US-China rivalry: The role of Australia

Should Australia join the United States in a war against China to prevent China taking the US’s place as the dominant power in East Asia? Until a few years ago the question would have seemed merely hypothetical, but not anymore.

Senior figures in the Morrison government quite explicitly acknowledged that the escalating strategic rivalry between the US and China could lead to war, and their Labor successors do not seem to disagree. That is surely correct. Neither Washington nor Beijing want war but both seem willing to accept it rather than abandon their primary objectives.

There can be no doubt that if war comes, Washington would expect Australia to fight alongside it. Many in Canberra take it for granted that we would do so, and defence policy has shifted accordingly. Our armed forces are now being designed primarily to contribute to US-led operations in a major maritime war with China in the Western Pacific, with the aim of helping the United States to deter China from challenging the US, or helping to defeat it if deterrence fails.

In fact, the risk of war is probably higher than the government realises, because China is harder to deter than they understand.

The biggest war since WWII

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If war comes, Australians would face a truly momentous choice. Any choice to go to war carries special weight, because the costs and risks that must be weighed against the potential benefits are qualitatively different from those involved in other policy choices. A nation’s leaders must decide whether those exceptional costs and risks are justified by the objectives for which the war is fought.

That is a big responsibility even for the relatively small wars which Australia has joined in recent decades in Iraq and Afghanistan. But a war with China would be nothing like those. Once fighting began, there would be little chance of avoiding a major war, because the stakes for both sides are very high, and both have large forces ready for battle.

This would be the first serious war between two “great powers” since 1945, and the first ever between nuclear-armed states. It would probably become the biggest and worst war since the second world war.

If it goes nuclear, which is quite probable, it could be the worst war ever. A decision to fight in that war would be as serious as the decisions to fight in 1914 and 1939, which were arguably the most important decisions Australian governments have ever made.

It is important to be clear what the decision would be about. If war comes, it will be sparked by a dispute between the United States and China over something like Taiwan or the South China Sea.

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But the specific dispute would not be the reason we would go to war with China, any more than we went to war in 1914 over the fate of Belgium or in 1939 over the fate of Poland. On both occasions the decision for war was driven by our concern to help prevent a defeat in Europe which would destroy British power in Asia, which we then relied on for our security.

We would go to war with China to preserve the US strategic position in Asia on which we depend for our security. That is not quite the same as saying that we would fight to preserve our alliance with the US. Many people assume that that would be our primary objective, because the US might abandon its commitments to us if we failed to support it.

But Washington’s disappointment with us does not threaten our US alliance nearly as gravely as Washington’s defeat by China. As long as they have strategic ambitions in Asia, Washington will have good reasons to help defend Australia. What would destroy the alliance would be American defeat and withdrawal from Asia.

Australia would be profoundly affected by a US–China war whether we joined the fighting or not. That might tempt some to think that our decision didn’t matter much one way or the other.

That obviously overlooks the consequences for those who actually serve, and the possibility that Australia itself could be targeted. But more importantly, it overlooks the possibility that Australia’s decisions would influence decisions elsewhere – including in Washington.

Recent scholarship has highlighted the remarkable weight given to Australia’s attitudes by British policymakers in the crises of 1914 and 1938–39. Douglas Newton has shown how, at a critical moment, Britain’s choice for war in 1914 was nudged by Australia’s eager support, while David Lee and David Bird have shown the influence of Stanley Bruce and Joseph Lyons on Britain’s innermost councils in 1938 and 1939.

The possibility that Australia’s choices might help to shape the ultimate decisions for war or peace in Asia over the years ahead make it all the more important that we weigh those decisions carefully.

Choices for war are profoundly shaped by historical analogy. Often this is the primary driver of a decision, in part because there is so little else to go on – nothing like the kind of data that can guide decisions on, say, tax policy or health policy.

We decide whether to go to war or not largely by looking at what our predecessors did in previous crises. Much depends, then, on which earlier crises we choose to consider, on how well we understand them, and on how closely yesterday’s crisis resembles today’s.

As Australia considers whether to join a US-China war, it is natural and prudent to look for guidance to the two previous occasions when we have faced comparably serious choices: 1914 and 1939. When we do this, we find an acute contrast between the way these two choices are now understood.

Two world wars, two lessons

Today, no one seriously doubts that we – Australia and its allies in the British Empire – were right to go to war in 1939 against Nazi Germany, nor that we were wrong not to go to war over the Czech crisis of 1938.

This was also the seemingly universal view of those who lived and fought through the war. In 1961 the historian A.J.P. Taylor noted how little interest there was in contesting the accepted view of these momentous decisions. The same is true today. The second world war is seen as a war that had to be fought.

The contrast with 1914 could hardly be starker. No one today seems seriously to doubt that the first world war should not have been fought. Again, today’s judgment matches the verdict of those who lived and fought through the war itself.

Source: The Conversation


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