Going to War Against China—an extract from Secret by Brian Toohey
‘The US has used force 160 times since the Cold War ended in 1991.’
— US Congressional Research Service
No iron law states that the current arms build-up in the Asia-Pacific must trigger a clash between a rising and a declining power that escalates until it kills millions. It’s much too glib, however, to assume that more military spending will always minimise the risks of a catastrophe.
The core strategic reality is that the US doesn’t need to be the dominant power in Asia to maintain its own national security. Unlike the US, China must remain part of Asia. Although China’s growing economic and military power gives it added clout in its neighbourhood, it could never pose a serious military threat to the US homeland. Even if the US cut its own military spending by two-thirds, it would still be higher than the combined total for China and Russia.
Strategic studies professor Hugh White says, ‘America has no real reason to fight China for primacy in Asia, shows little real interest in doing so, and has no chance of succeeding if it tries.’ But many American politicians want the US to remain militarily dominant in the Asia-Pacific and seem to assume that ‘boots on the ground’ won’t be needed in any conflict.
China, unlike the US, is strategically weak. Much of China’s trade, including 80 per cent of its oil imports, goes through the easily blockaded Strait of Malacca, and it’s surrounded by potential adversaries, such as India, Japan, Vietnam, South Korea and possibly Russia and North Korea. Although its forces are improving, it will be decades before China has anything like the US’s ability to project power around the globe (even if it chooses to). Its last prolonged military experience was in the Korean War in the early 1950s. The US has fought numerous wars since then. Admittedly, the US fared badly in Afghanistan against ragged bands of peasants equipped with clapped-out rifles and homemade explosive devices.
Now US military planners believe its forces would be better suited to high-end warfare against China. This was the premise of its publicly announced 2010 AirSea Battle plan. Apart from a total trade embargo that would devastate Australian exports, the plan included deep missile strikes into China, guaranteeing the conflict would escalate. A serving American naval officer, Commodore Matthew Harper, warned that it would quickly collapse the global economy, saying, ‘Focusing solely on Chinese military capabilities clouds the critical challenge of preventing a catastrophic Sino-American conflict.’ When I mentioned this article to a senior Australian naval officer, he asked for a copy and then sent a note saying, ‘Anyone contemplating a war with China is insane.’ This perspective hasn’t stopped successive governments secretly authorising the Australian military to help with planning for participating in such a conflict. A tight blockade on Australian exports to China remains in the plans.
Despite its immense power, the US could struggle to win an ultimate victory over China. It would be fighting far from home against a nation with impressive cyber-warfare capabilities, and anti-shipping missiles and torpedoes that could sink US carrier battle groups. Even if China lost the initial battle, it would be highly likely to rebuild its strength before resuming hostilities. The only way for the US and its allies to achieve an enduring victory would be to invade China, occupy hundreds of major cities for decades, and win a relentless guerilla war. A nuclear war might circumvent an invasion but could kill huge numbers of Americans and Chinese.
It is doubtful if China’s relatively small nuclear forces could survive a US attack. The US has a total of 6550 warheads—1350 deployed on long-range missiles and bombers—compared to China’s total of 280. Ever since George W. Bush unilaterally abandoned the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the US has deployed conventional missiles on ships and land that can destroy nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. Its attack submarines can track and sink China’s four ballistic-missile submarines. This means China must expand its nuclear forces to ensure that enough retaliatory missiles would survive to deter a first strike.
Taiwan and the South China Sea are usually considered potential flashpoints for a war. Almost all countries, including the US and Australia, recognise China’s sovereignty over Taiwan, but the US also remains committed to defending Taiwan. China tolerates the offshore island having its own armed forces and a democratic political system and welcomes its big investments on the mainland, but is adamant it will never accept a formal Taiwanese declaration of independence. For China, using force against one of its own provinces is not the same as attacking another country. There is no requirement under ANZUS for Australia to join this fight, and it shouldn’t do so, particularly if Taiwan provokes a war.
Ideally, whether a province gains independence should depend on a referendum, which China would not accept. Likewise, the US wouldn’t allow a referendum for the indigenous population of Guam, its Pacific Island territory/colony that hosts big airforce and navy bases.
China’s abrasive behaviour in the South China Sea has aroused concerns about its intentions, although its activities are more limited than often assumed. The disputes are between littoral states that claim territorial waters in a sea covering about 3.5 million square kilometres of the Pacific Ocean’s 162 million square kilometres. Former Australian Navy captain Sam Bateman, an eminent scholar on the subject, says, ‘It’s simply not true to say that Beijing claims almost all the South China Sea and islands within it as sovereign Chinese territory. It may claim all the “features” [uninhabited rocks, shoals, islets and reefs etc.], but only claim sovereign rights over resources of the sea. These rights are not to be confused with the sovereignty a country exercises over its land territory and territorial sea.’
In pursuing its claims, China hasn’t killed anyone or invaded another country, unlike the US, the UK and Australia when they invaded Iraq in violation of all the rules. Nevertheless, China should have accepted the 2016 international tribunal ruling in The Hague against its claim to an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around some ‘features’ near the Philippines. The tribunal applied the treaty resulting from the 1994 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to deny EEZ claims by littoral states to small offshore features. It didn’t consider the building of artificial islands. Unlike the US, China has ratified the treaty, but it behaved like a great power by rejecting the 2016 ruling. The US lost an international case after illegally dropping mines in Nicaraguan harbours in the 1980s, but ignored the ruling. Australia is not without sin: when Timor-Leste became independent, Australia withdrew from international maritime jurisdictions to try to stop it taking legal action over disputed petroleum fields. The tribunal in the Philippines-China case also ruled that UNCLOS extinguished all historic claims.
Britain continues to assert its historic claims to the Falkland Islands, 13,000 kilometres from the UK. In March 2016, a UN commission on continental shelves expanded Argentina’s maritime territory to include the Falklands, which are only 480 kilometres from its shoreline. Britain rejects the commission’s finding.
Because it is a major beneficiary of trade, China doesn’t deny freedom of commercial navigation in the South China Sea. Most of Australia’s trade with China and North Asia doesn’t even go through that sea. US Freedom of Navigation patrols assert a right of passage for warships within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-claimed reefs and rocks in the South China Sea. Bateman says for Australia to conduct similar patrols ‘as a push-back against China would serve no useful purpose. Rather these operations could help destabilise a situation that is looking increasingly more stable.’ He also says the South China Sea is not ‘international waters’ as it is almost entirely covered by the littoral states’ EEZs for exploiting natural resources. Rules apply to passage through these zones.
The Chinese government is under intense nationalistic pressure to keep asserting the same claims that Chiang Kai-shek’s US-supported Nationalist government made in the 1940s. Chiang fled to Taiwan in 1949, and Taiwan still makes these claims today without attracting the same opprobrium as China. Taiwan has a military presence on Pratas Island, 850 kilometres from its capital, Taipei. Taiwanese patrol boats trying to land activists on disputed islands between Japan and China bumped into Japan Coast Guard vessels in July 2012. Japan is not blameless: it has an implausible claim to an EEZ around Okinotori, a scattering of tiny rocks in the Philippine Sea, 1700 kilometres from Tokyo. The Japan Coast Guard clashed with Taiwanese fishing boats there in 2016.
China’s land-reclamation works in the South China Sea to create sand islands are highly contentious. Vietnam and the Philippines also put military forces on disputed islands and engage in minor land reclamation. Although China can use these small platforms for military purposes, they are hard to defend against nearby Filipino or other forces. Admiral Dennis Blair, a former head of the US Pacific Command, says resolving the disputes calls for ‘coordinated diplomacy rather than a military response’. At the time of writing, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries and China are working on a code of conduct to set a framework to resolve disputes.
One diplomatic solution would be for all parties directly involved to freeze their claims and agree to share any resources in a sustainable manner. It’s not impossible. Presidents Eisenhower and Khrushchev jointly promoted the much tougher 1961 Antarctic Treaty, which put all territorial claims on indefinite hold, banned militarisation and encouraged scientific cooperation anywhere on the continent.
Despite the near-impossibility of a long-term victory in a catastrophic conventional or nuclear war with China—a war with no bearing on US security—Australia’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper wants the US to take a bigger military role in the Indo [Asia] Pacific. It also hopes an increasingly powerful India would be a counterweight to China. However, if Australia expects India to be its next big protector, it’s likely to be disappointed. India had long been a culturally rich and prosperous civilisation before it was plundered during almost two centuries of British rule that left it impoverished and de-industrialised. The Indian economist Ulsa Patnaik calculates that India lost over £9 trillion to Britain between 1765 and 1938, the bulk of it from the heavily taxed Indian peasantry.
Alexander Davis, who researches Indian foreign policy, says, ‘India desires a multipolar or polycentric world order, which is fundamentally different to the current (post) imperial “liberal international order” in which the US underwrites most of the rules.’
Nevertheless, India is worth appreciating by Westerners, regardless of its strategic utility. It has much to offer visitors, usually tolerates freedom of expression, and produces a rich English-language literature. It is also a democracy where corruption is rife, leaders ignore widespread poverty, women are badly treated, the caste system survives, and Hindu militancy promotes violence against Muslims. It also oppresses the Kashmiri population.
India might reach a tacit understanding with China in which each has its own sphere of influence. Hugh White says neither would have the power to contest the other’s sphere ‘except at immense cost, and it is not clear why either would choose to do so’. Australian foreign policy makers would then have to live with two headstrong rising powers, not just one.
The White Paper acknowledges that the risk of a direct threat to Australia is low, but frets about the future. Apart from its primary goal of maintaining internal security, China’s military forces have been designed to stop a potential enemy getting close to the mainland rather than for fighting far away. So were Australia’s. Their primary job was to control access to the sea–air gap around the nation, but they are now increasingly integrated into the US’s more wide-ranging forces. Rather than global domination, the Pentagon sees China as having a limited goal of being able to ‘ultimately re-acquire regional pre-eminence’. This requires China to project power relatively long distances from its coast—the Australian Navy has been able to do this since 1913. Two former Defence heads, Allan Hawke and Rick Smith, have explained why China has no motive to undertake the extremely costly endeavour of trying to invade Australia. They say, ‘Global markets provide a far more cost-effective means of obtaining resources than military force.’ No one has identified any other plausible motive for China to attack Australia, unless we were participating in a US war against China. The joint US–Australian SIGINT bases in Australia already put a big effort into identifying targets for conventional and cyber warfare against China.
In the meantime, we should restore diplomacy to the pinnacle of our foreign relations, while maintaining forces to deter and, if necessary, defeat aggressive military action against the nation. As well as being able to defend the approaches to Australia through the island chains to its north, some of our forces should be able to operate beyond that barrier and defend against missile attacks that stop short of an attempted invasion. Australia is far from helpless. When its population was only seven million during World War II, there were a million people in uniform and many more in support roles. The population is now 25 million and the economy much bigger. Unlike the rapid Japanese advance in the Pacific War, modern surveillance technology should give Australia ample warning of hostile preparations to acquire the necessary forces for a major attack.
No prime minister should proclaim, as Malcolm Turnbull did in 2017, that Australia is militarily ‘joined at the hip’ to the US. During his February 2018 visit to Washington, he even claimed that Australia and US had been ‘mates’ ever since their armies fought together in a three-hour battle at Fromelles in 1916. But the two ‘mates’ didn’t even establish diplomatic relations until 8 January 1940. Instead of fumbling for a non-existent security blanket, a little dignity wouldn’t go astray.
Australia is one of the most secure countries on earth. It doesn’t share land borders with any country, let alone any country with a history of ethnic, religious or other hatred stretching back centuries. It has not been invaded since 1788. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said in January 2018, ‘We do not see Russia or China as posing a military threat to Australia.’ It would be good if the US became less belligerent and China didn’t behave like the kind of hegemonic power it once decried. But we have to deal with the world as it is—a world with almost no threat to Australia but a genuine risk of a military conflict between the US and China.
To keep Australians safe, political leaders should avoid participating in wars that pose no direct threat to the nation. The exception might be to help respond if one country clearly invades another. However, the comforting policy assumption seems to be that not many Australian troops would be killed or maimed by participating in a conflict with China. Nothing is inevitable, but twelve of the last sixteen major occasions where a rising power has challenged a declining power have resulted in war. As cited above, a Congressional Research Service study shows that the US has used force 160 times since 1991. If war again erupts and Australian troops end up helping to invade China, they could be fed into the greatest human mincing machine the world has ever seen.
Alternatively, a full-scale nuclear war can’t be ruled out while the necessary weapons exist. If one occurs, a nuclear warhead could obliterate Sydney or Melbourne. Some people will become scorch marks etched into the pavement. The heat will vaporise others, leaving no trace. The blast will dismember many more, while the radioactive fallout slowly kills over decades.
Nuclear war is one of the great threats to human existence. Global warming is another, as is the severe loss of biodiversity threatening the world’s food supply. Avoiding catastrophe requires co-operation not mindless confrontation; dialogue not constant exploitation of unfounded fears. Fears spread by journalists in thrall to the national security state. This juggernaut has already shredded civil liberties in Australia. Now it is steering the country towards a cataclysmic, but unnecessary, war. All in the name of ‘making Australians safe’!
This is an extract from SECRET by Brian Toohey. Available now.