Will Australia support the US in a war between Taiwan and China? Ask the military chiefs, not our political leaders

Strange days are these. We’re living at a time when finding out what’s actually going on in this fast-changing world means you may be better off listening to military chiefs than political leaders.

General Mark Milley, America’s highest-ranking military officer, and Angus Houston, the former head of the Australian Defence Force, offer two recent examples.

Both addressed what many politicians think but don’t verbalise: Both were speaking about the dramatic rise of China.

General Milley addressed questions about whether Australia would join the US in any war with China.

When he was interviewed on ABC’s 7.30, host Sarah Ferguson asked General Milley how much damage could be done to the US-Australia alliance if Australia said ‘No’ to the US in the event of a war in Asia.

“The United States and Australia have been key allies ever since World War I, so well over 100 years and we’ve been shoulder to shoulder, and I think both of our countries share similar values,” General Milley replied.

“We have similar outlooks and we have similar policies. So, I would think that, if something occurred in the future, Australia and the United States would still be shoulder to shoulder.”

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.

US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley speaks to 7.30.(Sarah Ferguson)

This statement is as important as it is clear: Australia’s strategic situation has changed dramatically. Our biggest customer is now also viewed as our biggest threat. China’s muscle-flexing around Taiwan last week only convinced the powerbrokers in Canberra that a war involving Taiwan is now a genuine possibility.

Chinese Ambassador Xiao Qian’s appearance at the National Press Club last week confirmed that view: He arrived in a suit and a velvet glove, then displayed the iron fist underneath.

Ambassador Qian’s address was carefully modulated. It began with words of conciliation — using terms such as “hospitality”, “friendly”, “co-operative” to describe Australia — but it ended with a clear message about Taiwan, stating: “There’s no room for compromise.”

China’s port strategy

China is building, buying and offering credit to many developing nations, including in the Pacific, with an apparently insatiable desire to acquire infrastructure.

A Four Corners investigation recently demonstrated that China is omnipresent in Solomon Islands.

Reporter Angus Grigg noted China’s presence everywhere in the capital, Honiara, from the imposing Chinese Embassy to the massive sports stadium.

Even the city’s garbage trucks belong to Brand Communist Party of China.

Port facilities, particularly deep-water ports such as those available in Solomon Islands and Sri Lanka, are among Beijing’s favourite infrastructure investments.

In Australia, a Chinese company has a 99-year-lease on Darwin Port.

China has a 99-year lease on Darwin Port.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

China argues that, as the world’s most active manufacturer and trader, ports are crucial to its business model.

Its critics argue that, while ports are unquestionably convenient for a trading behemoth, the strategic long-term objective is to set up a port network that also benefits its navy.

For those sceptical of China’s motives, Darwin Port remains at the lower end of the spectrum of concern.

Senior defence and intelligence figures in Canberra argue that, in the event of hostilities, Australia could retake control of Darwin Port and prevent Chinese ships from entering.

However, the situation in the Solomons is trickier: Australia would need to convince the leadership in Honiara to close its port to Chinese ships.

For India, it is the Chinese-built Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka that is of most concern.

It’s geography offers strategic benefits to Chinese ships were they to attempt to control significant portions of India’s east and west coasts.

What does it mean to be a US ally?

The Australian Defence Force has recently announced a defence strategic review to examine the risk of “state-on-state conflict”, which Angus Houston has called “the worst I have ever seen in my career and my lifetime”.

“It’s a fast-changing environment and it’s absolutely imperative that we review the current strategic circumstances,” he said.

The military rise of China is no secret but repeated displays of Chinese planes bombing imaginary ships around Taiwan, Japan and South Korea confirms that we now live in an unstable neighbourhood.

General Milley could not have been clearer in sharing the US view: “Shoulder to shoulder” doesn’t mean we give a strong speech at the UN General Assembly.

It doesn’t mean our Prime Minister says “we support Washington’s action and condemn Beijing’s aggression”. It doesn’t mean a photo opportunity for Penny Wong with her US counterpart.

It means military support.

The Albanese government appears to have stepped back from the harder rhetoric of the Morrison government, reflected in Liberal leader Peter Dutton’s statement that it would be “inconceivable” for Australia not to support the US in the event of a war over Taiwan.

No serious player is suggesting that Australia walks away from its alliance with the US but there is room for debate about what being “a loyal ally” means.

The questions we should ask

If we are at war with China, then China is at war with us. What does that mean?

As part of my research for this column, I asked long-time defence analyst Clinton Fernandes, one of the best-read and most-experienced military strategists in the country, for his view.

This is what Professor Fernandes said:

Q: Will Anthony Albanese’s government change Australia’s position on joining the US in any war with China, or will it remain as it was under the Coalition government?

A: Peter Dutton was more up-front and candid with the Australian public than Richard Marles, who is running the same program as Dutton but without the rhetoric.

Specifically, the program involves dropping sonobuoys (floating microphones with radio transmitters) to identify the acoustic signatures of Chinese submarines and allow US hunter-killer submarines to attack them at the outbreak of hostilities.

The fiction is that this is about “freedom of navigation”. It is not. It is about supporting the US’s wish to conduct reconnaissance, intelligence, surveillance, targeting and other military activities in any exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the world. International law is silent on whether this is legal. Australia and the US say it is. China says it isn’t.

Many countries that oppose China on other issues happen to agree with it on this issue. For example, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brazil, Argentina and others take the view that warships have no automatic right of innocent passage in their territorial seas.

Q: Would that make Australia a target of the Chinese?

A: An Australian aircraft or ship in the South China Sea, possibly. Not the Australian landmass.

Q: What would being a target of the Chinese military mean for Australia?

A: We could lose a vessel with everyone on board. This could be followed by a massive social fracture in Australia. There would also be massive economic disruption to trade in the Western Pacific, since 95 per cent of Chinese trade is seaborne. The effect on global supply chains would be catastrophic.

Q: Do Australians understand what supporting the US in any conflict with China could mean?

A: Absolutely not. Inconvenient facts are not censored but are buried all the same. In principle, they are discoverable but, in reality, they are out of the public’s awareness because, without regular repetition, no one understands or remembers them. Remember that the sonobuoys/EEZ matter is not even debated in parliament.

Q: Do you expect there will be a war between the US and China in the next 10 years?

A: A clash involving a Chinese aircraft intercepting an Australian aircraft while it’s dropping sonobuoys, yes. Then it might escalate.

Q: To reduce the chance of being involved in a military conflict with China over Taiwan, what should the new federal government do?

A: Come clean with the Australian public. Tell them what we’re really doing and that China does not take a benign view of its encirclement by the US Indo-Pacific Command and Australia. Tell the public that many other countries that are otherwise friendly to Australia do not agree with us or with the US about EEZ militarisation. Let parliament vote on whether we should be conducting these activities. Perhaps the public will agree with the policy — but that has clearly not been tested.

Some confronting and challenging analysis by Professor Fernandes.

These are the sorts of questions — and answers — Australia needs to start discussing more openly.

As a nation, we must not sleepwalk into a war — particularly a war with China.

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