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Dutton: War with China would be ‘catastrophic’ and mustn’t be allowed to happen

Posted By on November 30, 2021 @ 06:00

Defence Minister Peter Dutton’s National Press Club address [1] is more easily understood when considered in the context of Australia’s 2020 defence strategic update [2] and the accompanying force structure plan rather than under the fierce spotlight of an upcoming election campaign.

The 2020 update warned that major conflict could come without the assumed 10 years’ warning time, and the force structure plan promised, in stark contradiction, capabilities to be delivered to the Australian Defence Force as far away as 2055.

The strongest messages that Dutton delivered on Friday were not much different from those of his critics. He warned repeatedly that war with China over Taiwan would be ‘terrible’, ‘calamitous’ and ‘catastrophic’.

Dutton told his audience that Australia faced the most significant changes to its strategic environment since World War II in a region at the epicentre of global strategic competition. He warned that the region faced a military build-up ‘of a scale and ambition that historically has rarely been associated with peaceful outcomes’.

While the Chinese government insisted it would cooperate with other countries to maintain the safety of maritime routes and address territorial disputes peacefully through dialogue and consultation, regional nations watched with alarm as it built and militarised 20 outposts in the South China Sea.

China was using its increasing power in security, trade and economics, media and the internet to compel compliance, Dutton said, and Australia must amplify voices of regional neighbours silenced by coercion.

Beijing had rejected the decision of international arbiters on territorial rights, regularly sent military jets into Taiwan’s air defence zone and used fishing boats crewed by militia to intrude on other nations’ exclusive economic zones. It broke it’s ‘one country, two systems’ promise over Hong Kong and escalated tensions on its border with India and in the East China Sea with Japan.

China was rapidly expanding the size and capability of its military, Dutton said, building the world’s largest navy with some 355 ships and submarines. By 2030, that was expected to reach 460 vessels. Over the past four years, China had built naval vessels to the equivalent tonnage of the Royal Australian Navy every 18 months.

Two other fleets, subordinated to China’s armed forces, were a coastguard with 130 1,000-tonne ships and a maritime militia that routinely had 300 vessels operating in the Spratly Islands. The coastguard possessed capabilities and maintained an operational tempo on a par with some Southeast Asian nations’ navies.

China had amassed more than 2,000 ground-launched ballistic missiles and ground-launched cruise missiles with a range of up to 5,500 kilometres. Over the next decade, its nuclear warhead stockpile, estimated to be in the 200s last year, was projected to reach between 700 and 1,000. ‘Every major city in Australia, including Hobart, is within range of China’s missiles,’ Dutton said.

The region was not on an inevitable path to conflict, ‘but only if all countries of goodwill ensure together we do our utmost to steer clear of the cliff face’.

Were conflict to come about through misunderstanding, miscalculation or hostility, it would be calamitous for all, Dutton said. ‘Australia’s position is very clear. Conflict must be avoided.’

But acquiescence or appeasement would end in a cul-de-sac of strategic misfortune or worse.

‘Yes, there would be a terrible price of action, but the analysis must also extend to the price of inaction,’ Dutton said.

If Taiwan were taken by force, then Japan’s Senkaku Islands would surely be next.

The Chinese Communist Party couldn’t make its ambitions any clearer, Dutton said. ‘The regional order on which our prosperity and security is founded would change almost overnight. In the absence of a counter-pressure, the Chinese government becomes the sole security and economic partner for Indo-Pacific nations. Now, that is a perilous military and economic situation for our country, but for so many more.’

Dutton said he did not believe China wished to occupy other countries. ‘But they do see us as tributary states, and that surrender of sovereignty and abandonment of adherence to the international rule of law is what our country has fought for and against since federation.’

Any repeat of the mistakes of the 1930s would again exact a great cost on Australia and many other countries. ‘It’s why speaking up and being heard now is essential. We are successful if we adhere to what we know is right, and we do it with great friends.’

The AUKUS agreement with the United States and the United Kingdom was about much more than nuclear-powered submarines, he said. AUKUS would allow the three nations to better share leading-edge military technologies and capabilities. ‘It will bring our researchers, our scientists, industry sectors and defence forces closer together. It will see us initially collaborate on cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, undersea capabilities and much more.’ In the longer term, there’d be opportunities for even wider cooperation.

AUKUS would complement a broader network of partnerships like ASEAN, the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing group, the Five Power Defence Arrangements, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and other arrangements with like-minded partners committed to promoting sovereignty, security and stability.

‘We’re pushing ahead with the $1 billion national guided weapons and explosive ordnance enterprise,’ Dutton said. ‘Long-range strike capabilities, precision weapons and hypersonic missiles are transforming the nature of warfare as significantly as the first rifles, or indeed the Maxim gun.’

Integrated air and missile defence capabilities such as the $2.7 billion Joint Air Battle Management System were being prioritised.

Uncrewed systems such as the Loyal Wingman being developed by the Royal Australian Air Force and Boeing Australia could be produced in quantity and relatively quickly and inexpensively, and their loss or damage would be ‘more tolerable’.

The strategic intent was to drive new determination and speed into delivering defence capabilities. ‘We seek to build a sovereign industrial base that grows our self-reliance and leverages our close technology and industrial collaboration with key allies and partners.’

Dutton sent a strong signal to the many defence industry executives in the audience.

‘Defence and defence industry can no longer be satisfied with a business-as-usual mindset. Instead, they must be driven by a mission of utmost national significance and urgency.’ That meant faster delivery, greater competitiveness and innovation.

And he appeared to step away from the long-held view that the ADF’s weapons and platforms must all be built at home—and the largely unspoken policy that jobs and votes were as important as getting those capabilities into the hands of ADF men and women.

‘The growth of Australia’s defence industrial base, be it our sovereign capabilities, our capacity to contribute to high-value and high-tech defence projects, and our nurturing of skills will complement rather than compete with the industrial bases of our allies and friends,’ Dutton said.

Alone, the ADF could not compete head on with a major power. ‘That much is obvious,’ he said. ‘But it must mean that we complement our defence capabilities with strong relationships of substance, partnerships among like-minded countries, which are focused on the great endeavour of maintaining peace in our region, not nationalistic opportunism.

‘It’s a constellation which is growing strong and more cohesive.’ Australia had a robust defence relationship with Indonesia, for example, and that would include new training initiatives and operational activities including in cybersecurity cooperation.

Japan and Australia would soon formalise a reciprocal access agreement paving the way for advanced defence cooperation and streamlining processes for deploying forces into each other’s territories.

India had been invited to join in the ADF’s massive Talisman Sabre exercise and Australia would augment its defence diplomatic representation in New Delhi to nurture greater information-sharing and coordination on maritime security.

There was a great deal of concern as far away as Europe, Dutton said.

‘Ultimately, regional stability requires, though, the US to be completely engaged right here, to continue to protect the peace and prosperity it’s engendered and from which we have all benefited since the end of the Second World War, and that is exactly what the US is doing.’

Australians deserved an honest conversation, Dutton said, and the opportunity to weigh up if Chinese leader Xi Jinping was bluffing.

‘They need to understand that the government, and through it the ADF, is making sure that we have every capacity, every capability, to defend our country. To be a useful neighbour, to stand up for those that have been silenced, and to work with our great partners including the US, the United Kingdom, Japan, India, South Korea, many others in the region.

‘If China takes a path other than peace, it’s catastrophic,’ Dutton said. ‘I don’t want to see it, and I’ll do everything I can to deter it. And we will deter it from a position of strength, not weakness.’

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URLs in this post:

[1] National Press Club address: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cNP-E_XjetY

[2] 2020 defence strategic update: https://www.defence.gov.au/about/publications/2020-defence-strategic-update

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