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Flashpoints: Assessing the scenarios, the crisis and immediate aftermath of Taiwan and the South China Sea

US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Ralph Johnson (DDG 114) with the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) in the Philippine Sea, 4 June 2024. (Source: US Navy)

History has largely been defined by the consequences of flashpoints that dramatically shape the course of an individual, a nation or empire. Today’s multipolar world is no different and for Australia, the Indo-Pacific’s two key flashpoints have the potential to reshape our future and that of the broader world.

History has largely been defined by the consequences of flashpoints that dramatically shape the course of an individual, a nation or empire. Today’s multipolar world is no different and for Australia, the Indo-Pacific’s two key flashpoints have the potential to reshape our future and that of the broader world.

Whether it is the rivalry between Rome and Carthage, the British Empire and Napoleon’s France, through to the competition and conflict between liberal capitalist democracy, Nazism, Fascism and Communism that dominated the 20th century, much of recorded history has been the story of multipolarity and competition between great powers and their ideologies.

Our modern world is no different despite the post-Second World War dominance of the global leaders of power, institutions and commons by the United States. The post-war world has always maintained an element of multipolarity, even though the United States cemented itself as the world’s pre-eminent global power following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.


In recent years, the global “rules-based” order has come under assault both directly and indirectly – as emerging powers like China and India, backed by established powers, like a resurgent and increasingly belligerent Russia, began to establish rival economic, political and strategic networks and systems to challenge the “rules-based” order.

This has seen the re-emergence of multipolarity as the global geopolitical status quo, returning to the historical norm and giving rise to the increasing importance of flashpoints that have historically served to bring great powers and empires into direct conflict with one another, serving to reshape the future of humanity.

Today we see this unfolding before us in real time, from the steppes of Ukraine to the narrow, congested streets of the West Bank and the globally vital waterways of the Red Sea and South China; it is easy to understand why many analysts and political decisionmakers have describe our era as one of the “pre-war” world.

While a vocal proponent of the post-Second World War global “rules-based” status quo, Australia faces little in the way of direct implications or repercussions regardless of who ultimately triumphs in the bloody clash on the eastern fringes of Europe.

Equally, the same can be said of the ongoing ethno-religious and cultural war in the Holy Land following the attacks on 7 October. Australia faces little, if no direct fallout as a result of the conflict on the ground in Gaza or should it expand into Lebanon.

That is not to discount that there will, of course, be second and third order effects that will have both positive and negative impacts on Australia’s economic prosperity, political stability, social cohesion and strategic security, but the first order effects on the nation are, at best, negligible.

However, the emergence of the Indo-Pacific as one of the world’s centres of economic, political and strategic weight – driven in large part by the rise of China, India, and emergence of other regional powers – has accelerated the global transition to a multipolar world, bringing the implications of two major flashpoints far closer to home.

Nowhere is this reality clearer than in the contested waterways of the South China Sea and the island democracy of Taiwan, both of which have the potential to plunge the region and the broader world into a truly catastrophic conflict.

Now I know and understand that none of this is new information, what it is, however, is scene-setting for an intellectual exercise that will look at two specific scenarios based on these two flashpoints and how the nation should respond following.

Scenario 1 - the South China Sea confrontation

The South China Sea is one of the most lucrative yet highly contested waterways in the world, with US$5.3 trillion (AU$7.85 trillion) worth of maritime trade passing annually and as yet unexploited oil, liquid natural gas and other resource deposits, including fisheries, all attractive and highly prized sources of competition between the neighbouring states.

For Beijing, the South China Sea and a growing network of highly fortified and militarised man-made islands, despite repeated denials by Beijing, serves as a potent extension of the rising superpower’s (A2/AD) system as a strategic buffer to defend China’s expansionist designs for the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia.

To this end, in recent months, we have seen a rapid acceleration in Beijing’s attempt to coerce and intimidate the states that straddle the edge of the South China Sea, with the Philippines and the Second Thomas Shoal front and centre of this push.

While the Philippines is far from the only case of Beijing’s coercive actions, with even the Royal Australian Navy and US Navy, respectively, on the receiving end of Chinese antagonism and coercive measures by the rising superpower.

These efforts recently reached fever pitch for Australia when the CNC Ningbo, a Chinese guided-missile destroyer, engaged its active sonar systems to “ping” Australian Navy divers in the water, clearing fishing nets from the propellors of HMAS Toowoomba while on a regional engagement deployment in support of United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea.

So, what about the scenario? Well, we will focus on a confrontation over the Second Thomas Shoal. Please keep in mind I have tried to keep it high level, otherwise, we’d be looking at a Tom Clancy novel.

We will begin this scenario with a successful, but costly attempt by the Chinese Coast Guard to successfully interdict and cut-off the Filipino Marines stationed aboard the wrecked BRP Sierra Madre at the cost of a handful of Filipino sailors and marines, along with heavy damage to the responding Filipino naval vessel.

In response, Manilla deploys a naval task force, including its two Jose Rizal class frigates, a single Del Pilar offshore patrol cutter, and the BRP Tarlac, supported by a detachment of Filipino Marines and their supporting equipment as a show of defiant resolve.

Not to be outdone, Beijing deploys a number of their coast guard ships, along with the aircraft carrier Fujian, a Type 055 guided missile cruiser, a pair of Type 052D guided missile destroyers and a Type 093 nuclear powered attack submarine as a significant show of force, while also placing elements of South Sea Fleet and East Sea Fleet on heightened alert.

In response, the US government issues a statement calling for calm, while also stepping up both crewed and uncrewed maritime patrol overflights of the region and rediverting elements of the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group on their way back to their homeport of Yokosuka, Japan, following the biannual Talisman Sabre Exercise in Australia, as a sign of support for the Philippines.

The Australian government also issues a statement calling for calm and deploys a Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, along with the freshly upgraded HMAS Sydney and HMAS Supply alongside its American counterparts in support of the Filipinos.

Then disaster strikes.

During one of the many characteristic unsafe mid-air interceptions conducted by a Chinese Navy FC-31 from the Fujian, the Chinese aircraft, in “flaring” an American Poseidon aircraft during an overflight of the South China Sea, the Poseidon engines inhale chaff, causing the plane to crash with only half the crew surviving and now effectively behind enemy lines.

Meanwhile, at the Second Thomas Shoal, tempers flare as Filipino Marines seeking to reinforce the BRP Sierra Madre are intercepted by the Chinese Coast Guard with roving firefights breaking out on the Sierra Madre and in the waters around the wrecked vessel, costing lives on both sides.

As the US Indo-Pacific Command scrambles to respond to the downing of the Poseidon and the search for its surviving crew, the Chinese naval task force arrives in proximity to the Second Thomas Shoal, followed closely behind by the Ronald Reagan, its escort vessels including HMAS Sydney and HMAS Supply with the Chinese naval forces blocking US and allied search and rescue efforts over "national security" concerns as they continue to ramp up their strikes against the Filipino forces in the area.

In response, the Ronald Reagan is granted approval to conduct limited defensive air operations over the Second Thomas Shoal in an effort to scare off the Chinese carrier and its escorts, while Australia’s Poseidon, the HMAS Sydney’s Romeo helicopter and an American Triton conduct search and rescue operations. However, things don’t go to plan as the US Super Hornets, Growlers, and F-35Cs rapidly duel in the skies over the South China Sea with Chinese FC-31 and J-15 aircraft.

While diplomatic channels between Washington and Beijing remain open Japan and South Korea have declared their neutrality for the time being and events are beginning to spiral.

In the chaos of the aerial and naval duel, several civilian cargo ships traveling through the region are inadvertently hit, causing significant global economic shocks, including a cancellation of maritime insurance for commercial vessels travelling through contested waterways, bringing global commerce in the Western Pacific effectively to a standstill, with major global ramifications.

Meanwhile, both the Chinese Southern Theatre and Eastern Theatre Commands begin partial mobilisation, including the deployment of a series of advanced hypersonic anti-ship ballistic missile DF-21 and DF-17 systems to the Chinese coast in proximity of Taiwan and along the southern coast of Hainan in an effort to push US naval assets, including the Ronald Reagan, out of the combat zone.

The US is rapidly deploying assets from Japan, Guam and Hawaii, with F-22 Raptors from Japan conducting combat air patrols over the southern Japanese islands, B-2 Spirit stealth bombers from Whiteman Air Force Base are forward deployed to Guam.

These air assets are joined by an additional tasking of Virginia Class fast attack submarines to the waters of the South China Sea surrounding the Philippines and Hainan while the Marine Rotational Force - Darwin (MRF-D) joined by Australian Special Operations Forces and elements of Australia's new Amphibious Ready Element is spun up for rapid deployment to the Philippines and a potential push into China’s artificial island fortresses.

The Philippine Navy, recognising it is outgunned and of little use to the allied effort is now effectively left to limp back to port, backs down following nearly a week worth of fighting and witnessing the sight of the US and Chinese task groups engaging in the first major naval battle of the 21st century. Meanwhile, Beijing’s Coast Guard forces withdraw, leaving the heavy lifting to the Navy.

Knowing this is an opportunity to rectify the embarrassment of the Taiwan Strait Crisis of the mid-1990s, the Chinese leadership seeks to give the US Navy in the region a bloody nose, authorising the use of their “carrier killer” missile systems to target the “recalcitrant” Ronald Reagan with a single missile from a salvo of 12 striking home, preventing further flight operations, forcing it to limp home to the US for repairs.

Not to be outdone, the US Navy’s Arleigh Burke destroyers land a number of blows against their Chinese counterparts, while the Virginia Class submarines deployed from Guam, along with the B-2 Spirit bombers, conduct a cruise missile and bombing raid on the shore-based anti-ship ballistic missile batteries supported by Australian and US Special Operations Forces on the southern coast of Hainan, only to return to Guam to find it decimated by a cruise missile strike from Chinese submarines.

China’s Fujian doesn’t escape unscathed either, with the pride of the People’s Liberation Army-Navy struck by a number of the US Navy’s new Naval Strike Missiles and its escort vessels ravaged by long range anti-ship missiles and other ordnance, severely impacting the combat capacity of the South Sea Fleet.

Beyond the kinetic conflict, Australia’s economy has been ravaged by the government-mandated cancellation of resource and agricultural shipments to China, along with a period of unprecedented cyber attacks on government and commercial infrastructure, leaving much of Australia somewhere in the late-1960s.

Meanwhile, the nation’s dependence on foreign property investors has come home to bite it as the Chinese government forces citizens to liquidate their Australian investments, essentially collapsing the Australian economy overnight.

The impact on global energy supplies has also served to impact the Australian economy, with rationing now in place. The US economy has not escaped damage either, as it, too, bore the brunt of immense cyber warfare assaults on critical infrastructure, expanded waves of corporate espionage and denial of service attacks, waves of disinformation and cognitive warfare on social media, and a successful hack of the New York Stock Exchange, bringing the world’s largest economy to its knees.

Beijing, now seen as a global pariah state, is subject to a host of sanctions from across the G7 nations, although thanks to deft diplomacy and the formalisation of relations with Russia and other emerging and re-emerging powers through the BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, is in an arguably better position compared to both Australia and the United States.

Recognising the growing potential for the confrontation to escalate to a potential nuclear exchange following the successful US strike on mainland China, a hotline is established between Washington and Beijing to enable real-time defusing of potential crises between the two superpowers, with both returning to their corners to lick their wounds.

Scenario 2 - the Taiwan question

It is no secret that the People’s Republic of China has long coveted the “reunification” of the mainland with what it deems as a “break away” and rebel province, repeatedly threatening forcible efforts to claim the island.

Since becoming China’s president in 2013, Xi Jinping has sought to rapidly expand the People’s Liberation Army and its subordinate branches and its capabilities across the spectrum of potential operations, with an emphasis on minimising the traditional advantages held by the United States and its allies should they attempt to prevent a mainland invasion.

At the core of this has been the heavy development and fielding of increasingly advanced, integrated webs of anti-access/area-denial or A2/AD networks of advanced anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles, coupled with an increasingly capable air force, the world’s largest navy, including a growing number of aircraft carrier battlegroups and a rapidly modernising army.

All of this has been backed by the increasing emphasis on next-generation capabilities, including a growing strategic nuclear force expected to field approximately 1,000 warheads by the mid-2030s, artificial intelligence-enabled weapons systems, cyber, electronic warfare, anti-space capabilities all designed to cripple the United States’ and its allies’ efforts to defend Taiwan’s democracy.

Beijing’s increasing verbose rhetoric and action has only gained further traction following the highly publicised visit of former US House speaker Nancy Pelosi to the island in mid-2022, which saw an increased number of drills conducted by the People’s Liberation Army-Navy and People’s Liberation Army Air Force, often involving incursions into Taiwan’s Air Identification Defence Zone (AIDZ) only serving to increase the likelihood of potential conflict.

Indeed, at the time, Beijing’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian had said the visit would challenge China’s “red line” and would be met with “resolute countermeasures”, with Lijian adding at the time: “The US must bear all consequences arising thereof.”

Yet, for all the tension over Taiwan, it could be argued that it is this generation’s Berlin, with both sides instinctively understanding the ramifications of potential miscalculation or accident that could ultimately result in a nuclear exchange.

Thankfully, in the case of Taiwan, I don’t need to create a scenario, rather I can defer to the experts at the US-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) which published a series of new wargames in early 2023.

For background reference, the CSIS scenario states, “The invasion always starts the same way: an opening bombardment destroys most of Taiwan’s navy and air force in the first hours of hostilities. Augmented by a powerful rocket force, the Chinese navy encircles Taiwan and interdicts any attempts to get ships and aircraft to the besieged island. Tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers cross the strait in a mix of military amphibious craft and civilian roll-on, roll-off ships, while air assault and airborne troops land behind the beachheads.”

Further to this, the CSIS adds, “U.S. submarines, bombers, and fighter/attack aircraft, often reinforced by Japan Self-Defense Forces, rapidly cripple the Chinese amphibious fleet. China’s strikes on Japanese bases and U.S. surface ships cannot change the result: Taiwan remains autonomous.”

However, based on a US-led intervention to respond to Chinese aggression, CSIS outlines some concerning outcomes for both parties, with key platforms and manpower knocked out either temporarily or permanently, radically reshaping both the regional and global balance of power.

The CSIS explains “Victory is not everything. The United States might win a pyrrhic victory, suffering more in the long run than the ‘defeated’ Chinese. Furthermore, the perception of high costs might undermine deterrence: if China believes that the United States would be unwilling to bear the high costs of defending Taiwan, then China might risk an invasion.”

While CSIS predicts significant losses for the People’s Liberation Army, diminishing its capacity, a globally weakened US would also present dramatic challenges for Australia’s strategic policymakers, with the CSIS wargame demonstrating that surface ships would prove to be extremely vulnerable, with the United States typically losing two carriers and 10 to 20 large surface combatants in wargame iterations.

Meanwhile, while US and allied submarines were able to enter the Chinese defensive zone and wreak havoc with the Chinese fleet, the numbers were inadequate. This is further hampered by the limited numbers of hypersonic and other standoff munitions, a limited number of ageing strategic bomber aircraft, and fighter/light attack aircraft.

Along with a host of other challenges limiting the efficacy and long-term viability of the US in the Western Pacific and straining its capacity to continue to serve as the global strategic benefactor for which many, including Australia, has been dependent on since the end of the Second World War.

Final thoughts

In the next part of this short series, I will take a look at some ideas on how to fundamentally reshape the Australian Army to position it to better defend the nation’s interests in the event of such scenarios leaving Australia with a severely weakened strategic benefactor, a motivated great power adversary and greater responsibility for its own security.

Subsequent pieces will also look at the Royal Australian Navy, Royal Australian Air Force, Special Operations Command as its own distinct branch, along with the national economy and industrial base and finally, our diplomatic pathways for ways to “harden” ourselves and prepare for a challenge we all pray never comes.

Importantly, to do this and deliver such outcomes, Australia will need to have an honest conversation about how we view ourselves and what our own ambitions are. Is it reasonable for Australia to position itself as a “middle” or “regional” power in this rapidly evolving geopolitical environment?

Equally, if we are going to brand ourselves as such, shouldn’t we aim for the top tier to ensure we get the best deal for ourselves and our future generations?

If we are going to emerge as a prosperous, secure, and free nation in the new era of great power competition, it is clear we will need break the shackles of short-termism and begin to think far more long term, to the benefit of current and future generations of Australians.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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