Who wins a war in East Asia?
23 Aug 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user 7-how-7

Under what circumstances would Australia join in a war against China? RAND’s report War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable (WwC) illuminates the gravity of that decision.

WwC explores ‘two variables: intensity (from mild to severe) and duration (from a few days to a year or more)’. It models a number of conventional war scenarios confined to East Asia/Western Pacific between 2015 and 2025 and waged with maritime assets—surface and submarine—and aircraft, missiles, space assets and in cyberspace. The US homeland isn’t attacked but assets in China are.

WwC finds the military and economic costs to China and the US are high and increase rapidly with intensity and duration. WcC doesn’t quantify costs to allies like Australia though economic costs are forecast to be ‘immensely costly for the belligerents, East Asia, and the world’. As a minimum, as Paul Dibb has observed, China mightn’t spare Australia’s critical infrastructure especially intelligence capability.

Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper says that ‘major conflict between the United States and China is unlikely’. Maybe so, but the US is preparing for a high intensity battle. Benjamin Schreer’s analysis has provided an overview of the ‘US AirSea Battle’ strategy in East Asia. Although that strategy has now been swept up into the Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons (JAM­GC); the contingency planning for a war continues. China is also planning for contingencies in East Asia and is intent on being able to defeat US power projection capabilities.

Australia’s experience with direct armed attack on its soil is limited to one instance. Since 1945 the major conventional wars involving Australian forces—Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria—have been distant with no accompanying threat of a conventional attack on Australian territory. Australia’s reasons for entering into these wars were disparate, and complex. In none of those cases did the government have to consider the level of threat to Australia’s territory, economy or its forces as that involved in a war with China.

Is Australia now inextricably entwined with US military planning in East Asia: because of ANZUS, or as a consequence of US expectations created through combined planning, capability cooperation, intelligence sharing and exercising, and US basing? Is automatic Australia will entering a conflict with China if the US does? Technically ANZUS commits Australia to ‘act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes’ to an attack on the US. But the intimate nature of the alliance probably would make it politically difficult for any Australian government not to join in most circumstances.

Still there must be a threshold. An attack on US forces by China would almost inevitably invoke ANZUS. But would Australia join in if the US struck first—a preventative war—to stop China from achieving military parity with the US in East Asia? Presumably Australia would seriously consider entering a war on the side of the US if China attacked a treaty ally of the US—Japan, South Korea or the Philippines—but not US forces directly. But what if Japan were the aggressor? Perhaps a blockade of maritime vessels or interception of commercial aircraft in international territory would suffice. A Chinese invasion of a South East Asia country might be enough. If there were a massive cyber attack on the US or Europe originating in China would we join in a military response?

In formulating a war policy it is to be hoped that an Australian government would weigh a number of factors, first and foremost being the war aims—how likely they are to be achieved and whether they are worth the economic, civilian and military costs. Secondly, irrespective of the outcome, WwC indicates that US power projection capabilities and economic strength would be seriously weakened. Postwar Australia’s security would then be inevitably also weakened and its economy damaged.

Victory would be pyrrhic. Afterwards Australia and China would still be on this same side of the Pacific, even if the US prevailed in the conflict. The government should heed Clausewitz’s words; ‘even the ultimate outcome of a war is not always to be regarded as final. The defeated state often considers the outcome merely as a transitory evil, for which a remedy may still be found in political conditions at some later date’. The postwar East Asia environment would be difficult.

Australia would be in unfamiliar territory contemplating such a war. Preparing the ADF to defend Australia’s interests is one thing. Contemplating the ruinous consequences for Australia and the region of a calamitous war between China and the US another. The government might be inclined to elevate the avoidance of an East Asian war to the highest national interest. And make it the prime objective of Australia’s foreign policy.