Facing China without our historical ally

There will be no quick and easy victory for America and its allies. Neither side has a clear advantage in a maritime war.

Professor Hugh White ( Emeritus, Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University)

First published in The La Trobe Asia Brief Issue 2 on 1 July, 2019.

Three big questions confront Australia’s foreign and defence policy today. The first is can we rely on America to resist China’s ambitions to dominate East Asia? The second is can we continue to rely on America to defend us in the decades to come? And third, what should we be willing to do to support America in resisting China’s challenge?

For a long time we have taken it for granted that the answers to the first two questions are both ‘yes’. We have assumed that America can uphold the old US-led regional order by containing China’s bid to become the region’s leading power – which would keep us safe from any major threats from China. And we have assumed that if a major threat nonetheless arose, America would fight to defend us.

We have also taken it for granted that the answer to the third question is ‘not much’. We have assumed that America would find China easy to deal with, so they wouldn’t require much help from us – certainly not the kind of help that would damage our relations with Beijing.

These assumptions looked sound while China’s economy was small, its military was weak, and its leaders were reluctant to challenge America – and while America looked determined to preserve its leadership role in Asia and globally. But they have looked more and more shaky as China’s wealth, strength and ambition have grown, and America’s resolve has appeared less clear.

This has put Australia in an awkward position. We have wanted to encourage America to resist China’s ambitions and defend Asia’s US-led order, but for obvious reasons we haven’t wanted to jeopardise our own relations with Beijing. That is why diplomatically we have mostly sat on the fence, expecting America to act tough against China but not doing much ourselves.

There is of course an element of duplicity here: Canberra is trying to have its cake and eat it too by telling Washington that we are supporting them against China while we tell Beijing the opposite. But while that is true at one level – the level of diplomacy – at a deeper strategic level something more is going on.

Despite Canberra’s confidence that America will easily contain China, there is a latent consensus – largely unspoken, but clear and powerful nonetheless – about what we must do if that fails.

If Washington cannot convince Beijing to abandon its challenge, and the consequent escalating rivalry leads to a conflict, then Australia should and would fight alongside America in a war with China to uphold American leadership in East Asia.

That latent consensus rests on a few supporting assumptions of its own. One is that America would undoubtedly go to war with China rather than surrender its leading position in Asia. Another is that America and its allies would win, and win quite easily. A third is that it is never going to happen, because neither America or China want to go to war.

Over the past decade this contingency has steadily become the primary focus of Australian defence policy. And the idea that if necessary Australia and America, perhaps with other like-minded countries, would fight and win to preserve US leadership in Asia shapes our view of the future and our place in it.

Our conviction that we and America would if necessary be willing to fight to contain China provides reassurance that we do not need to contemplate the alternative – the unthinkable possibility that China’s challenge will succeed.

This is a false reassurance, and the assumption that neither side wants a war is plainly wrong. On the contrary, as many have observed, the contest between Washington and Beijing for primacy in East Asia is exactly the kind of situation in which great powers do go to war.

In flashpoints like the South China Sea and Taiwan, each side is testing the other’s military resolve in classic Cold-War style brinkmanship. Both want to show that they are willing to fight, expecting to convince the other to back off. There is a real risk that miscalculation will start a war that neither wants. Such things have happened many times before.

If that happens there will be no quick and easy victory for America and its allies. Neither side has a clear advantage in a maritime war in the Western Pacific, and the most likely outcome would be a costly but inconclusive stalemate, followed by a swift escalation to nuclear conflict.

It is almost impossible to overstate the consequences of such a war for everyone – including Australia – and of course nobody would ‘win’ it.

If this was understood in Washington there is no reason at all to assume that America’s leaders – assuming they are rational – would decide to fight.

Of course they want America to stay on top in Asia, but they don’t want it enough to fight that kind of war. And would Australian leaders think any differently, when they found themselves on the brink, peering into that abyss?

This matters, even if we avoid a slide to war. The balance of perceived resolve between America and China will probably decide which of them emerges as the dominant power in East Asia over the years ahead.

The clearer it becomes that America is less willing than China to go to the brink, the weaker its claims to regional leadership, and the stronger China’s will become.

That leads us to sobering answers to the three questions I posed at the start. First, we cannot depend on America to forestall China’s rise and prevent it dominating East Asia. On the contrary, the transition from a US-led to a Chinese-led regional order is already well underway.

In fact the most likely outcome – especially given the drift of US politics today – is that America will quite soon cease to play any substantial strategic role in Asia.

Second, we can no longer rely on America to keep us secure. For all the talk of shared history and values, the real foundation of our alliance is our usefulness to America in supporting its strategic position in Asia. When it forsakes that position, it will no longer need our alliance.

And third, this means we should end the dangerous illusion that we can stop all this happening, defend America’s leadership and preserve our US alliance by fighting China at America’s side. Instead we should be preparing for a different future in which Australia must look to its own defence in an East Asia dominated by China. That will not be easy, but it is not impossible.

Photo: The USS Sterett conducts a replenishment-at-sea with the dry cargo and ammunition ship USNS Richard E. Byrd in the South China Sea. 9 June 2017 (United States of America MC1 Byron C. Linder/U.S. Navy).