Defence Commentary – Thinking the unthinkable

Australians aren’t used to a defence minister like Peter Dutton speaking to us like adults. When Defence Minister Peter Dutton commented recently that a military conflict in which China attempted to take control of Taiwan by force “cannot be ruled out”, he seems to have sent much of the nation into a nervous panic.

In some ways that’s a reasonable reaction; there’s a lot to be nervous about.

In other ways the reaction was absurd. Dutton was not warmongering. It is the Chinese themselves who repeatedly say they have not ruled out the use of force to take Taiwan.

It is the Chinese who have engaged in a massive military build-up, and it is the Chinese who, on one day in April, sent 28 warplanes into Taiwanese air space.

Americans at the highest level of military command have said there is a strong possibility of Chinese forces invading Taiwan. So have Taiwanese government ministers. So have countless strategic analysts.

That there is a real chance of military conflict is an undeniable given. What Dutton did that was so strange was to speak, as a defence minister, about critical ­strategic issues to an Australian audience as if they were ­grown-ups. Australians are unaccustomed to a defence minister doing that.

Of course, war is unthinkable. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think about it.

Every civilised human being will work to prevent US-China conflict from happening, but it is essential that security planners, and the democratic conversation, take account of the possibility.

There are thus two urgent questions for Australia: what would such a conflict mean for us, and is there anything we can do to prevent it?

First, some background on Taiwan. It is an island democracy of 24 million, a 24-carat democracy that breaches nobody’s human rights. It has a different history from China but was generally part of China until 1895 when the Japanese took control.

After World War II it reverted to mainland Chinese control in 1945. Beijing was then governed by the anti-communist Kuomintang (KMT) party of Chiang Kai-shek.

The Chinese Communist Party defeated the KMT in the Chinese civil war, and Chiang and his forces fled to Taiwan where they set up a government, and a nation, in exile. The KMT was pretty autocratic in Taiwan but it democratised in the 1980s and Taiwan has been stable, peaceful and prosperous ever since, with a free media, hi-tech industries, the peaceful rotation of power and the stable rule of law.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison visits the Robertson Barracks in Darwin. Picture: Adam Taylor/PMO
Prime Minister Scott Morrison visits the Robertson Barracks in Darwin. Picture: Adam Taylor/PMO

So in the past 124 years Taiwan has been ruled directly by Beijing for just four years, the last time more than 70 years ago.

When the US established diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1979 it established a diplomatic formula to cover Taiwan. Both Washington and Beijing agreed there was “one China” but they also declared that Beijing would seek reunification through peaceful means.

The US passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which commits it to maintaining Taiwan’s security and holds that neither side — neither Beijing nor Taipei or Washington for that matter — can change the status quo by force.

The Taiwanese democracy has absolutely zero interest in being absorbed into China’s increasingly harsh Leninist totalitarian system.

China’s President Xi Jinping has declared that it must be absorbed and the issue cannot pass “from generation to ­generation”.

Given those insoluble conflicts, let’s consider what a very bad case scenario, not necessarily the worst case but a very bad case, of a “kinetic” shooting conflict of some description between the US and China would mean for Australia.

There is no chance at all, zero, that Australia could sit out such a conflict. Depending how serious the conflict became, Australia affords a raft of attractive targets for a Chinese military seeking to hurt the US and its military capability.

The Joint Defence Facility at Pine Gap is the most obvious. It is a critical link in Indo-Pacific signals intelligence. At a time of US-China conflict it would be focused overwhelmingly on operational intelligence about China.

It is also through Australian facilities that the US gets early warning of ballistic missile firings in this part of the world.

In a serious conflict, Beijing may want to blind the US, which would make Australian communications facilities high-priority targets. The same probably applies to our over-the-horizon Jindalee Operational Radar Network, which has a long range and would certainly be militarily relevant.

Taiwan's chemical corps personnel stand in formation during a demonstration as Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen inspects troops in Tainan, southern Taiwan. Picture: AFP
Taiwan’s chemical corps personnel stand in formation during a demonstration as Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen inspects troops in Tainan, southern Taiwan. Picture: AFP

The same considerations might apply to our signals intelligence facility at Geraldton, and to the North West Cape facility, which provides the very low frequency signals for communication to our submarines, and seemingly still to US submarines.

Beyond these communications facilities, what military contribution might Australia make?

Our most important capability would be our Collins-class submarines. These would be out and about for intelligence gathering purposes but might well play a direct role in combat. The Chinese military might think it worth knocking out the Stirling submarine base south of Perth.

Let me stress, all this is unlikely. It would have to be a very intense conflict for Beijing to act against these assets. But Beijing’s decision on whether to act would not turn much on our declaratory postures but simply on the capabilities that these facilities provide to the Americans. An alliance is a two-way street. The US alliance is the single most important factor of Australian security.

As legendary former US deputy secretary of state Rich Armitage once told an uncomfortable Australian audience: an alliance means I’ll fight and die for you, and you’ll fight and die for me. An alliance is a two-way street or it’s not an alliance at all.

In any kind of US-China conflict that went for more than a couple of weeks, say one around a Chinese blockade of Taiwan, it is very likely that Australia would contribute F-35 fighters, Wedgetail command and control aircraft, or electronic warfare Growler aircraft to work as part of the American force. These presumably would operate out of Guam or some other US-allied base.

Few countries in the world would suffer more severe or immediate dislocation than Australia in the event of any conflict. If we tried to stand aside and let the Americans alone preserve a democracy of 24 million people in the Pacific, we would destroy the US alliance and leave ourselves uniquely exposed and vulnerable and in a worse security position than we have been at any time since World War II.

A formation of Chinese J-15 “Flying Shark” fighters fly over the aircraft carrier Liaoning during a fleet review by Chairman Xi Jinping.
A formation of Chinese J-15 “Flying Shark” fighters fly over the aircraft carrier Liaoning during a fleet review by Chairman Xi Jinping.

We could easily get the worst of both worlds, with the Americans determining we weren’t worth fighting for but the Chinese still considering us a US ally and therefore an enemy, while if we stood aside we would of course be in breach of our ANZUS Treaty and we would destroy ANZUS.

Article V of ANZUS states: “An armed attack on any one of the parties is deemed to include an armed attack on the metropolitan territory of any of the parties, or on the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific or on its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.”

ANZUS doesn’t formally commit us to war. No treaty ever really does. But it could not survive one nanosecond if it was not triggered by US-China conflict over Taiwan.

But we would also suffer immediate and immense economic disruption.

The global economy would probably shatter into two rival systems, a US system and a China-dominated system. Even if this happened a little less fully than we might forecast, the consequences for Australia would be huge.

For a start, all of our exports to China would stop immediately. Whether that was Beijing’s decision or Canberra’s wouldn’t matter. It is completely inconceivable that we could export iron ore to a nation that was at war with the US. It just wouldn’t happen.

Finally, both the US and China are such immensely formidable military powers that any war would involve enormous casualties on both sides.

Beijing is trying to win the Taiwan conflict without firing a shot by convincing the world that its triumph is inevitable and would be swift, and that resistance is futile.

In fact this is not remotely true. Taiwan is 130km from mainland China. It is difficult water to cross and Taiwan is a difficult island to invade. In World War II, US commanders decided Okinawa would be easier to invade than Taiwan.

It is true that China has an overwhelming military superiority against Taiwan and that Taiwan has not done enough to make itself an unbearably costly prize. But Taiwan could do this relatively cheaply. Just as Beijing has adopted an asymmetric military strategy against the US, so other nations need to adopt asymmetric strategies against Beijing.

If Taiwan deployed several hundred smart sea mines, these would make it all but impossible for Beijing to transport the vast numbers of troops it would need across the Taiwan Strait.

Similarly, Beijing would need to mass forces, ships and troops in ports before advancing towards Taiwan. It also would rely heavily on its ground-based air defences against the US. This means those ports and those mainland air defences would be inevitable US military targets.

The guided-missile destroyer Shenzhen fires its close-in weapons system at mock sea targets in waters off the South China Sea.
The guided-missile destroyer Shenzhen fires its close-in weapons system at mock sea targets in waters off the South China Sea.

Some commentators ask: what would victory possibly look like in such a conflict? The answer is simple. Victory would consist in the continued independent existence of democratic Taiwan.

Michael Shoebridge of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute published a recent piece that argued the Americans would be determined to keep Taiwan out of Beijing’s control. He listed four reasons. One is geography. Beijing’s geo-strategic power and military reach would be massively augmented by taking Taiwan. Continued US military presence in the Pacific would be much more problematic.

Two is the principle of democracy. If the US will sell out a democratic ally of 24 million — which incidentally gave up a nuclear weapons program on the basis of US security guarantees — what would a US alliance be worth?

Three is Taiwan’s unique role in global semiconductor production. The acquisition of Taiwan by Beijing would be a massive leap in technological capability.

Four is the critical question of decisive momentum in geo-strategic competition.

Given how utterly disastrous any conflict would be, what can Australia do to help avoid it?

Many conflicts are avoided by a credible system of mutual deterrence. If both sides think the cost of conflict is too high then neither side starts a conflict.

The US once pursued a certain ambiguity in Taiwan policy. By not absolutely guaranteeing Taiwan’s security it stopped Taiwan from making a formal declaration of independence. But by keeping up the strong suggestion it would support Taiwan, it deterred Beijing.

The Joe Biden administration is abandoning the obsolete practice of ambiguity.

The era of such ambiguity working is over. It doesn’t work any more with the risk-taking, extremely assertive Beijing of Xi’s presidency. Therefore reinforcing deterrence is the best way to avoid war.

Australia does this by doing everything we can to facilitate US involvement in our region, as with the marines in Darwin, and to bolster US capability through our own capabilities, which we should be increasing in any event in our own interests.

Some of that even involves a responsible defence minister occasionally talking about it, always carefully, publicly. Preventing war is too important to leave the subject undiscussed or, even worse, unexamined.


FOREIGN EDITOR Greg Sheridan, The Australian’s foreign editor, is one of the nation’s most influential national security commentators, who is active across television and radio and also writes extensively on culture. He has w… Read more