Cam Hawker asserted here recently that if conflict broke out between the United States and China, Australia would automatically be at war since we host US Joint Facilities on Australian soil. Cam is right to raise the issues of abandonment and entrapment in Australia’s alliance relationship, and it is important for decision-makers in both Canberra and Washington to hold clear understandings of Australia’s strategic choices in a possible future crisis. To this end I applaud Cam for forcefully arguing such a provocative line.
Yet, leaving aside the unassailable fact that declarations of war on behalf of Australia may not be made by other countries, Cam’s arguments remain false for several reasons.
First, America does not have the capacity to conduct offensive operations against an adversary from the Joint Facilities. There are no Okinawa-style super bases here and hence few local Chinese targets. The mere fact that Joint Facilities exist in Australia is immaterial—as of late 2011, 92 countries permanently host more than 10 US service personnel, with 13 countries having more than 1,000 (and prior to the Marine rotations through Darwin, Australia was not among these).
Second, the Joint Facilities are not targets for China. After the Joint Facilities were first established, the Office of National Assessments judged that it would increase the probability of a nuclear attack on Australia in the event of a general nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union. At the same time, however, it was believed the Joint Facilities would strengthen America’s nuclear deterrent, thereby reducing the risk of nuclear conflict overall. Unlike the Soviet Union, however, China does not have thousands of excess ICBMs targeting every conceivable American facility across the globe. Instead, China preserves a minimum-deterrence second strike capability, for retaliation against US mainland cities.
Third, a Chinese attack on the Joint Facilities would be stupid. While the Joint Facilities are not bases from which to launch an attack against China, they do matter for America’s command and control. With two nuclear superpowers trying to avoid massive nuclear escalation, these are the kinds of targets China is likely to actively avoid. The only instance where an attack on them might be likely is if nuclear war has already broken out, and even then it will be in the form of a cyber attack for the reasons outlined above.
Fourth, any nuclear escalation between China and the United States (where a limited attack on the Joint Facilities could conceivably occur) would happen at a point long after Australia had decided whether or not to enter the war.
Fifth, even if an armed attack on the Joint Facilities did occur in the opening stages of a conflict, Australian casualties are likely to be light, and if the Chinese attack were pointedly limited to those facilities, then it is not at all clear that Australia would be compelled to enter the war against its will.
In fact, the only possible way the Joint Facilities could force Australia into a conflict is if China launched an unrestrained attack against us because we host them. The idea this will occur is not, to put it mildly, a credible contingency.
This is not to say that Australia would not choose to enter the conflict on the American side in a war between China and the United States; the fact that we might surely factors into Chinese planning [and personally, I’m sure we would]. But any decision to do so will occur in the context of the Australian government’s assessment of our national interests, inclusive of our alliance obligations and cognisant of the likely consequences of Australia’s choices.
Any assertion to the contrary is simply false.
Crispin Rovere is a PhD Candidate at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.