In The Australian Monday newspaper Hugh White gave us a picture of democratic defeat in the face of overwhelming Chinese dominance should war break out in Taiwan.
“Going to war with China,” he says, “is more likely to destroy the US leadership.” The chances of a nuclear war are “very high” and “the chances that America will win such a war are very slim”.
White goes on to say that “America’s dwindling chances of winning” are so great that it is “all the more likely that the Chinese will provoke a crisis, to use America’s bluff.”
Given these dire prospects of defeat, what should we do? We should, according to White, weigh up whether an “imperative to support democracy against authoritarianism” is worthwhile. “There is an imperative to avoid war” because “the cost of war would likely be much higher than the cost of living under a new Chinese-led regional order”.
Given what we know about Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Leninist authoritarianism as it is being used in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet and indeed against all mainland Chinese, this would be a bleak future.
What would Australian life be like in a region dominated by communist China? Look no further than the infamous 14-point complaint list given to Australian journalists by Chinese officials last year.
This would be a world where the Australian media couldn’t write critically about Xi’s rule, where the Australian Strategic Policy Institute would be closed for being “anti-China” and where China’s control of our 5G network would be limitless or other critical infrastructure.
Australia’s “incessant, wanton interference” would not be tolerated in Beijing’s human rights abuses, the crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong, the annexation of the South China Sea and military threats against Taiwan.
Last weekend, China’s acting ambassador to Canberra, Wang Xining, claimed that the complaint list was a media invention. He said The guard‘The list should be longer than 14 points.’ Everything is, of course, Australia’s fault.
But that doesn’t have to be our future. White is fundamentally wrong about China, the US, the region, and the balance of military power – and he’s wrong about Australia too. Here are eight reasons for that.
First, the US is not leaving the Asia-Pacific region. Presidents Barack Obama and Joe Biden (and in different ways Donald Trump) are prioritizing the region. The US economy is still the largest in the world. China’s lead in purchasing power parity is no indication of its ability to create hard power.
America’s innovation ability and young demographics remain core strengths at a time when China has the prospect of getting old before it gets rich.
Second, the US military remains strategically dominant in all respects. This is why China is so focused on stealing intellectual property from the US and allied defense. Yes, China has a geographic advantage over Taiwan, which is only 160 kilometers away, but that advantage would be quickly blunted in a conflict, and China knows it.
Third, don’t let clever parades fool you. The People’s Liberation Army is growing rapidly but is still a second tier military. Chinese military magazines focus on shortcomings in everything from stealth to jet engines to leadership failures and a lack of operational experience.
Here is an example. Earlier this year the screaming Chinese Communist Party took control Global times reported mental health problems among submariners: “21.1 percent of submariners had various degrees of mental health problems, including anxiety, phobic anxiety and paranoid ideas”.
Happily, the newspaper reported that “the People’s Liberation Army not only arranged medical workers for the mental health of the soldiers, but also took care of the mental health of the soldiers during their daily political work, which is an advantage of the Chinese system.”
That’s right, even in action, submarines spend hours every day studying the thoughts of Xi Jinping under the direction of a party commissioner. The PLA still has a long way to go to achieve the capabilities, flexibility, innovation and training of world class armed forces like those of the US and Australia.
That leads to the fourth reason why white is wrong. He says allies are not important: “Whether Australia or even Japan joins the fight makes no difference.” But the combined weight of democracies clearly outweighs China, which has no real allies, save for crazy “little brother” North Korea and a somewhat suspicious Russia.
Xi’s attack on AUKUS in a speech to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on Monday shows that China is being shaken by the ability of the democracies to form alliances. However, given China’s rapidly growing nuclear arsenal, it is unlikely that ASEAN will accept Xi’s pretext to support a nuclear-weapon-free zone.
Fifth, deterrence has worked so far. China is so extremely reluctant when it comes to confronting US power that it is using all its resources to act in what is known as the gray area – and see how much it can get away with without provoking reactions. Crossing the line into a conventional conflict will be a new and demanding step for Beijing.
Point six: China is confronted with deep structural weaknesses in its economy and is burdened with a repressive and corrupt political hierarchy and a population that is forced to grumpy adjustment.
The CCP’s overwhelming focus is on being in control. It lives in fear of the country’s own people. Xi is riding a dangerous nationalist wave that may support him through Taiwan but could just as easily implode on the party.
Point seven, Xi is 68. He will not be there forever and could ultimately be held responsible for political mistakes, such as the diplomatic nonsense of the wolf warriors that has lost so many friends to China.
Finally, point eight: Australia is not useless. We have the ability to shape politics and win international support, and that’s exactly why China wants to punish us for rejecting its 5G technology and calling for Covid-19. If we are agile enough, we can strengthen our military, strengthen regional deterrence, and form a coalition of friends and allies to drive China back.
None of this is easy, and Hugh White is right to be concerned about the cost of conflict, but we don’t have to surrender. We need self-confidence, a little courage and the willingness to stand up for what defines our country and our way of life.