Don’t let the China hawks frighten you

Don’t let the China hawks frighten you

China will become more powerful -- but any hostile reach towards Australia will always be limited by technology and regional politics. Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

When planning for the security of our nation, it pays to assume the worst.

While China faces enormous problems – low birth rates, environmental degradation, high debt – it takes an awful lot to knock such a big country off its historical course. Even a catastrophe such as a major war, a natural disaster or a demographic crisis may not do it.

The United States went through a great depression and several recessions, two world wars, a Cold War, and several major regional wars, yet to this day it remains clearly the biggest and most powerful nation on earth.

So, Australia should assume that China’s problems are manageable and that it will eventually become indisputably the biggest economy in the world and eventually the most capable military power in Asia, simply because its population is enormous, and it still has so much unrealised potential.

Australia therefore faces a future unlike anything it has faced before because the leading power in our region will no longer be our ally. But does that justify the dark warnings we hear from government and hawkish security commentators about Australia’s vulnerability? Will China’s national power become so great that Australia won’t be able to resist it? It doesn’t look that way.

We already have evidence from the past two years about the limits of China’s ability to coerce Australia economically. That campaign, which has seen tariffs and other measures imposed against Australian exporters, has clearly failed. Rather than backing down under pressure, Australia has further stiffened its policies since these trade measures were put in place. China’s reputation has also been damaged, and our economy has passed through the storm. In fact, we survived a much greater economic test in the form of COVID-19, and so far, our economy has shown itself to be remarkably resilient. The lesson Beijing should take is that it is difficult to coerce Australia economically because we are well protected from even deep shocks.

Everywhere China looks around Asia, its ambitions are constrained by other great powers.

Just as there are limits on the economic pain China can inflict on Australia, so it is with military force. China has made enormous strides in military technology. I have been following the People’s Liberation Army’s technological progress for more than 20 years, first as an intelligence analyst and then at the Lowy Institute. Its progress has been stunning. Since the end of World War II, the world has seen nothing like the speed and quality of modernisation that we see in China’s naval, air, space and cyber forces.

Yet, China has not overcome the limits of physics and engineering. The longer the distance over which a nation wants to project military power, the more difficult and expensive it becomes. Australia’s China hawks are apt to forget that over 4000 kilometres separates Darwin from China’s southern fleet headquarters in Zhanjiang. Yes, China has bases on its new artificial islands in the South China Sea now, and its long-range ballistic and cruise missiles can hit targets in northern Australia with enormous accuracy. But those missiles only carry a single high-explosive warhead, or perhaps many smaller sub-munitions. It’s a hugely costly way to deliver not very much force. For sustained military operations, China would need either military bases much closer to Australia, which is a distant prospect, or it would need to sail a fleet towards our shores.

Even for the modernised PLA Navy, that kind of capability is not yet within sight. The Australian’s foreign editor, Greg Sheridan, recently wrote that the 200 stealthy Long-Range Anti-Ship Missiles the government has ordered is a “pitiful” number. But what kind of Chinese fleet does he imagine Australia would need to face? Certainly a bigger and better-equipped one than China has now.

Yes, we should assume that China’s navy will eventually develop much more capable long-range power projection forces, but even then, distance will remain our friend. To sustain military operations over such vast seas requires enormous resources. China could sail its two aircraft carriers toward Australia, plus many escorting destroyers and submarines, but it couldn’t keep such ships replenished and ready to fight indefinitely, and it couldn’t replace them if they needed repair.

Moreover, it’s hard to think of circumstances in which China would devote all its key naval resources to a fight with Australia. Everywhere China looks around Asia, its ambitions are constrained by other great powers: India, Russia, Japan, and the United States. Its relations with those powers will never be stable and friendly enough for it to ignore them as security threats in order to focus its military power on far-away Australia.

Granted, Australia’s security problems will get harder as China grows. But it remains a manageable problem, especially if Australia continues to get bigger also. A growing population is good for Australia in many ways, but it is also a key determinant of Australia’s ability to manage the risks of a more powerful China.

Areas of expertise: Australian foreign and defence policy, China’s military forces, US defence and foreign policy, drones and other military technology. Also, trends in global democracy.