Thursday, August 27, 2015

Setting Australia's Strategic Direction: Here and Now

Greetings from the Australian National University in Canberra, where John Garnaut, former Fairfax China correspondent and speaking to Professor Hugh White about the "Power Shift" to China and what Australia's response should be.

Illustrating one of the short term decisions for Australia,the ANU Strategic & Defence Studies Centre banner, behind the speakers, has a photo of a Collins Class submarine on it. Australia has to decide what to replace these submarines with. That choice has international political implications, as one option is from Japan. Also there is the issue of what Australia is going to use the largest, longest range,  non-nuclear submarines in the world for (certainly not just to protect the waters around Australia).

John Garnaut asked Professor White if the Chinese government would share power at the international level, when the are not willing to do so internally. Secondly John Garnaut asked if countries in the region would accept Chinese dominance, when so far they have called for US help. Professor White responded that he assumed the Chinese are "normal" and will "strive for leadership" as the British and Spartans did previously.

Professor White argued that the Chinese would have a sense of grievance about what was done to them by great powers from the Opium wars onwards. he commented that Japan was the only economically powerful country in history not to strive for a dominant global position.

Professor White also argued that China could not be trusted to keep a global agreement, unless there were severe sanctions for non-compliance. He pointed out that this is no different to previous European powers which have abrogated when it suited them.

Professor White suggested that Asian countries (and Australia) want the USA to balance Chinese power in Asia, but the USA wants primacy. However, it occurs to me that the USA may not be able to afford the economic cost of stationing military forces in Asia.

Professor White pointed out that while Australia wants t support the USA, it does not want to be explicitly seen as militarily opposing China (with PM Abbot quick to dismiss basing US strategic bombers in Australia). However, I suggest this is more a matter of public relations. Australia will not have US bases, but will have Australian bases with a significant US presence. US strategic bombers are likely to take part in exercises in Australia.

John Garnaut arges that China has not fought a "serious" war since the Korean War and is there primarily for internal security. He also argues that divisions within the Chinese military reduce its effectiveness. However, I suggest China has had several large border incidents. Also China does not have to make use of its military force for it to have an effect. In particular, the British and US Navies have shown how effective a blue-water navy is for applying diplomatic pressure. The PLAN are rapidly learning these lessons. It should be noted that in WW2, it was the Australian Army which developed some of the doctrine which the US Marines then adopted.

Professor White argues that the US Navy has no recent experience of high intensity war. Therefore the Chinese Navy's lack of experience is not so significant. The discussion then turned to the capability of the Chinese Navy to sink US aircraft carriers. However, I suggest Professor White may not be placing enough weight on the development of smaller, lower cost, non-nuclear aircraft carriers. The USA can afford to operate only a small number of large nuclear aircraft carriers.

Once China works out how to build and operate an aircraft carrier, it would be able to mass produce them, at low cost using its commercial shipbuilding industry. However, China might choose to produce cheaper, smaller and more flexible Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) ships. These look like aircraft carriers and so have the same public relations value. Although China lacks VSTOL aircraft to equip these ships, they could operate attack helicopters in the near term and armed UAVs in the future.

Professor White suggested a nuclear armed Japan might have a stabilizing effect. In response I asked of cyber-warfare might have a de-stabalising effect. What I had in mind was that countries would not know for certain who is attacking them and this might create an "On-The-Beach" scenario, releasing cyber weapons which do not have a decisive or focused effect and cause global collateral damage. Professor White was skeptical of the effectiveness of cyber-weapons.

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