Tuesday 15 Jan 2019 | 13:33 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 15 Jan 2019 | 13:33 | SYDNEY

Could Australia fight China alone?


Hugh White

27 September 2011 13:30

Should Australia ever contemplate going to war with China (or any other Asian great power) by ourselves, rather than as junior partner in a US–led coalition? If so, under what circumstances?

Sam's perceptive response to me on 'fighting China alone' suggests slightly complicated answers to both questions. But the complexities are worth exploring, because these are perhaps the most important questions that Australian strategic policy has confronted in forty years.

Let's take the second question first. What are the situations in which we might contemplate fighting China alone? This question has exercised me since the mid–1990s when we ('we' being the group of strategic policy wonks then in Defence) began to wonder about the consequences for Australia if China just kept on growing.

The result was the 'concentric circles' conception of Australia's strategic interests and objectives, first sketched in the 1997 Strategic Policy Review, presented more fully in the 2000 Defence White Paper, and retained, somewhat modified, in the subsequent 2009 White Paper.

The essence of the 'concentric circles' concept is simple. Australia's most important strategic interests are those closest to home. They are our ability to deny the continent's air and sea approaches to an adversary, and to deny them bases in the inner arc of islands to our north. These are not only the interests on which Australia's security from attack most directly depends; they are also the ones that matter to us more than to anyone else.

If there is anything that the ADF must be able to do alone, protecting these interests is it. In 2000 the Howard government identified being able to do that, against a major Asian power, as Australia's highest strategic objective.

Beyond the inner arc, Australia's strategic interests, though very important, are less direct, more widely shared with others, and harder to defend by ourselves. So beyond the inner arc, Australia need not be able to defend our interests by ourselves, but only in coalition with other powers. So Sam is right: we do not need to be able to operate against China independently in, say, a Taiwan scenario, and would be foolish to pretend we could.

One further elaboration. I think Sam presupposes that if we are not fighting alone we must by definition be in coalition with the US. I think that's only half right, or rather, only right when you move north of what our predecessors used to call the 'Malay Barrier' of maritime Southeast Asia.

I cannot imagine Australia fighting in Northeast Asia except as an ally of the US (or perhaps, in some more distant future, some other major Asian-power ally), but I can imagine us supporting Indonesia against major power intrusion into the greater archipelago. This was of course what drove Paul Keating's idea for a treaty with Indonesia back in the mid–90s.

Now back to the first question: can it ever make sense for Australia to contemplate fighting China alone, even on our own doorstep? Many people answer 'no', including my old colleague Paul Dibb, but I think they do so without enough thought. They believe on the one hand that we will never need to do so, because they assume that the US will always be there to save us. That's a big topic, but suffice to say the further ahead we look, the less sure of that we can be.

On the other hand, they cannot imagine how we could ever win against China. This depends a lot on what we mean by 'winning'. Certainly we could never beat China the way the allies beat Japan or Germany in the Second World War. But we could, I think, if we were very clever and careful, raise the costs and risks to China of trying to penetrate our approaches to the point that it was simply not worth their while.

This would require us to focus our efforts single–mindedly on maritime denial operations. That might seem a modest and unheroic aim, but it is the absolute maximum that we might be able to manage independently, and it might just be enough. I've set this argument more fully in my 2009 Lowy Paper, A Focused Force.

And note that this does not mean we would never want to deploy forces independently against a great power beyond the inner arc. We would want to impose costs and risks on an adversary as far from our shores as possible, and hence undertake sea denial as close to the adversary's ports as possible.

Which brings us at last to Sam's points about JSF, Superhornets and submarines. I'd agree that for this role, submarines will be really critical, and the more the better. I'd also agree that for the time being more F-18 Superhornets might be a better investment than the JSF. Indeed the more I hear from Andrew Davies about Lanchester Equations, the more I wonder whether I was wrong ever to plump for the JSF in the first place. But that's for another time.

Photo courtesy of the Department of Defence.