Rudd is right – we can’t wish away a war with China
Former prime minister Kevin Rudd this week described how the next five years will shape the long-term stability of the Indo-Pacific region and determine the success of US efforts to deter China from taking military action against Taiwan. This is an informed insight. It is not a new one.
In June, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida warned that the Russian invasion of Ukraine could be repeated in Taiwan by China in the absence of unified deterrence by the US and its allies. Then, in October, the US Chief of Naval Operations, Michael Gilday, warned that China could undertake operations to seize Taiwan before 2027, and as early as 2023. In the same month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken described how Chinese plans for the annexation of Taiwan are on a “much faster timeline”.
In his address to the 20th Party Congress in October, President Xi Jinping described how “resolving the Taiwan question is a matter for the Chinese, a matter that must be resolved by the Chinese”. The Chinese president has offered a very clear view of his intentions about Taiwan. He has also engaged in the build-up of a technologically advanced People’s Liberation Army that is unprecedented in modern peacetime history.
There are myriad studies in the US examining potential conflicts with China over Taiwan. Recent reports from the American Enterprise Institute and the Centre for Strategic and International Studies highlight the catastrophic clash of arms that would result, and the need to invest in military, economic and diplomatic measures to dissuade China from initiating a seizure of Taiwan.
There is much less literature on the topic in Australia. Partly this is because Australia does not possess the “think tank” culture of the US, with its dozens of reports on Taiwan each year. It is also because our Defence Department eschews the same kind of “net assessment” capability possessed by the British and Americans, who explores the implications of strategic competition. Australian governments have historically deferred to our American allies when it comes to deep thinking about big strategic issues.
Putting aside the shallow ecosystem of strategic thinking in Australia, it is clear that our principal allies are deeply concerned that Xi might act in the short term to reincorporate Taiwan into China. It is in our interests to have thought through the full range of military, diplomatic, informational and economic measures that we might contribute, in partnership with our allies, to deterring such an outcome.
What should be the focus of the Australian government to deter or respond to such a conflict in the next 12 months?
First, we must assume a war over Taiwan is possible. There are sufficient signs from the Chinese and from the intelligence services of our allies that there is an increasing likelihood of this occurring. It is something that can no longer be wished away.
Second, we need to appreciate that despite this possibility, not all future conflict will involve Taiwan. The Cold War focused on military preparations for nuclear war and an air-land conflict in central Europe. Neither occurred, but many other conflicts did happen – and they featured both protagonists in main or supporting roles. We must ensure we are prepared for conflicts beyond Taiwan, including closer to home.
Third, we desperately need a national security strategy. This would make our government’s national security objectives transparent, while describing priorities and resourcing for domestic and international threats. There is nothing that does this currently. Consequently, there is limited auditability of government decisions about major expenditure (and whether there are alternatives) and there is no competition of ideas about the best national security model for Australia. And, importantly, the government has no narrative to build consensus among Australians about important national security issues.
Fourth, the government needs to explain how Australia will deter Chinese aggression against our people, our industries, our economy and our neighbours. In essence, what is required is a theory of deterrence for a conventionally armed middle power that thinks beyond America’s extended nuclear-deterrence umbrella. We need it to prioritise scarce resources.
Finally, we must get our Defence Strategic Review right. The selective leaking of the review indicates the government is pursuing a tech-centric, air-sea construct that assumes all future conflict will be fought at sea and in the air. There is no future war that won’t require a lethal, networked and deployable army. Wars are fought in the air and sea but are only won on land. This won’t be possible if our soldiers are denied core capabilities such as tanks, long-range strike, air defence and swarms of loitering munitions.
Despite the Taiwan focus, history shows we cannot accurately predict the next war. The air-sea “defence of Australia” doctrine, formalised in the 1987 and 1994 white papers, saw our nation poorly prepared for East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan. We must not repeat this. We need a high-tech, lethal and balanced military that can adapt to the one thing inevitable in our strategic future: surprise.
Deterring a war over Taiwan – and other conflicts resulting from Chinese aggression – must be a high priority for the Australian government. Such conflagrations would have devastating impacts for Australia’s prosperity. While near-term conflict is most likely to result from Chinese miscalculation, we must do everything in our power, by ourselves and with our allies, to prevent such an outcome. There is little time to do so.
Mick Ryan is a retired major-general who served in the ADF for more than 35 years and was commander of the Australia Defence College. He is the author of War Transformed: The Future of 21st Century Great Power Competition and Conflict.
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