Too soon to be waving the White flag on China
24 Nov 2021|

In The Australian newspaper on Monday, Hugh White gave us a picture of democratic defeat in the face of overwhelming Chinese dominance should war break out over Taiwan.

‘Going to war with China,’ he says, ‘will more likely destroy’ US leadership. The chances of nuclear war ‘are quite high’ and ‘the chances of America winning such a war are very low’.

White goes on to say that ‘America’s dwindling chances of winning’ are such that it’s all the ‘more likely that the Chinese will provoke a crisis to call America’s bluff’.

Faced with such dire prospects of defeat, what should we do? We should, according to White, weigh up whether an ‘imperative to support democracy against authoritarianism’ is worth it. ‘There is a mortal imperative to avoid war’ because ‘the costs of war would probably be far higher than the costs of living under a new Chinese-led regional order’.

Given what we know of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Leninist authoritarianism as applied in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet and indeed against all mainland Chinese, this would be a grim future.

What would Australian life look like in a region dominated by communist China? Look no further than the notorious 14-point grievance list handed to Australian journalists last year by Chinese officials.

This would be a world in which the Australian media couldn’t write critically about Xi’s rule, where the Australian Strategic Policy Institute would be shut down for being ‘anti-China’, and where there would be no limits on China’s control of our 5G network or other critical infrastructure.

Australia’s ‘incessant, wanton interference’ would not be tolerated on Beijing’s abuse of human rights, crushing of dissent in Hong Kong, annexing of the South China Sea and military threats against Taiwan.

Last weekend, China’s acting ambassador in Canberra, Wang Xining, claimed that the grievance list was a media fabrication. He told The Guardian, ‘The list should be longer than 14 points.’ Everything is Australia’s fault, of course.

But this doesn’t have to be our future. White is fundamentally misguided about China, the US, the region and the balance of military power—and he is wrong too about Australia. Here are eight reasons why.

First, the US is not leaving the Asia–Pacific. Presidents Barack Obama and Joe Biden (and, in different ways, Donald Trump) put priority on the region. The US economy is still the world’s largest. China’s lead in purchasing power parity terms is no guide to its ability to generate hard power.

America’s innovative capacity and youthful demographics remain core strengths at a time when China faces the prospect of becoming old before it gets rich.

Second, the US military on any measure remains strategically dominant. That is why China is so focused on stealing US and allied defence intellectual property. Yes, China has a geographic advantage over Taiwan, just 160 kilometres away, but that edge would be blunted rapidly in a conflict, and China knows that.

Third, don’t be fooled by smart parades. The People’s Liberation Army is rapidly strengthening but it is still a second-tier military. Chinese military journals are acutely focused on deficiencies in everything from stealth to jet engines to leadership failings and a lack of operational experience.

Here is one example. Earlier this year the shouty Chinese Communist Party-controlled Global Times reported on mental health issues among submariners: ‘21.1 percent of the submariners showed varying degrees of mental health problems, including anxiety, phobic anxiety, and paranoid ideation’.

Happily, the paper reported that the ‘PLA not only arranged medical professionals to take care of soldiers’ mental health, but also take care of soldiers’ mental health during daily political work, which is an advantage of China’s system’.

That’s right, even on deployment, submariners will spend hours each day studying ‘Xi Jinping thought’, under the guidance of a party commissar. The PLA has a long way to go to match the capabilities, flexibility, innovation and training of first-rank military forces such as those of the US and Australia.

That leads to the fourth reason why White is mistaken. He says allies are not important: ‘Whether Australia, or even Japan, joins the fight makes very little difference’. But the combined weight of the democracies significantly overmatches China, which has no true allies, setting aside loopy ‘little brother’ North Korea and to some extent a suspicious Russia.

Xi’s attack on AUKUS in a speech to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on Monday shows that China gets rattled by the alliance-building capacity of democracies. But ASEAN is unlikely to accept Xi’s pretence at supporting a nuclear-free zone, given China’s rapidly growing nuclear arsenal.

Fifth, deterrence has worked until now. China is so intensely cautious about confronting US power that it spends all its efforts operating in the so-called grey zone—seeing how much it can get away with without provoking reactions. Crossing the line into conventional conflict will be a new, demanding step for Beijing.

Point six, China faces deep structural weaknesses in its economy and is burdened with a repressive and corrupt political hierarchy and a population forced into sullen conformity.

The CCP’s overwhelming focus is on staying in control. It lives in fear of the country’s own population. Xi is riding a dangerous nationalistic wave that may back him over Taiwan but could just as easily implode on the party.

Point seven, Xi is 68. He won’t be around forever and may ultimately be called to account for policy errors, like the wolf-warrior diplomatic nonsense that has lost China so many friends.

Finally, point eight: Australia is not useless. We have the capacity to shape policy and win international support, which is precisely why China wants to punish us for rejecting its 5G technology and calling it out on Covid-19. If we are agile enough, we can strengthen our military, reinforce regional deterrence and shape a coalition of friends and allies to push back against China.

None of this is easy and Hugh White is right to worry about the costs of conflict, but we don’t need to capitulate. We need self-confidence, some grit and a willingness to stand up for what matters about our country and way of life.