Editors’ picks for 2023: ‘Australia’s deterrence strategy and the question of targeting China’
5 Jan 2024|

Originally published on 24 August 2023.

Paul Dibb’s Strategist post, in response to Sam Roggeveen’s recent Australian Foreign Affairs article, was on target. But I must quibble specifically with his assertion that no commentator in their right mind would recommend a deterrence posture for Australia that includes targeting the Chinese mainland.

Dibb argues that setting such a course for Australia’s defence would be ‘extremely provocative and dangerous’ given China’s military capabilities. This echoes Dibb’s influential 2021 ASPI report, co-authored with Richard Brabin-Smith, which asserted that ‘the idea of Australia being able to inflict unacceptable punishment on a big power such as China would be ridiculous’. While their position is admirably clear, I’m not convinced that Australia should adopt such a proscriptive approach towards deterrence. The pros and cons of targeting China in a major conflict are worth debating.

Dibb’s concept of deterrence by denial drawing from the 2020 defence strategic update ‘requires Australia to hold potential adversaries’ forces and forward-based military structure at risk from a greater distance’. He argues that if Australia faces a direct military threat from China, the Australian Defence Force should certainly include ‘attacking China’s military bases in the South China Sea and contingently in the South Pacific in its future targeting doctrine’.

Acquiring long-range missiles to strike targets on land therefore falls within Dibb’s concept of deterrence by denial. But he firmly excludes attacking ‘mainland China’ as a ‘dangerous gamble’ for Australia. In other words, Canberra should steer clear of deterrence by punishment against China because it’s too risky.

Dibb and Brabin-Smith’s recommendation that Australia adopt a strategy of deterrence by denial by augmenting the ADF with long-range anti-ship missiles, cyber capabilities and area-denial systems helped to lay the conceptual foundations for the 2023 defence strategic review. In The Strategist, Dibb correctly observes that nothing in the DSR suggests Australia should aim to hold at risk potential targets in mainland China. Neither does the document rule that out, however.

Australia’s basic challenge in seeking to deter a major power such as China is scale. Asymmetry in military capabilities is no barrier for smaller powers seeking to deter bigger adversaries, provided the latter believe that the costs of operations exceed the value to be gained by prosecuting them. With a small military, Australia must work hard to achieve any kind of deterrent effect. It should therefore be willing to accept greater strategic risk. Strikes (both kinetic and non-kinetic) that create a disproportionate response can be effective.

China’s power asymmetry vis-à-vis Australia is magnified by the People’s Liberation Army’s possession of nuclear weapons. Canberra can only offset China’s escalation dominance through its extended nuclear alliance guarantee from Washington. But in almost any foreseeable scenario involving ADF operations against the PLA, Australia would be fighting in a coalition, not independently (it never has). Any strikes conducted by the ADF would need to add to, and be a part of, an overall coalition military strategy. That strategy should aim to win the war, not merely to deter conflict.

Australia’s acquisition of long-range strike capabilities is not an isolated phenomenon but part of a broader regional trend. Other US allies including Japan and South Korea are strengthening their own strike and area-denial capabilities. Among the partners and non-allies, Taiwan has invested heavily in a missile counter-strike capability that is aimed squarely at China. Vietnam has acquired a modest land-attack missile capability via its Russian-made Kilo submarines and Kalibr missiles. These would be unlikely do decisive damage against China. But they do raise the punitive costs of an armed encounter, demonstrating that Vietnam has options to escalate and punish the PLA—even if it doesn’t win.

While scenarios for war with China remain hypothetical, in the real-world crucible of the Russia–Ukraine war, Ukraine’s armed forces have overturned conventional wisdom about escalation risks by striking targets deep inside Russia, including Moscow and airbases used to mount missile strikes against Ukrainian cities. Before 2022, few would have foreseen any country being willing to strike deep inside Russian territory, short of nuclear conflict. Ukraine doesn’t view these attacks as provocative or disproportionate; it sees them as part of a viable war-winning strategy.

Of course, Australia’s circumstances differ significantly from Ukraine’s. Distance is the major strategic variable for Australia—something Dibb and Roggeveen both believe it should exploit to the full. Yet it’s not clear why Australia should tread so carefully around targeting China’s territory when several Asian countries have already crossed that capability threshold.

If, as Dibb assumes, Beijing already has the joint defence facility at Pine Gap on its nuclear target sheet and is likely to contemplate strikes on bases in northern Australia, what does Canberra gain by treating China’s homeland as off limits? Australia wouldn’t need to declare any expansion of its doctrine to include targets inside China. It could, like others in the region, let the capabilities speak for themselves. Roggeveen is right on one point: don’t count on Beijing treating strikes against its manmade bases in the South China Sea any differently to those on real islands like Hainan. Chinese territory is whatever Beijing defines it to be.

Fundamentally, punishment is integral to the concept of deterrence. Because deterrence ultimately targets an adversary’s psychology, in practice doctrinal distinctions between denial and punishment are less than watertight. In brute terms, you’re more likely to give an aggressor pause for thought by being able to rip off his nose as well as his arm. That is not to say that denial is not a viable basis for Australia’s defence strategy; it has long been so. But against China, in particular, it’s necessary to include a punitive element to optimise the deterrent effects that Australia can muster, and to demonstrate Australia’s strategic independence to Beijing.

Australia would need to choose targets for kinetic strikes in China of high value and have high confidence in their destruction. That may require a deeper missile magazine than currently planned for given the ADF’s limited weight of fire. Which brings us to Australia’s future nuclear-powered submarines. A tension exists between the DSR’s emphasis on deterrence by denial and its focus on Australia’s immediate region, on one hand, versus the capability leap that the AUKUS submarines are likely to bring on the other.

Dibb argues that in a conflict over Taiwan, Australia should use its SSNs to ‘deny the narrow straits of Southeast Asia to China’s overseas trade’. He assesses this to be a more risk-worthy concept of operations than deploying such high-value platforms closer to the action in Taiwan. However, SSNs are designed to patrol at long range, where they can neutralise threats closer to their source. It seems counterintuitive that the Royal Australian Navy would shun the opportunity to engage a naval adversary where its forces are most concentrated and vulnerable, at or close to their bases.

The South China Sea would likely be a focal point for coordinated US and Australian submarine operations, pinning down China’s navy within the first island chain. That would carry some risk of escalation because China’s nuclear ballistic-missile submarines are likely to be operating there. But if there’s a clear and present military threat to Australia and its interests, the ADF’s most potent platform should be used to maximum effect, including mounting missile strikes on PLA bases and infrastructure within China if necessary.

While Dibb and Brabin-Smith define deterrence in terms of denial and punishment, the DSR allows for a third element: dissuasion. Whereas the former aim to deter existing capabilities, a dissuasion strategy usually means convincing a potential adversary that it’s not worth developing them in the first place. This appears less relevant for Australia given the PLA’s already advanced capabilities.

But what if Beijing perceives Australia’s plans to acquire SSNs, with the capability to launch missile strikes deep inside China, as a potential nuclear-deterrent ‘breakout’ capability? Australia’s declaratory policy firmly abjures the acquisition of nuclear weapons. But how much faith does the Chinese leadership place in declaratory policy, including its own? Even if the prospect of Australia’s SSNs lobbing a few dozen cruise missiles into the heartland does little to alter China’s strategic calculus, the prospect of what might follow that capability could be dissuasive. A flotilla of stealthy SSNs with land-attack capability can be interpreted as a powerful precursor signal of recessed nuclear ambitions—even if that is not Canberra’s intention.

If Australia was to involve itself in any conflict with China, it would need to be all in, not just a little bit. I would simply argue that it pays to keep an open mind on the kind of deterrence that Australia is likely to need, and to keep all options on the table—or under it.