air-sea battle

The rise of China has returned to prominence Thucydides' explanation of the epochal Peloponnesian War: 'It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable.' This warning seems to be borne out by historical analysis, which apparently indicates that there's a 75% chance of war as China replaces America in the global pecking order. China's assertive new Air Defence Identification Zone and its nine-dash line claims appear to support such fears.

In response, a new and influential cottage industry has arisen examining how America and its close allies might fight China, with the debate oscillating between concepts known as 'air-sea battle', 'offshore control' and 'blockade'. What's behind these concepts, and what do they mean for Australia?

Air-sea battle came first and defined the genre's boundaries. The concept was first publicly advocated by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) think tank, was endorsed in the 2010 Quadrenial Defense Review and is now run out of a special Pentagon Office. It has progressively become the modern way the US plans to undertake power projection from the global commons.

In terms of waging a China war, this CSBA paper remains the clearest exposition of air-sea battle. The war is envisaged beginning with a Chinese attack on US and allied forces deployed across the island chains around China. In response, China's intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems would be blinded, allowing a vigorous counter-attack against the country's conventional strike forces, including those on the Chinese mainland.  After this, a blockade of Chinese international trade and a protracted war of long-range strikes would grind the Chinese economy and military down.

Offshore control and blockade both build from insightful critiques of air-sea battle and reflect some differences of opinion both inside and outside official circles.

Offshore control was originally proposed by TX Hammes from the US National Defense University. His 2012 concept emphasises a distant blockade while ruling out strikes on mainland China both to make war termination easier and to avoid nuclear war.  A variation on this theme suggested by USN Reservist Victor L Vescovo, is published in this month’s US Naval Proceedings and employs a close blockade.

Some see Australian forces – particularly the submarine force — potentially being involved in implementing such concepts should a China war occur.  Others are convinced that such involvement has already been examined by government.

All three concepts seek to deter China from using military force by threatening punishment and denying success. They try to influence the Chinese leadership mainly through preying on perceived worries that disrupting international trade will destabilise the country, cost the Communist Party legitimacy and perhaps lead to regime change. 

This seems reasonable. China is the world's largest trading country, while the Party's ongoing actions to enforce domestic political order suggests deep insecurities. However, all three concepts of a US-China conflict have problems.

Firstly, such a conflict would be protracted. All agree it would be a long, costly war of exhaustion for all concerned. 

Secondly, the role of neutrals in reducing the impact of a blockade on China is neglected. Blockades distort the global economy and there are great riches to be made by running them. China has more land borders than any other country and some neighbours may find it worthwhile to provide supplies or act as import hubs. Would Vietnam, Myanmar, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia and others then be blockaded also? Moreover, how would such blockades stop neutral flag shipping from replacing Chinese trading vessels? There are many issues involved

Thirdly, while the Party leadership may be the target, those that both supply China and receive Chinese exports may be unintended victims. Resource-rich nations will be unable to make money from trading with China, the world's consumers will be denied the many goods China produces and nations that export components to China for inclusion in completed consumer goods will be badly affected. The current global trading system, with its complex interdependencies and integrated global supply chains, will be shattered and take years to rebuild.

Fourthly, the global financial system will be disrupted, and not simply by the withdrawal of one of the world's biggest creditor nations. Many countries that trade with China will suffer significant declines in their national income, raising doubts about their ability to repay loans or buy goods from their other trading partners. The banks that made these loans will then also be at risk and the danger of systemic collapse will be high. In Australia's case, exports to China are valued at about 7% of GDP. Imagine that income vanishing overnight, but not our debts.

Well, all that might sound apocalyptic but we've been here before. The world before the Great War was highly globalised as well. A China war waged according to the three concepts examined would simply shatter our existing pattern of globalisation and a new one would arise. Quite so, but with some real pain.

Just before World War I there was a significant financial system meltdown as bankers realised what was about to happen and panicked. Stock and financial markets closed and did not reopen for almost five months. Over time, solvent nations became insolvent, neutral nations such as Holland, Denmark and the US made extraordinary profits in running the British blockade and countries moved sharply towards self sufficiency and autarky. 

For Australia, the results were dire. It had become rich through close integration in the global trading system. It now had to remake itself in a de-globalising world and fight a protracted war. During World War I, Australia's GDP declined almost 10% while per capita income fell 16%. In the modern era, with deeper globalisation, the impact may well be markedly worse. 

Waging air-sea battle, offshore control, and blockade will all make Australia noticeably poorer. Better buy Joint Strike Fighters and submarines now while we can afford them! 

More seriously, the three war concepts need a serious rethink. Destroying the global trading and financial system may not be their intention but it is their basis. The three concepts aim to favourably influence Chinese decision-makers, but maybe we should think about less-suicidal ways of doing that. 

Photo by Flickr user Sacha Grant.