How can Australia navigate today’s difficult and dangerous strategic environment in Asia as America and China compete for regional leadership? The consensus in Canberra – on both sides of politics – is that we should stay as close to America as possible in the hope that it will win the game.
But the choice is not so simple. We can see why if we look at a few incidents on the same day at the end of May.
At two distant locations, Chinese fighters intercepted maritime patrol aircraft – Australian and Canadian respectively – in the western Pacific Ocean. Both conducted routine surveillance operations in international waters near China-claimed territory. China has long been sensitive to US and allied maritime surveillance operations close to its shores, and it often alerts them.
But this can be more than ordinary Chinese combativeness. It could be the start of a new campaign to increase military pressure on US leadership in Asia by eroding the credibility of its regional strategic stance and alliances – and it would put Australia in the firing line.
It’s a fair bet that China will eventually culminate its challenge to America in a military showdown over Taiwan. But that may not be the next move. It would make sense if China looked for other avenues to test America’s resolve and undermine its credibility before risking that ultimate showdown. It seems an obvious and effective way to do this by targeting US allies’ maritime surveillance operations in the waters off China’s coasts.
Not easy choices
Let’s look at it from Australia’s perspective. China could simply undertake increasingly frequent and aggressive interceptions of Australian regular maritime patrol flights over the South China Sea, raising real concerns for the safety of our aircraft and crews. We would fear that the Chinese would force one of our planes to land, or that an accident would lead to a crash.
Australia would face a very difficult choice. We should decide to cease operations or bolster them by sending our own fighters to escort our maritime patrol aircraft.
The second of those options would be difficult, expensive and dangerous. It would be difficult and expensive because deploying short-range fighters to escort long-range patrol aircraft would require a huge commitment of resources. And it would be dangerous because clashes between our fighters and Chinese interceptors could lead to an air-to-air battle that could quickly escalate into a full-blown war.
But the alternative – the cessation of operations – would be a very important step with major strategic consequences. It would be seen as an acknowledgment of important principles of international law by allowing China to force us to relinquish our clear right to operate in international airspace, and would undermine our defense of the law of the sea against China’s claims over the South China Sea that we see as downright illegal. We shouldn’t just do that.
There are even bigger stakes at stake. A Chinese interception and intimidation campaign against Australia’s maritime patrol operations would also pose an immediate challenge to America. We would, of course, expect Washington to step in and support us by sending its own fighters to escort our maritime patrol aircraft, as would America’s other allies and friends in Asia.
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This would not be an easy choice for Washington. Not supporting us would weaken its defense of international law, undermine its credibility as an ally, and vividly show the world how China’s power in the Western Pacific has grown. It would be a major blow to America’s claims to primary strategic power in our region.
But sending US fighters to escort Australian planes across the South China Sea would risk a direct US-China clash that could easily escalate into full-scale war. It’s the same kind of choice America faced a decade ago when China began aggressively occupying and building bases on islands and territories in the South China Sea claimed by the Philippines and other American friends and allies.
In that case, Washington decided not to intervene militarily for fear of a confrontation that could lead to war, despite the damage done to American credibility in Asia. Joe Biden should think twice about taking the same kind of risks today against a China that is even more assertive and much better armed.
These are exactly the kinds of choices that Chinese leaders want to impose on America and its allies. They hope and expect that we, and America, will withdraw. By doing so, they would demonstrate that the US and its allies are no longer in control of East Asia and the Western Pacific, asserting their claims to take over regional leadership.
It would be a gamble, of course, because America wouldn’t back down. But it’s a gamble Beijing may be willing to take, as they believe the all-important balance of determination is in their favor.
Least worst option?
So what should Australia do if China launches an escalating campaign against our maritime surveillance operations? The obvious and instinctive response is to stand firm and continue the flights despite Beijing’s intimidation. But the stakes are too high to act on instinct alone, and the more carefully we think about it, the less obvious the choice becomes. What is actually at stake?
Our maritime patrol operations in the South China Sea have no direct significance for Australia’s own defence. We do them primarily to show support for some rules of international law. The rules are important, of course, but are they important enough to justify the risks of a military confrontation with China in its front yard?
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More broadly, we conduct those operations in support of America as the leading military force in Asia. But do our gestures matter much? Will the US position in Asia be sustainable against China’s challenge, as China’s economic, diplomatic and military power has grown so great and will continue to grow in the coming decades?
Stepping back from conducting maritime patrols in waters near China may be one of the concessions we will make as we learn to live with the realities of China’s power. It’s not what we’d like to do, but it might be better than the alternative, because it makes no sense for us to bet our future on America’s ability to win a war with China for primacy in Eastern Europe. Asia. Quite simply, it is a war that America has little chance of winning.
This article is based on High White’s latest Quarterly Essay, Sleepwalk to War: Australia’s Unthinking Alliance with America, released this week.
Author: Hugh White – Emeritus Professor of Strategic Studies at the Strategic and Defense Studies Centre, Australian National University