China and the United States are on a collision course, and Australia is preparing for the fallout
The Australian Prime Minister was right: we are living in a poorer and more dangerous world.
The question is, why has it taken us so long to wake up to this?
The coronavirus crisis has brought into sharper focus our global vulnerability and volatility, yet the warning signs were there well before this.
Australia has lost precious years preparing for this moment.
A decade ago, then prime minister Kevin Rudd outlined what he saw as the looming threat of conflict with China.
“The pace, scope, and structure of China’s military modernization have the potential to give its neighbors cause for concern,” the Rudd government’s 2009 Defence White Paper noted.
Yet by 2013 the Labor government, led by Julia Gillard, toned down the language on China, wanting to avoid any tension.
We would always choose the US
Writing in the journal Foreign Affairs in 2013, Rudd cautioned that if relations with China were not carefully managed, we would face a potential flashpoint.
“The jury is still out as to whether the positive forces of 21st-century globalization or the darker forces of more ancient nationalisms will ultimately prevail,” he wrote.
Rudd, a Mandarin-speaking former diplomat who had been based in Beijing, was very clear: China “respects strategic strength and is contemptuous of vacillation and weakness”.
Australia is now waking from a lost decade. Scott Morrison has only now returned us to where we were under Rudd.
Australia has always believed it would never have to choose between its strategic alliance with the United States and its biggest trading relationship with China.
That has always been a fallacy: of course we would choose the US, we are bound by values and security.
That does not mean making an enemy of China. But that, too, may be out of our hands.
Time again, we fail to heed history’s lessons
The rise of China was always going to be the defining issue of the 21st century. With opportunity comes sizeable risk and potential threat.
The two biggest powers in the world, China and the United States are on a collision course.
History tells us that when a rising power meets a waning power, it leads to war.
The Ancient Greek historian Thucydides warned us of this 2,000 years ago, writing about the Peloponnesian War when a rising Athens struck fear into Sparta.
Historian Graham Allison says this power shift has played out 16 times over the past 500 years — and on 12 occasions, it has ended in war. Yet, time again we fail to heed history’s lesson.
In 1914, the shifting balance of power between rising Germany and Britain sparked World War I.
The world thought it couldn’t happen. Germany and Britain were each other’s single biggest trading partners; the royal families were blood relatives — yet it did.
In his book Sleepwalkers, historian Christopher Clarke observed that political leaders of the day became hostage to events, helpless in the drift to catastrophic conflict.
“Causes trawled from the length and breadth of Europe’s pre-war decades are piled like weights on the scale until it tilts from probability to inevitability,” he wrote.
When it comes to war, Asia is a tinderbox
Are we sleepwalking to war again? In his book Destined for War, Graham Allison wrote that conflict is “not just possible, but much more likely than currently recognized”.
Morrison is rightly cautious with his language, not wanting to unnecessarily alarm or antagonize China.
But increasing Australia’s military spending is clearly an acknowledgment of the China challenge. If a global war was to erupt today, it would likely start in our region. Much of Asia is a tinderbox.
Historian Michael Auslan has identified war and economic stagnation as the two biggest risks to what has been called “the Asia century”.
Asia-Pacific is the most militarized region in the world. It’s home to some of the world’s largest armies, technologically advanced fighting machines, nuclear-armed states, and added to that, a massive American military presence.
Added to the military muscle is an incendiary mix of history: old bitter enmities, existential stand-offs, and a fierce competition for scarce resources.
The fault lines are many: India-Pakistan, North and South Korea, China-Japan.
We could be tripped into a wider conflict
Much of these simmering tensions coalesce around territorial disputes, notably the Diaoyu-Senkaku islands claimed by Japan and China and the islands of the South China Sea.
In recent weeks we have seen Chinese and Indian troops clash along their disputed border. Any of these disputes could rapidly escalate, tripping us all into a wider conflict.
Right now, military strategists in Beijing and Washington are preparing for just an eventuality. And we know what that could look like.
In 2015, Global think tank the Rand Corporation prepared a report for the American military, and its title could not have been more direct: War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable.
It concluded that China would suffer greater casualties than the US if a war was to break out now.
However, it cautioned, that as China’s military muscle increased, so would the prospect of a prolonged destructive war.
War is no longer unthinkable
China is building a military to fight that war. It has increased its defense spending seven-fold over the past 20 years. It now officially spends around $180 billion a year on its military, but analysts believe the real figure is much higher.
It is focusing on its maritime power, building a blue-water navy, submarines, and missiles. It is pursuing what is known as anti-access/area denial (A2/AD), an air, land, and sea strategy to tie up and slow down advancing enemy forces.
The US is still much more powerful than China and spends more than $700 billion a year on defence. But it’s also much more stretched, committing troops and fighting conflicts around the world, while China focuses on the home front.
War is the worst-case scenario.
China’s leader Xi Jinping has warned that conflict between China and the US “would lead to disaster for both countries and the world at large”. But war is no longer unthinkable, and Australia is arming itself.
As the old adage goes: “If you want peace, prepare for war.”
Stan Grant is the vice-chancellor’s chair of Australian/Indigenous Belonging at Charles Sturt University and a journalist.