As the war of words and tensions between great powers continue to rise, with Australia at the epicentre, acclaimed Australian strategist Paul Dibb has asked an important question: are we truly ready for regional conflict, its implications and outcome?
At the end of the Cold War, Australia, like much of the victorious US-led alliance, believed that the 'end of history' was upon us, that the era of great power competition had forever been relegated to the pages of antiquity – we now know that to be wishful thinking.
Australia embraced the potential and opportunity presented by this new future and the lessons learned during the Cold War, particularly the impact of interventionism and sought to capitalise upon its relationships with 'great and powerful' friends like the US willing and able to guarantee its security.
However, the rise of the Indo-Pacific, in particular the emergence and, in some cases, re-emergence of many potential great powers, each with their own conflicting ambitions, economic, political and strategic designs and often ancient enmities, are serving to dramatically undermine the balance of power and stability.
The nation's approach to strategic policy continues to be heavily based upon the formalisation of the Defence of Australia (DoA) policy as identified in the 1986 Dibb report and then enshrined in the subsequent 1987 and 1994 Defence White Papers in particular, with tweaks made in every Defence White Paper to date.
This largely isolationist policy focused entirely on securing the sea-air gap as a strategic "buffer zone" for Australia, enabling the reorientation of Australia’s strategic and broader defence industry posture, which now serves to leave the nation at a critical crossroads as the region continues to rise.
While successive Australian government's have sought to evolve and, in some ways, modify the Defence of Australia doctrine, the very premise of the doctrine continues to inform the foundation of Australia's strategic policy to this day.
Meanwhile, as Australia continues to contemplate how best to respond to the rapidly deteriorating regional balance of power and the very real challenges to the economic, political and strategic order the nation's prosperity is built upon, the war of words, economic coercion and territorial expansionism continues to mount.
In light of these mounting tensions, many from not only Australia's strategic policy community, media and political circles, but the global community, have all entered the debate, with unique and nuanced advice for how Australia can best respond. Not least of these is the famed Australian strategist, Paul Dibb, author of the Dibb review and the basis of the Defence of Australia (DoA) policy.
For Dibb, it is time for the nation's leaders and the Australian public to confront an important question: 'Is Australia ready for regional conflict?'.
Setting the scene, Dibb states, "It has become fashionable to speculate about the risk of a coming war between China and America. Former prime minister Kevin Rudd, in a recent article in Foreign [Affairs] titled 'Beware the Guns of August – in Asia', claims that we are confronting the prospect of not just a new Cold War, but a hot one as well with actual armed conflict between the US and China appearing possible.
"He warns that the presidents of China and the US both face internal political pressures that could tempt them to pull the nationalist lever, which 'could all too easily torpedo the prospects of international peace and stability for the next 30 years', the irony of which is Xi Jinping's China has been marching under the banner of increasingly levels of nationalism since his ascendency."
Adding to this, Dibb says, "Carl Bildt, the noted European authority on international affairs and a former prime minister of Sweden, observes that as the 1914 assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo set in train events that culminated in World War I, so the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea might become a future flashpoint.
"Then to top the league of pessimism, there is Graham Allison, who has become famous by asserting that, based on his analysis of historical events, China, as the rising power, will inevitably go to war with America, the declining power.
"The fundamental weakness with this line of reasoning is the deterrence of nuclear weapons. If any two countries in world history should have gone to war it was the former USSR and the US. But each side knew that, even under a surprise attack, it could deliver sufficient retaliatory nuclear strikes to eliminate the other side as a modern functioning society."
Deterrence theory and high-intensity conflict on the cards?
As has been previously cited numerous times, Xi Jinping's China is a vastly different beast to the Soviet Union, however, unlike the former-USSR, contemporary China, at least to Dibb, fails to fully grasp the importance of nuclear deterrence, and the true impact of potential nuclear conflict should this new Cold War become hot.
"However, the big question here is whether China fully comprehends what an all-out nuclear war would involve. Unlike the Soviet Union, China has not been deeply involved in negotiating nuclear arms control agreements, as occurred between the USSR and America for almost 20 years during the Cold War. Both sides understood the other’s nuclear war-fighting doctrines and risk management. Scarcely anybody believed in the fantasies of Pentagon civilian theorists that nuclear war could be controlled," Dibb explains.
"As far as we know, the authorities in Beijing have not delved deeply into the catastrophe that would be modern nuclear war. In the past, I have met Chinese officials who were known to boast that, with a population of 1.4 billion, China has a much better ability to survive a nuclear war than America. There is a role here for Russia’s nuclear experts to educate China in the realities of nuclear annihilation. The fact is that China’s population size, density and location make it particularly vulnerable."
However, while nuclear deterrence and the balance of power between the two superpowers maintains a degree of stability in relations, Beijing's growing territorial assertiveness and ambitions, particularly regarding the reunification of Taiwan and its continued expansion of outposts in the South China Sea, are more concerning potential flashpoints that could trigger a conventional regional conflict.
Dibb explains, "Much more likely than nuclear war, in my view, is the prospect of a major regional conflict – such as over Taiwan – or a miscalculation over a local confrontation in the South China Sea or the East China Sea. China perceives its key national security interests as being involved in each of these three places. The situation is especially risky because of rising Chinese nationalism, with the attendant risk that Beijing does not fear the consequences of reckless behaviour.
"There is the additional problem of the lack of Chinese experience in modern war. The last time the PLA was involved in a military conflict was in 1979 when – in Beijing’s words – China would 'teach Vietnam a lesson' over its occupation of communist Kampuchea. In fact, the inexperienced PLA lost against battle-hardened North Vietnamese troops.
"One of Rudd’s recommendations is to have mutually understood red lines and open lines of high-level communication to avoid an accidental escalation. I would add there also needs to be a deep understanding of each other’s military capabilities and what an actual war between China and the US would involve, and how far it might escalate. These sort of confidence-building measures were well understood during the Cold War."
Dibb is correct in establishing that conventional conflict is more likely than a nuclear exchange, after all, the logical termination of conflict is to win; in nuclear conflict, no matter how limited, there are no winners.
While the likelihood of conventional conflagration and an ensuing regional conflict remains distant, it is more likely, particularly as the forces of the US, its allies and China increasingly confront one another, increasing the risk of miscalculation and unintended escalation.
For Australia, this is particularly concerning as the nation is only in the early stages of its largest military modernisation and recapitalisation since the Second World War, something Dibb draws attention to.
Are we ready?
As the potential for miscalculation and rapid escalation continues to unravel the regional balance of power, Dibb also highlights the threat of 'surprise' offensives and 'grey zone' attacks in the form of cyber attacks, economic or political coercion.
Dibb explains, "Nevertheless, the risk of a sudden attack 'out of the blue' is the intelligence nightmare for the unprepared side. The likelihood of surprise attack is higher in an era such as today’s with increasing nationalism, assertion of territorial claims, and increased deployment of military assets close to each other. The principal cause of surprise is generally not the failure of intelligence but the unwillingness of political leaders to believe intelligence or to react to it with sufficient dispatch.
"It is far from clear whether defence organisations in today’s potentially dangerous era are focusing on this issue with sufficient intensity and reducing the probability of surprise by making plans, strategies, and operational doctrines effective in the event of a surprise."
While the Australian government has begun the process of shifting the public understanding and awareness of the rapidly deteriorating regional environment, particularly following the $270 billion investment as part of the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and the supporting 2020 Defence Force Structure Plan, which are designed to beef up the nation's 'high-intensity' and strategic capabilities.
This was reflected by Prime Minister Scott Morrison when he launched the strategy, stating, "Our region is in the midst of the most consequential strategic realignment since the Second World War, and trends including military modernisation, technological disruption and the risk of state-on-state conflict are further complicating our nation’s strategic circumstances.
"The Indo-Pacific is at the centre of greater strategic competition, making the region more contested and apprehensive. These trends are continuing and will potentially sharpen as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic."
To this end, both documents articulate a key focus for the government and ADF moving forward, namely:
- To shape Australia’s strategic environment;
- Deter actions against Australia’s interests; and
- Respond with credible military force, when required.
Building on this, the 2020 Force Structure Plan states: "The range of capabilities that Defence will maintain, develop, enhance and acquire under the 2020 Force Structure Plan will provide the government with a flexible range of options to deliver the government’s objectives to shape Australia’s strategic environment; deter actions against Australia’s interests; and respond with credible military force."
Dibb, however, remains concerned about the scale, pace and overall preparedness of Australia as the nation combats a recession, the full scale and scope of which is yet to be felt and a regional dynamic that hasn't been experienced in lived memory, serving to undermine and shake the confidence of a largely complacent Australian public used to a "golden age".
"In the case of Australia – as the recent 2020 Defence Strategic Update stresses – there is greater potential for military miscalculation in our region and Defence must be better prepared for the prospect of high-intensity conflict," he says.
"That update is correct in observing that the new framework for defence planning will focus on our immediate region. But it also makes clear that Defence must remain prepared to make military contributions outside of that region 'where our interests are sufficiently engaged', including in support of US-led coalitions. This includes the ability of the ADF to deploy forces across the wider Indo-Pacific, including North Asia."
Dibb adds a poignant and troublesome final assessment: "Such potentially high-intensity conflicts will require radical changes to the ADF, including the acquisition of long-range strike, cyber attack and area denial systems. The ADF’s logistics, stockholding of missiles and munitions, fuel supplies and military bases all require fundamental improvement. These are deficiencies that the Defence Strategic Update acknowledges as being a priority for investment. But it remains to be seen if they are going to be treated urgently enough. Time is not on our side."
The nation is defined by its relationship with the region, with access to the growing economies and to strategic sea lines of communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport.
Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and chokepoints of south-east Asia annually.
For Australia, a nation defined by this relationship with traditionally larger, yet economically weaker regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build-up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities, competing geopolitical, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century's 'great game'.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability, serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
Australia is consistently told that as a nation we are torn between our economic relationship with China and the long-standing strategic partnership with the US, placing the country at the epicentre of a great power rivalry – but what if it didn’t have to be that way?
Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia's future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of shaking up the nation's strategic approach to our regional partners.