The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) published a two-part series on February 20-21 entitled “What would war with China look like for Australia?” It highlighted the growing fears in some ruling circles over the disastrous consequences of a US-led war with China amid the increasingly belligerent stance of Washington.
The article is based on interviews with, as the ABC described them, “four of Australia’s most experienced military strategists.” All hold “the highest security clearances that it’s possible to have” and “have been involved in sensitive military operations.”
The four are: Professor Hugh White, former deputy secretary for strategy and intelligence in the Department of Defence; Admiral Chris Barrie, defence force chief from 1998 to 2002; Allan Behm, former head of the International Policy and Strategy Divisions of the Defence Department; and Professor Clinton Fernandes, a former military intelligence officer.
None of them is in any sense anti-war or anti-imperialist. They represent a dissident faction of the ruling class deeply concerned about the economic and political implications for Australian imperialism of any involvement in a US-led war against its largest trading partner, China, with some advocating a more independent Australian foreign policy.
The fact that the state-owned national broadcaster has brought them together is striking confirmation that the time-line for US conflict with China is growing ever shorter. Under Trump and now Biden, the US has deliberately inflamed the most dangerous flashpoint in Asia—Taiwan—calling into question in ever-more open fashion the One China policy that has underpinned US-China relations since 1979.
As the ABC explained, the analysts interviewed are all “watching with great interest as the drums of war beat in some quarters regarding a possible war with China.” US war planning is far more advanced than that statement would suggest—as the four would know. In a leaked internal memo earlier this month, US four-star Air Force General Michael Minahan said he had a gut feeling the US would be at war with China over Taiwan in 2025. His memo, the first of many, ordered his commanders to make detailed preparations.
The ABC pointed out: “Australians could wake up one morning to the news that we are at war with China. Confronting as that would be, perhaps more confronting is something many people do not realise: such a decision would not require any consultation in parliament. The decision to go to war would not require a public discussion. It would not require the assent of the Governor General and is entirely in the hands of the prime minister of the day.”
Admiral Barrie made the starkest of warnings about a conflict with China. “The consequences for us would be very serious in terms of the Australian economy, the impact on the Australian people and the ravages to our way of life throughout the land,” he told the ABC.
Unlike the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Barrie continued, that affected only the members deployed into the conflict and their families, a war with China would have an impact on all Australians. “Economically, financially and personally it is likely to impoverish us all; it may even kill most of us if it goes nuclear,” he said.
Hugh White pointed that a conflict with China would be devastating for Australia whether it joined or not. “Our economy would be paralysed as all trade with China and other major East Asian partners would stop dead and may not resume for a long time. If we joined the fight, or allowed US forces involved to operate from bases here, then there would be a clear chance that Australia would face direct attack from Chinese long-range forces.”
In reality, Australia would be involved in any US war with China from the outset. Over the past decade, Australian military forces and bases have been closely integrated into US plans for war with China. US Marines, warships and military aircraft, including nuclear-capable B-52 bombers, routinely “rotate” through northern Australia. Australia is a partner in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with the US, Japan and India, as well as the AUKUS pact with Britain and the US that will provide Australia with nuclear-powered attack submarines. The Pine Gap base in central Australia is indispensable to the US military’s intelligence-gathering, communications and targeting throughout Asia.
Asked what the US would require of the Australian military in a war with China, White declared: “US forces would be fully committed to the maximum of their capacity, and they would expect and indeed demand the same of us.” Asked about likely casualties, he concluded: “There would thus be a high chance that involvement in a war with China would swiftly exceed the toll in casualties suffered in Vietnam and Korea.”
Australian imperialism’s dependence on the US
Of the four analysts, Allan Behm was the most openly critical of Australian involvement in US past wars. “Australia is never reluctant to support and participate in American adventurism. Korea was an unnecessary war, as were the conflicts in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Vietnam and Iraq were illegal wars, with the US Administration(s) lying to their citizens and their allies about the strategic necessity and the morality of the use of armed force,” he told the ABC.
“Australia has a fundamental strategic pathology—to support the interests of the US at the expense of our own. A war with China over Taiwan, awful as that would be, involves no Australian national interests.” Behm criticised Liberal-National opposition leader Peter Dutton and Labor’s defence minister Richard Marles for adopting the default position of “all the way with the USA” wherever and whenever.
What Behm declared to be “fundamental strategic pathology” is not, however, the product of wrong-thinking individuals, much less a national character flaw, but stems from the objective weakness of Australian imperialism, a middle-order power. It has always relied on the major imperialist power—first Britain, then the US since the middle of World War II—to prosecute its economic and strategic interests in the region and internationally.
Those like Behm advocating a more independent Australian foreign and military policy have been largely marginalised precisely because, as far as the dominant sections of the ruling class are concerned, it is a pipe dream. What is looming is not simply a US-China tussle over Taiwan but a far broader global conflict involving nuclear-armed powers—the opening shots of which already have been fired in Europe.
Washington regards its war with Russia in Ukraine as the prelude to a war with China, which it openly declares is the major danger to its global hegemony. Just as it has goaded Russia into a debilitating war in Ukraine, so the US is baiting China to attack Taiwan. The object of this utterly reckless policy is the same in each case—to undermine, destabilise, break up and ultimately subordinate both countries to US interests.
Significantly, none of the four analysts has a word to say about the Ukraine war or Australia’s involvement, despite its implications for a war in Asia. For all his denunciations of other US wars, Behm’s reaction to the eruption of the conflict in Ukraine was not critical of Washington or its predatory aims. Rather he insisted that the Australian government should take no part and focus its military efforts in Asia.
Much of the ABC articles is narrowly focussed on whether the US would win a war with China over Taiwan. After weighing up relative military strengths, the geography and possible Chinese strategies—Clinton Fernandes devotes his comments to the likelihood of a Chinese blockade rather than invasion of the island—all four conclude the outcome would either be a stalemate or a US loss.