‘World enough and time …’: the strategic dialectic
1 Feb 2018|

Strategic relations exhibit a sort of dialectic. Australia scans for regional developments that might affect its security, and regional nations assess Australia’s responses to its strategic environment and respond in accord with their own interests.

We can assume that China will pay close attention to any substantive changes in Australia’s defence policy, and respond. And some significant changes are being discussed. The growing strength of China and the putative decline in US power have engendered a spirited discussion of what Australia’s defence policy response should be. Adjustments to the level of funding for defence and changes to force structure are being promoted, and the acquisition of nuclear weapons is being discussed. None of that would go unnoticed.

China would be cognisant that Australia is already the 12th-biggest defence spender globally, and that Australia’s defence budget won’t reach its target of 2% of GDP until 2020–21. The defence budget currently accounts for roughly 6% of government spending. So, what Australia does with its defence dollar is already undoubtedly of great interest to China.

If, as widely suggested, Australia were to acquire an ‘anti-access and area denial’ capability—a costly restructuring of the ADF—it probably wouldn’t greatly worry China, especially if there was little chance of the US interfering militarily. The disparity in defence expenditure alone would give China confidence that it will continue to be more than a match for Australia’s conventional forces quantitatively.

In addition, China already possesses significant indigenous military-industrial capability, and the nature of its political economy allows China’s leaders to concentrate on quickly building high-capability, technologically advanced weapons systems.

China’s indigenous development of two fifth-generation fighters (the J-20 and J-31) and the advanced Beidou-3 GPS satellite constellation, and its investment in robotics and artificial intelligence, space programs, naval shipbuilding and aircraft carrier production are evidence of the country’s rapidly growing and modernising military-industrial complex. Beijing will easily also account for any qualitative improvements in Australia’s conventional forces into the future.

Whether or not Australia should go nuclear is altogether a different matter. Except in nations like China and Russia, the shortage of qualified engineers and operators is ‘one of the biggest challenges for the nuclear community’. Building a nuclear industry and workforce will in itself ensure that it’s a long process.

The discussion about Australia’s acquisition of nuclear weapons takes place largely in isolation from considerations of China’s nuclear weapons policy. China holds a relatively small number of nuclear weapons—at 270 warheads, it has slightly fewer than France and a few more than the UK.

Beijing’s stated policy is no first use of nuclear weapons ‘at any time or under any circumstances’. China regards nuclear forces as useful only for their deterrent effect. That is, ‘China will not attempt to win a nuclear war or use nuclear weapons to establish hegemony.’ Chinese strategic policy doesn’t see the use of nuclear and conventional forces as connected, and the Chinese ‘have complete faith in China’s no-first-use commitment and believe it greatly contributes to avoiding escalation’.

Nevertheless, unlikely as it may be, this longstanding policy might change. Some argue that just the existence of a nuclear arsenal and delivery capacity means it has to be taken into account. So if, contrary to the current understanding of Chinese nuclear policy, it was assumed that China would be willing to use the threat of a nuclear attack to deter Australia from using its conventional forces, it makes sense for Australia to have nuclear weapons.

Does it, though? In this situation, presumably, China would seek to prevent Australia from becoming nuclear-armed. What are its options? Beijing might seek to garner international support to censure Australia for not abiding by its commitments to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). If international moral pressure was unsuccessful, then China could up the ante by seeking a Security Council resolution, or even sanctions, against Australia. Economic, financial and trade sanctions against Australia by China—and most likely also by sympathetic pro-NPT nations—would have devastating effects on Australia.

Alternatively, or in parallel, China could take covert and overt direct action against Australia’s efforts to acquire a nuclear capability. That could range from cyberattacks to preemptive strikes on nuclear facilities, or from a maritime blockade of major ports to even a short war.

The key issue here is time. Australia has none. China has plenty. China’s conventional military power will always be more than a match for Australia’s. China would have ample opportunity to disrupt Australia’s acquisition of a nuclear capability, and probably at great cost to Australians. Sustained Australian political or public support for nuclear weapons would seem unlikely.

It has been suggested that if the risk of an attack from China is regarded as low, then ‘doing nothing is a perfectly credible response’. Alternatively, whether or not an attack from China is credible, to plan on a course of action that can never result in security for Australians doesn’t make strategic sense. The only thing more remote than an attack by China would be Australia’s chances of prevailing.

The long-term relationship with China can’t be built on planning for conflict. That could be a provocative, self-fulfilling endeavour. The future of Australia in East Asia lies in diplomacy, multilateralism and economics. The highest priority of our national policy should be avoidance of war involving China.