As Hugh White, Professor of Strategic Studies at ANU, has been telling us over the last few years, the world is changing, and with it Australia’s strategic position. Australia has always needed a big protector, but with the prospect of America ceding regional hegemony to China rather than fighting her to halt her rise, Australia has to figure out what to do without such a protector. Clearly, Australia will have to consider the option of obtaining an independent nuclear deterrent.
The Thucydides Trap, a phrase coined by American political scientist Graham Allison, refers to the phenomenon whereby a rising power threatens to displace an established power, leading to war as the established power seeks to confront the rising power as Sparta did with Athens.
To stop China’s rise, America would have to be willing to go to war. If it chooses to do this, then Australia will almost certainly be under strong pressure to join in. While it is clear that Australia’s alliance with America is the bedrock of Australia’s security, it is also clear that being dragged into such a war would hardly be in Australia’s interests. Ask the average Australian voter whether they think fixing to go to war with China is a good idea, and the answer will not be too difficult to guess. Clearly, China will have to be accommodated, and Australians will have to start preparing for this.
For the Clive Hamiltons and John Garnauts of the world who reel at such a prospect, they have to ask themselves what they are willing to do to stop China’s rise – go to war? They will find themselves in small company. If they protest that their concern is only over foreign interference, then even that argument is difficult to sustain. The Americans no doubt interfere in our internal affairs. Senator Mark Arbib, one of the faceless men responsible for knifing Kevin Rudd, was an American informant, dutifully trotting over to their embassy to give them the lowdown on the goings on of the Labor government. And, of course, there is all that controversy surrounding the Dismissal. So let us not pretend that the Chinese are engaging in anything unprecedented.
And besides, the type of interference the Chinese are guilty of largely revolves around ensuring their own internal security rather than anything to do with seeking to undermine Australia. What would we do were a foreign country to start agitating for, say, Christmas Island to break away from Australia and declare independence? What if this foreign country also routinely feted these separatist leaders whenever they visited that country and were lionised there as freedom fighters? The Australian government would no doubt take a keen interest in such a country seeking to destabilise Australia. The Australian government would watch with an eagle eye the movements of these separatists and monitor their network of relationships, both within Australia and without.
China understandably takes a keen international interest regarding matters to do with Taiwan, Tibet, the Dalai Lama and other efforts to destabilise the Middle Kingdom, including “democracy promotion”. Sure, one can like democracy (I am rather partial to it myself), but how does one impose it on China – by being prepared to go to war? Ah, that war thing again. It is especially daunting to go to war with a nuclear-armed power.
Speaking of nuclear weapons, were it not for them, then I estimate we would have probably had World War III back in the 1950s. The Thucydides Trap dictates that NATO and the Warsaw Pact should have gone to war to settle the matter of who would be the global top dog. But because any war between the contending parties would have risked mutually assured destruction, such a conflict would have been MAD, and so did not happen. We had a cold instead of a hot war – thanks to nuclear weapons.
And because of this, we cannot expect the Thucydides Trap to operate with regard to China’s rise. America would have to be willing to go to war with China to halt China’s rise. But China has nukes, so this is not a viable option. Will America risk losing New York or Los Angeles over China’s claim to the South China Sea? It seems all it will be willing to do is undertake limp-wristed freedom-of-navigation exercises (without Australia, nota bene) with no intention of ejecting China from the territory it claims within its nine-dash line.
As to China’s seemingly brazen grab of everything within the nine-dash line, besides China’s ancient maritime claims to the region, such a move could quite reasonably be seen as an understandable effort to obviate China’s strategic vulnerability vis-a-vis its sea lines of communication, particularly with regard to the choke point of the Strait of Malacca. While America would understandably prefer for China to remain in thrall to such a strategic vulnerability, it can hardly be expected for a rising power like China to be comfortable with such a situation.
And even if one could stop China’s rise through a war without risking nuclear escalation, there is still the practical question of what would happen afterwards. If the destabilisation of Syria, a country of fewer than 20 million people, could result in such refugee flows that asylum seekers could be found walking all the way into the very heart of Europe, then what would happen with refugee flows involving a billion people? Surely any destabilisation of China (from which Australia has otherwise benefited tremendously) would be contrary to Australia’s interests.
So in such an unavoidably changing world, I could conceivably live with the Dalai Lama being refused entry into Australia and with Falun Gong having its freedom restricted (as some suggest should be the case with Hizb ut-Tahrir). Doing so is better than nuclear war or uncontrolled refugee flows. One thing about change is that it is constant, so it is better to adapt to it rather than engaging in a futile quest to resist it.
With the US most likely ceding the region to China after concluding that it is not worth losing any of its major cities over some atoll in the South China Sea or some uninhabited island in the East China Sea, Australia will have to learn to fend for itself. Clearly, given Australia’s small population while simultaneously making sovereign claims over vast areas (including in Antarctica), the only option is for Australia to obtain an independent nuclear deterrent. Were America to withdraw from the region (as it is progressively doing anyway), Japan and South Korea could be expected to gain their own independent nuclear deterrents in a jiffy. Australia could prepare for this contingency by purchasing off the shelf Virginia-class submarines, which could always be fitted down the track with nuclear-tipped submarine-launched cruise missiles.
The nuclear option could also be sold to the Greens, and the left in general, as the Swiss option. Australia’s wars have been largely fought as insurance premiums for the security thereby obtained from a big protector like America. But were Australia no longer in need of such a big protector, then there would be no need to blindly follow America into all her various wars, which ought to make progressives sit up and think. Switzerland, having the natural protection of its mountains, has not been in a war for a few centuries. Imagine the prospect of Australia not being involved in any wars for the next few centuries!
The times they are a-changin’. Australia would, of course, prefer for a continuation of the status quo, where America is the undisputed hegemon that helps ensure regional security. But America is unlikely to be willing to go to war with China to ensure this status quo, and so Australia has to adapt to this change in circumstances. Australia must prepare to go nuclear.
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