Australia must prepare as China’s coercive capabilities draw closer
15 Sep 2021|

In a recent Lowy Institute paper, the Center for New American Security’s Thomas Shugart warns that China is building up its military capacity to coerce Australia directly, particularly in the event of US strategic retrenchment from the Indo-Pacific region.

He suggests a scenario in which China is successful in taking Taiwan; Japan and South Korea, sensing the waning of US power, then choose to be ‘Finlandised’ under Beijing. With the US ejected from East Asia, China can then wield an implied threat or actual use of force to coerce others, including Australia, to accept Chinese hegemony.

This scenario is open to challenge. It seems unlikely that Japan would quickly accommodate an aggressive China and nor is South Korea likely to accept becoming a mere tributary state. It’s more likely that key US allies in the Indo-Pacific, including Australia, would work to strengthen their defence and security relationships with Washington through greater burden-sharing, including through multilateral groups such as the Quad. It’s not in the US’s interests—or those of its allies—to cede a large strategic space to a rising China, because, as Shugart notes, further demands will soon follow.

Shugart’s analysis is solid on the military challenges that China presents to Australia, especially in the event that the US isn’t able or willing to maintain a forward presence in the region. He correctly observes that the People’s Liberation Army’s conventional missile capabilities, particularly the PLA Rocket Force’s DF-26 and emerging air-launched systems including air-launched ballistic missiles (ALBMs), can target key military facilities across Australia’s north and northwest. The PLA’s naval capabilities and the growth in China’s maritime militia and coastguard, Shugart notes, are increasing the risk that Beijing could apply indirect military pressure on Australia by blockading key sea lines of communication if the US withdraws from the Indo-Pacific over the next two decades.

Australian defence planners need to start thinking about these two military challenges more seriously. Considering the missile threat first, our key defence facilities across the north and northwest are largely undefended and vulnerable to long-range Chinese missile systems. As Shugart argues, if China were to deploy the DF-26 onto Hainan island, it could reach Western Australia’s North West Cape, the Darwin and Tindal regions in the Northern Territory, and Royal Australian Air Force Base Scherger in Queensland. The PLA Air Force’s H-6N bomber, carrying the CH-AS-X-13 ALBM, could extend that threat envelope south to cover other major Australian defence facilities including Woomera in South Australia, Fleet Base West near Perth, and HMAS Cairns and RAAF Base Townsville in Queensland. Add in future growth of China’s naval capabilities, including more advanced submarines equipped with land-attack cruise missiles, and the missile threat to Australia looks set to become more acute.

Defence projects AIR 6500 Phase 2 and LAND 19 Phase 7B are considering medium-range missile capabilities suited for defending expeditionary joint forces rather than a continent. There are currently no plans for a dedicated ballistic missile defence capability against longer range, higher speed threats such as the DF-26 or ALBMs.

There are risks in considering more expansive ballistic missile defence, given its patchy success in carefully managed tests and the huge costs associated with developing such a capability. Creating a true national missile defence network is likely beyond Australia’s ability. But a more focused defence of critical facilities in our north and west against long-range threats is worth considering. That might involve building a network of land- and sea-based interceptor missiles, exploring the option of acquiring Aegis Ashore, and extending our anti-access and area-denial capability using forward-deployed interceptors. Those capabilities would need to be matched by enhancements now underway to the Jindalee over-the-horizon radar network, and that in turn could be complemented by a space-based multinational missile early warning system to boost defences against hypersonic weapons.

The goal would be a more potent, longer range defence of critical military facilities in our north and northwest, as well as essential facilities such as Pine Gap and Fleet Base West. Such a system should be developed in partnership with the US and Japan and be designed for growth in numbers of interceptors and integration of new technologies.

At the same time, it makes sense to harden our northern military facilities and start thinking about how we might employ dispersed military forces more effectively to complicate an adversary’s planning. In spite of the fact that $1.6 billion is being invested to upgrade RAAF Base Tindal, the infrastructure there won’t include any true hardened aircraft shelters. Planners also might want to think about how to better defend Jindalee’s sensors from missile strikes.

Shugart’s suggestion that China might use a naval blockade ironically represents a far larger problem for Australia because Beijing could interdict critical maritime commerce at much greater distances from our shores, well within its anti-access and area-denial envelope. China could bring the full weight of its maritime forces to bear against Australian commercial shipping—though most of the vessels would be foreign-flagged—quickly cutting off vital supply chains including essential fuel supplies. The most effective way to achieve this would be to seek to control chokepoints in maritime Southeast Asia from forward bases in the region, using a combination of grey-hulled PLA Navy and white-hulled China Coast Guard vessels.

Australia would find such a blockade virtually impossible to break given the small size of its navy. While boosting the size of the navy would be a welcome move, our fleet could never match China’s ship for ship. The solution to counter any Chinese intimidation lies in part with building better multilateral maritime and defence cooperation with key partners in the region, notably, Japan, India and the countries of Southeast Asia. At the same time, Australia should reduce its dependency on overseas supply chains, including for fuel and energy.

Underpinning all these steps must be moves to strengthen ties with the US and reinforce Washington’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific region. As long as the US remains an Indo-Pacific power, China’s power to coerce will be constrained.