Will China target Australia and how would Australia respond?
9 Aug 2023|

In the latest issue of Australian Foreign Affairs, the Lowy Institute’s Sam Roggeveen makes assertions about the priorities of China’s nuclear targeting of Australia, as well as what he claims will be Australia’s missile targeting of Chinese territory. I consider much of what he has written to be wrong.

In ‘Target Australia: Is the alliance making us less safe?’, Roggeveen asserts that the basing of US B-52 bombers at the Tindal airbase near Darwin will make the site a priority nuclear target of China because the bombers could strike China’s nuclear missile silos and bases, early warning radars and nuclear command and control facilities. But the distance from Tindal to military targets in the south of mainland China is over 4,500 kilometres and the B-52’s operational speed is subsonic (900 km/h). This means that it would take in the order of five hours to reach key military targets in China’s south. And flying from Tindal to Beijing would take more like eight hours, providing China with plenty of warning.

In contrast, the joint US–Australia intelligence facility at Pine Gap near Alice Springs will be by far China’s most important and time-urgent nuclear target because of its ability to give the US instant, real-time warning of a Chinese nuclear attack, the precise number of missiles, their trajectory and their likely targets. There’s nothing novel about Pine Gap being identified by potential nuclear adversaries as a priority target. In the late 1970s, it was made quite clear to me during talks in Moscow that Pine Gap was a priority Soviet nuclear target. And in 2016, I was warned: ‘In the event of nuclear war between Russia and America, you Australians will find that nuclear missiles fly in every direction.’

The fact is that the KGB had detailed evidence in the late 1970s from two US spies, Andrew Lee and Christopher Boyce, with access to the Pine Gap ‘intelligence take’ of its key role—together with the joint facility at Nurrungar near Woomera—in detecting and tracking Soviet ballistic missiles and listening to the USSR’s military communications. We can assume that the Russians will have briefed China about Pine Gap, which now includes the space-based infrared detection capabilities of the old Nurrungar base, being a much more time-urgent target than Tindal. Roggeveen asserts that China would not strike Pine Gap because of its important role in US nuclear deterrence. That is not my view: we’re not talking about deterrence and nuclear arms control here but a decision by China to use nuclear weapons. Tindal would not be targeted with the urgency that Roggeveen claims.

Roggeveen asserts that Australia’s acquisition of Tomahawk cruise missiles ‘can be interpreted only one way: Australia wants the capability to strike targets on Chinese soil’.  I don’t know how Roggeveen’s imagination jumped to this conclusion. But the 2023 defence strategic review recommends that Australia’s concept of defence have ‘a focus on deterrence through denial, including the ability to hold any adversary at risk’. That does not include striking China’s territory, which would be a dangerous gamble by Australia. But attacking China’s military bases in the South China Sea and contingently in the South Pacific certainly should be included in our future targeting doctrine if—as Roggeveen accepts—there’s a likelihood of a ‘Chinese military assault on Australia’.

Deterrence theory holds two alternatives: deterrence by punishment and deterrence by denial. Deterrence by punishment gives priority to destroying the enemy’s territory, military bases and key population centres. By comparison, deterrence by denial requires Australia to hold potential adversaries’ forces and forward-based military structure at risk from a greater distance rather than waiting for them to operate in a threatening way in our immediate approaches.

My colleague and a former deputy secretary of Defence, Richard Brabin-Smith, and I wrote an ASPI report in 2021 titled Deterrence through denial: a strategy for an era of reduced warning time. We argued that Australia needed to acquire highly accurate, long-range missiles. In this way, we could deter military actions against Australia’s interests with less dependency on warning time than in the past. Holding a potential adversary’s forces at risk from a greater distance would influence the calculus of enemy costs involved in threatening Australian interests directly. For this we need to acquire long-range anti-ship strike missiles, cyber capabilities and area-denial systems.

Any credible future enemy operating directly against us will have highly vulnerable lines of logistics support back to its home base in North Asia. The closer it comes to our strategic approaches the more vulnerable its logistic support will become. If a potential adversary such as China develops—as it already has—several military bases in the South China Sea (or in the South Pacific in future), Australia must be able to destroy them if necessary.

Nowhere in the defence strategic review or in our own writings is there a suggestion that Australia needs to be able to strike mainland China. Attempting such deterrence by punishment would be extremely provocative and dangerous given China’s military capabilities. And no commentator in their right mind would suggest such a high-risk defence policy. The idea of being able to inflict unacceptable punishment on China is not within the realms of credible Australian defence policy.

There are further sweeping assertions by Roggeveen that the AUKUS relationship will increase the likelihood that Australia will be locked automatically into fighting alongside the US should Beijing go to war over Taiwan ‘or for another reason’. It will, of course, be important that we assert our absolute sovereignty over the missions to which we commit our future nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs). When Britain decided to buy US Trident missiles for its ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), London made clear that it would not be subordinate to Washington’s nuclear targeting priorities. Washington confirmed the UK’s sovereignty in formal writing to the British government in this vital regard.

If a future Australian government agrees, our Virginia-class SSNs will be able to use 2000-kilometre-range anti-ship missiles to strike China’s forces in the Taiwan Strait. That could be done from the safety of deepwater trenches east of the Philippines without detection.

As to other roles for our SSNs in a Taiwan contingency, we should consider discussing with Washington our capacity to deny the narrow straits of Southeast Asia to China’s overseas trade (it imports 80% of its oil through the Malacca Strait). That would be an important, independent military role for Australia, but without the potentially high cost of losing our relatively small number of military assets in a direct war over Taiwan.

Roggeveen is correct when he states that the US would be unlikely to subordinate nuclear-related missions to Australia’s submarine fleet. Even so, he observes that Australian SSNs might encounter Chinese SSBNs during future operations. In the Cold War, we regularly operated against the Soviet Navy in close-quarter operations that were greatly valued by Washington. UK SSNs trailed Soviet SSBNs for prolonged periods at distances as close as 500 metres and practised what was coyly termed contingency ‘target acquisitions’. In any such future occurrences, we would need ironclad rules of engagement reflecting our national sovereignty targeting priorities.

However, the main problem with Roggeveen’s article is that he focuses entirely on the dangers of resisting and deterring China without comparing that approach with the dangers of not resisting and not deterring China. That is not a prudent approach to making Australia’s security policy.

Roggeveen concludes that it’s not in Australia’s strategic interests to be drawn into a war over Taiwan. But neither is it in our interests to see a US defeat in such a war precipitating the acquisition of nuclear weapons by, say, Japan and South Korea. And neither is it in our interests to see Taiwan’s vibrant democracy crushed by the brutal military occupation of the People’s Liberation Army. There should be no place for such value-free judgements in the formulation of Australia’s defence policy.