It is every military planner’s worst nightmare – a war on two-fronts. Now experts from across the US defence and national security community at the Atlantic Council are warning that the US and Indo-Pacific allies, Australia included, need to be prepared for this uncomfortable reality.
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Otto von Bismarck, the famed inaugural chancellor of Imperial Germany, has long been credited with implementing a foreign and strategic policy that sought to prevent Germany from becoming embroiled in a disastrous two-front war with France.
While successive German leaders would ultimately prove Bismarck’s theory correct, military planners across the globe have sought to avoid falling into this trap, with very few nations truly having the capability to successfully wage total great power war on two fronts.
Concern about the potentiality of a destructive two-front conflict has been gaining traction in recent years as a result of the “no limits” relationship between Russia and China, coupled with unprecedented military build-ups and increasingly belligerent expansionist activities in Eastern Europe and the Western Pacific.
This reality has only been further exacerbated by the emergence of parallel multilateral economic, political, and strategic organisations like the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) organisation and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), each of which have rapidly gathered members from across the developing world to counter the post-Second World War order.
In this era of renewed great power competition between the United States and China as the world’s two superpowers, direct kinetic conflict between the two camps would be truly devastating, even in the event of a limited, regional conflict, the capabilities that would be brought to bear by both sides would reshape the global and regional balance of powers.
North Korea, that isolated, recalcitrant hermit kingdom equally complicates the tactical and strategic planning for many commanders, particularly those of the United States as the unpredictable tyrant, Kim Jong-un, steps up his nuclear ambitions and capacity to directly strike at the United States mainland with the potential for drawing China into a direct nuclear conflict with the United States.
For Markus Garlauskas of the US-based Atlantic Council, the reality of a two-front conflict in East Asia and the Western Pacific appears to be a growing reality presenting significant challenges to the United States and its regional allies including Australia, Japan, and South Korea which are directly invested in the continuation of the regional and global status quo.
These concerns have only been further compounded amid the relative decline of the United States across the economic, political and strategic capability, prestige and influence when compared to the invigorated grey zone conflict, diplomatic exuberance and ambition, coupled with modernised capabilities now being fielded by the People’s Liberation Army.
Highlighting this reality, Garlauskas sets the scene, stating, “US thinking about war in East Asia often neglects the possibility that the United States would have to fight the PRC and North Korea simultaneously rather than separately. Furthermore, conventional wisdom in the United States underestimates the risk that either the PRC or North Korea would resort to a limited nuclear strike in the event of a conflict in the region.
“However, the recent behaviour of the United States’ adversaries in East Asia suggests that this thinking may be off the mark; the PRC military has reorganised itself to prepare to fight a two-front war, while both the PRC and North Korea continue to develop the sophistication and size of their tactical nuclear arsenals,” Garlauskas detailed.
While any potential conflict presents significant risks for nuclear escalation, particularly given the increasing unpredictability of the North Korean regime, as Garlauskas identifies, the longer a conflict drags, the more costly and devastating the fall out, even if kept below the nuclear threshold.
A quick win, either way is the best outcome
Whether it is in reference to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, or a pre-emptive strike by North Korea on South Korea, Garlauskas identifies the extensive materiel, human, economic, and political costs associated, however, despite this, the reality of a potential two-front confrontation requiring US or Chinese participation is likely.
Simply put, if Beijing is to make a pre-emptive move on Taiwan, there is an exponential increase in the likelihood that North Korea will seek to take advantage of American distraction and make its move on the South, effectively splitting American tactical and strategic force multiplying capabilities between the two fronts and bringing the United States into direct, open conflict with two nuclear-armed powers.
Highlighting this, Garlauskas states, “If a conflict with one adversary in East Asia doesn’t end quickly, expect it to widen. If a conflict is initiated by either the PRC or North Korea, the potential for expansion to simultaneous conflicts with both would pose a high risk to US and allied defence objectives, particularly because this would impose severe operational and strategic challenges.
Expanding on this, he adds, “During this study, we found many plausible pathways from which a conflict with one could expand into conflicts with both, even without Beijing and Pyongyang coordinating with one another. Though it is ill-advised to confidently predict the flow of a conflict up to a decade from now, such pathways are sufficiently numerous and plausible that – if a conflict with either the PRC or North Korea does not conclude quickly – we should anticipate that simultaneous conflicts with both could result.”
As part of his analysis, Garlauskas presents a rather confronting and all-encompassing picture of the scale and scope of such a conflict in the Western Pacific, beginning with a Chinese attack on Taiwan coinciding with decapitating strikes on US basing and capabilities across the Indo-Pacific, ranging from forward deployed forces in Japan, Guam, potentially Australia and US Forces Korea, effectively dragging South Korea into the conflict by default, assuming North Korea doesn’t take advantage of the ensuing chaos.
Garlauskas explains, “Any major US-PRC conflict – for example, if the PRC attacks Taiwan – is likely to escalate horizontally and engulf Korea, unless the US-PRC conflict is a limited war with a quick, decisive outcome. In such a conflict, Beijing is likely to strike US regional bases, possibly including US Forces Korea (USFK) bases well within mutual striking distance of the PRC mainland. Even if the South Korean military and USFK are initially fenced off from hostilities, either side could view them as a US tool to break a stalemate or be drawn in as the PRC attacks US bases in Japan by overflying Korea.
“Additionally, Beijing could encourage Pyongyang to escalate in order to tie down US and ROK forces. Whether or not Beijing does, a US-PRC conflict would disturb North Korea’s escalation calculus. US reinforcements flowing to the region, along with US commitments and losses, could prompt opportunistic or pre-emptive aggression from North Korea – particularly because the conflict’s outcome would have immense implications for Pyongyang,” he adds.
Equally complicating allied planning is the constraint placed on allied forces in the event of a limited conflict, either between the US and PRC which could, theoretically, limit the use of US forces based in Korea and even Japan, something again detailed by Garlauskas, who states, “As a major conflict with the PRC or North Korea begins, the potential for escalation to draw in the other immediately affects the political and military options available to the United States and its allies, even if war is averted. Seoul’s efforts to avoid being dragged into a US-PRC war, for example, could constrain US forces in South Korea. Meanwhile, US and South Korean efforts to avoid a war with the PRC could hamstring US-South Korean operations in the Yellow Sea, or in mountainous areas near the PRC-North Korean border.”
Escalate to de-escalate
Despite the widely held belief since the end of the Cold War that is the Pax Americana or American Peace, maintained by the unwavering might of the United States Armed Forces, backed by the wealth and industrial capacity of the US and global benevolence of the post-Second World War international organisations, we now know this era is at an end.
The relative decline of the United States across the economic, political, and strategic spectrum when compared to the rising power of powers like China, a somewhat resurgent Russia, India, and a myriad of other emerging great powers all serving to pull US capabilities and focus in multiple directions, effectively limiting the total amount of power that can be concentrated in a single area.
Recognising this, Garlauskas explains, “The United States and its allies are not situated to fight a two-front limited nuclear war in East Asia; the PRC may be soon. US and allied capabilities, command-and-control arrangements, and posture (including forces, bases, and agreements with allies) are unsuited to prevent simultaneous conflict with the PRC and North Korea and/or a limited nuclear attack or provide robust military response options if they occur.”
The lack of preparedness to engage in even a limited nuclear strike as part of broader decapitating strikes designed to smash US and allied resolve, decisively limit key areas of tactical and strategic advantage and rapidly raise the stakes in order to de-escalate the potential for a US-led counteroffensive in the Western Pacific.
This push to escalate to de-escalate would seek to effectively make the tactical and strategic calculus and risk/reward analysis that would effectively shape the US and allied response, whether regarding a Taiwan scenario, or a Korean Peninsula scenario, or, as is predicted by Garlauskas, a two-front scenario.
Garlauskas explains, “If current trends continue, the PRC is likely to be far better prepared than the United States to fight on multiple fronts in East Asia and to conduct limited nuclear strikes. The apparent lack of preparedness of the United States and its allies to fight simultaneous conflicts with the PRC and North Korea and for a limited nuclear conflict increases the chances that Beijing or Pyongyang – if already in conflict with the United States – would see advantage in moving first to expand to a dual conflict or escalate to a limited nuclear attack.
“The PRC’s establishment of a separate Northern Theater Command for Korea contingencies and the Eastern Theater Command for Taiwan contingencies, along with the fielding of accurate dual-capable missiles (nuclear and conventional) shows Beijing’s progress in this direction,” he explains.
Only by recognising the relative decline of the United States (not a popular opinion to state out loud) and accepting that the United States has limitations can Australia truly begin to take stock of the challenges of operating in this increasingly multipolar world.
However, it is critical for us to understand that Australia’s security, prosperity, and stability will not be determined by events in Europe, nor will they be determined by circumstances in the Middle East, while they may influence circumstances, our national future will not be determined by these areas.
It is important to highlight that in the coming era of multipolarity, Australia will face an increasingly competitive Indo-Pacific. Indeed, separate to the People’s Republic of China, our immediate region is home to some of the world’s largest populations with its fastest growing economies with their own unique designs and economic, political, and strategic ambitions for the region.
Rather, we have to accept that while the world is increasingly becoming “multipolar”, the Indo-Pacific, in particular, is rapidly becoming the most hotly contested region in the world. Underpinned by the emerging economic, political, and strategic might of powers like China, India, Pakistan, Thailand, Vietnam, and the established and re-emerging capability of both South Korea and Japan, in particular, are serving to create a hotbed of competition on our doorstep.
Recognising this array of challenges and opportunities, both the Australian public and its policymakers need to look beyond the myopic lens that has traditionally dominated our diplomatic, strategic, and economic policy making since Federation.
Ultimately, we need to see Australia begin to play the long game to fully capitalise on the opportunities transforming the Indo-Pacific. The most important question now becomes, when will we see a more detailed analysis and response to the challenges and opportunities facing Australia and when will we see a narrative that better helps industry and the Australian public understand the challenges faced and opportunities we have presented before us?
As events continue to unfold throughout the region and China continues to throw its economic, political, and strategic weight around, can Australia afford to remain a secondary power, or does it need to embrace a larger, more independent role in an era of increasing great power competition?