The Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said, we are living in a poorer and more dangerous world.
The coronavirus crisis has brought into sharper focus our global vulnerability and volatility, yet the warning signs were there well before this.
Australia has lost its 28 years of growth for coronavirus pandemic.
A decade ago, then Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd outlined what he saw as the looming threat of conflict with China.
“The pace, scope and structure of China’s military modernisation have the potential to give its neighbours cause for concern,” the Rudd government’s 2009 Defence White Paper noted.
Australia will always choose the US
Australia is now waking from a lost decade. Scott Morrison has only now returned us to where we were under Rudd.
Australia has always believed it would never have to choose between its strategic alliance with the United States and its biggest trading relationship with China.
That has always been a fallacy: of course we would choose the US, we are bound by values and security.
That does not mean making an enemy of China. But that, too, may be out of our hands.
When it comes to war, Asia is a tinderbox
Are we sleepwalking to war again? In his book Destined for War, Graham Allison wrote that conflict is “not just possible, but much more likely than currently recognised”.
Morrison is rightly cautious with his language, not wanting to unnecessarily alarm or antagonise China.
But increasing Australia’s military spending is clearly an acknowledgment of the China challenge. If a global war was to erupt today, it would likely start in our region. Much of Asia is a tinderbox.
Historian Michael Auslan has identified war and economic stagnation as the two biggest risks to what has been called “the Asia century”.
The Asia-Pacific is the most militarised region in the world. It’s home to some of the world’s largest armies, technologically advanced fighting machines, nuclear armed states and added to that, a massive American military presence.
Added to the military muscle is an incendiary mix of history: old bitter enmities, existential stand-offs, and a fierce competition for scarce resources.
Australia could be tripped into wider conflict
Much of these simmering tensions coalesce around territorial disputes, notably the Diaoyu-Senkaku islands claimed by Japan and China and the islands of the South China Sea.
In recent weeks we have seen Chinese and Indian troops clash along their disputed border. Any of these disputes could rapidly escalate, tripping us all into a wider conflict.
Right now, military strategists in Beijing and Washington are preparing for just an eventuality. And we know what that could look like.
In 2015, Global think tank the Rand Corporation prepared a report for the American military, and its title could not have been more direct: War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable.
It concluded that China would suffer greater casualties than the US if war was to break out now.
However, it cautioned, that as China’s military muscle increased, so would the prospect of a prolonged destructive war.
War is no longer unthinkable
China is building a military to fight that war. It has increased its defence spending seven-fold over the past 20 years. It now officially spends around $180 billion a year on its military, but analysts believe the real figure is much higher.
It is focusing on its maritime power, building a blue water navy, submarines and missiles. It is pursuing what is known anti-access/area denial (A2/AD), an air, land and sea strategy to tie up and slow down advancing enemy forces.
The US is still much more powerful than China and spends more than $700 billion a year on defence. But it’s also much more stretched, committing troops and fighting conflicts around the world, while China focuses on the home front.
China’s leader Xi Jinping has warned that conflict between China and the US “would lead to disaster for both countries and the world at large”. But war is no longer unthinkable, and Australia is arming itself.
As the old adage goes: “If you want peace, prepare for war.”
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