 1942.”

Q: Given the capabilities of China, the US and Australia, would you expect any war to be more sea-based than land-based?

“As a continental power, China has a distinct preference for land warfare.

“A China-US war over Taiwan would begin as an air-sea war, with China seeking to impose punitive costs on the US Navy and such US Air Force units as were able to operate.

“China would not seek to deploy land forces to the US (nor Australia for that matter).

“Assuming that China was eventually able to control the Taiwan Strait, it would deploy land forces to Taiwan, both to subdue/destroy the Taiwanese army, any US or allied ground forces that might be in Taiwan, and then to occupy the country.”

Q: Would you expect it to become a protracted war, as we’re seeing in Ukraine, or given there would be two super-powers involved would you expect it to be short?

“To the extent that China’s strategy is informed by Sun Tzu, it would have a strong preference for a short, sharp war. It is for that reason that some commentators, including me, do not think that China is likely to initiate an offensive war in the near future, until it is sure that it has enough mass to win quickly.

“China does have the mass to sustain a war of attrition over a long period as it did, and has continued to do, in Korea and in Vietnam for that matter.”

Q: What would the US see as Australia’s main military value – would it be securing Pine Gap? Or the value of having US troops and aircraft in northern Australia?

“The joint facility at Pine Gap would be a very important, indeed crucial, element in US intelligence gathering and in Command and Control. But apart from that, Australia has little military value to the US.

“Australia’s real utility is as a strategic asset, giving both legitimacy and credibility to the US decision to employ its very formidable military force, and at the same time providing the US with a secure rear that could guarantee logistic and operational support.

“That’s what General Douglas Macarthur found in 1942. The Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was of marginal utility. Australia, however, was a strategic asset.


First published in abc.net.au/news February 21, 2023

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