China Games

The US–Australia Alliance and the escalation of risk

Less than twenty-four hours after the United States said it would begin withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan, Prime Minister Morrison announced Australian troops would be withdrawn as well. The timing shows the overriding importance of US priorities for Australia’s mission in Afghanistan—its length, and its futility. Nothing better illustrates this relationship than the case of Mr Hekmatullah, the Afghan Army sergeant who murdered three Australian soldiers in August 2012. Instead of receiving the death penalty, he recently joined the Taliban delegation in Qatar. The United States did not block his early release from prison. Last year, Hugh Poate, father of one of the murdered Australian soldiers, said the US practice of ‘pandering to the wishes of a terrorist group’ rather than respecting ‘the sacrifice of soldiers and families of its longstanding ally’ was ‘a damning indictment of the Australian–American “alliance”’.1 

Australia’s longest war thus ends with the prospect of the Taliban returning to power, and the likelihood that even elements of the Afghanistan government we have backed for so long will order the killing of foreign troops in the final months to demonstrate their nationalist credentials. Meanwhile, the ship of state sails on, this time to the Taiwan Strait. The Australian government has sharply escalated its internal preparations in anticipation of a potential conflict there,2 and Australia may well be asked to contribute its submarines, air warfare destroyers, maritime surveillance aircraft, air-to-air refuellers, Super Hornet fighters and some Australian Army elements as part of a US-led force. 

Australia has been in a crisis involving Taiwan before. In the 1950s, Taiwanese forces used several small islands in the Taiwan Strait to harass mainland China and its nearby shipping lanes. In September 1954, Chinese coastal artillery heavily shelled one of these islands, and Taiwan responded with air raids against the mainland. The US Seventh Fleet was deployed to the strait, ready to go into battle against China. The United States’ war-fighting plan involved the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons against military targets in China. 

The ANZUS Treaty did not require an Australian military commitment at that time, but Australian policy-makers would have found it almost impossible to refuse an American request for military assistance. The external affairs minister at the time, Richard Casey, wanted to accept the fact of communist control in China, and to convince the United States that it should do so too. But his efforts were in vain. Although the Australian government did not place a high value on the offshore islands, and was in fact anxious to avoid hostilities over them, it ‘held back, reluctant to put the strength of the alliance to the test’, according to Philip Dorling’s scholarly study of the crisis.3 The ‘consultative machinery of the ANZUS alliance played little part’, Dorling concludes, but it ‘drew Australia and New Zealand to the brink of an unnecessary and potentially disastrous conflict’.4 

It’s doubtful that China will actually invade Taiwan in the immediate future. It is more likely to wait until after the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, then apply pressure on Taiwan in the lead-up to Taiwan’s 2024 presidential elections. The pressure could take the form of blockading the Kinmen Islands, which are much closer to the mainland than to Taiwan. The United States would be unlikely to go to war over them, and Beijing would have conveyed its message to Taiwan: don’t think about independence, because your allies won’t protect you if you do. The aim would be to coerce Taiwan to come to an accommodation: deeper economic integration with Beijing while enjoying a considerable level of political autonomy.  

But there is a danger of miscalculation and matters getting out of control in the present context. Today, the most geopolitically sensitive area in the world, invisible to the naked eye, is the Bashi Channel. It lies more than 2 kilometres underwater between southern Taiwan and the northern Philippines.5 It is the only undersea passage for submarines seeking to leave the South China Sea and enter the western Pacific Ocean. Three days after President Joe Biden’s inauguration, a US naval strike group passed through the channel and entered the South China Sea. It was an impressive display of military power: the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt with nine aircraft squadrons, a guided-missile cruiser and two guided-missile destroyers.6 Biden was the first US president to invite a Taiwanese ambassador to a presidential inauguration.

China responded to the US presence in the Bashi Channel by sending Su-30 and J-16 fighter aircraft and Xian H-6 bombers into the area, where they simulated missile attacks on the US vessels. Although they remained more than 250 nautical miles from the US group, pilots in the flexible, powerful H-6 bombers could be heard confirming orders for the simulated targeting and release of anti-ship missiles.7 Variants of the H-6 bomber can fire the new anti-ship air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM) against US carrier battlegroups 1500 kilometres away, as well as a short-range ALBM with a ‘skip-glide’ trajectory that can evade interception by ballistic-missile defence systems.8 In a conflict, China has the ability to overwhelm enemy air defences by firing simultaneous waves of air-launched cruise and ballistic missiles against Taiwanese air bases and US aircraft carriers. The commander of US forces in the Indo-Pacific recently spoke of the risk that China could try to reclaim Taiwan by force within the next six years.9

In 2016, the RAND Corporation warned that a war between the United States and China ‘could be intense, last a year or more, have no winner, and inflict huge losses and costs on both sides’. Both sides ‘have an incentive to strike enemy forces before being struck by them’. While in 2016 Chinese losses would greatly exceed US losses, ‘by 2025, that gap could be much smaller’.10 Important questions arise about the prospect of a war in the region: What are China’s intentions towards Taiwan? What would a conflict involve? What role would Australia play? 

China’s intentions towards Taiwan

A consistent thread runs through China’s statements about Taiwan. The five key leaders since 1949—Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping—have had very different personalities, interests and outlooks, but have all insisted that Taiwan is an integral part of China. President Xi declared in 2019, ‘We make no promise to abandon the use of force, and retain the option of taking all necessary measures’. Those options could be used against ‘intervention by external forces’, an implied warning to the United States.11  

Taiwan is not just a key unresolved issue from the past; today its multi-party democracy also represents an ideological challenge to China’s party-state political system, as did the democracy movement in Hong Kong. It is valuable for strategic and economic reasons as well. Control over Taiwan would solve China’s geographic problem by affording it unrestricted access to the Pacific Ocean. The Bashi Channel would no longer be a chokepoint. Naval bases on Taiwan’s east coast would allow China’s submarine fleet to conduct patrols in the deep waters of the Pacific. These bases would be only 180 kilometres away from the disputed Senkaku Islands (administered by Japan but claimed by China, which calls them the Diaoyu Islands). From there, Chinese forces would be able to deter Japanese and US forces on Okinawa, perhaps pressuring Japan to evict US forces from Okinawa and terminate the 1960 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan.  

Taiwan is also the site of one of the linchpins of the global economy: Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), the world’s most advanced semiconductor factory. It is building a plant to make transistors—the key building block in computer chips—just 3 nanometres in size, the length your fingernail grows in three seconds. The smaller the transistors on a chip, the lower the energy consumption and the higher the speed. The new chips will be up to 70 per cent faster than the most advanced in production now. The plant is the size of twenty-two football fields and is considered ‘the centre of the universe’ in the world of semiconductors.12 It is also key to high-end weapons production, supplying processors to supercomputers that model missile trajectories, as well as for the missiles themselves. Its value will only increase in an era of unmanned combat systems such as combat drones. Under US pressure, TSMC has halted sales to Chinese supercomputer maker Phytium, and is building a US$12 billion plant in Arizona. 

China’s military reforms and imminent introduction of new weapon systems will allow it to rapidly cross the difficult Taiwan Strait by the middle of this decade. Whatever happens in the immediate future, a forcible seizure of Taiwan cannot be discounted in coming years. 

What would a conflict involve? 

One plausible scenario is that China would begin its assault on Taiwan by launching a large number of fighters and missiles in order to divert, diffuse and degrade US and allied defensive efforts to establish airspace control. Concurrently, a seaborne and airborne assault by a main invasion force would seize Taiwan under the cover of China’s extensive ballistic and cruise-missile arsenal. The seizure of critical chokepoints like the Bashi Channel and the Japanese-controlled Miyako Strait would delay US intervention and secure the so-called First Island Chain, which includes the Kuril Islands, the Japanese Archipelago, Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, the northern Philippines and Borneo. Assuming China captured Taiwan’s ports and airfields largely intact, it could use the thousands of Roll-On-Roll-Off barges that currently ply China’s rivers and the 3000 or so Airbus and Boeing airliners in China’s airlines to reinforce its position. 

US Navy Commander Thomas Shugart has argued that ‘the greatest military threat to US vital interests in Asia may be one that has received somewhat less attention: the growing capability of China’s missile forces to strike US bases’.13 Shugart’s analysis reflects the Chinese military’s joint fire-strike campaign doctrine of disrupting US rear area operations by attacking US military bases in Okinawa and Guam. Were Japan involved, the attacks would extend to targets on the island of Honshu as well. This is not to say that China would necessarily attack US bases, but the threat is credible and therefore has to be taken seriously. China’s anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles, land-attack cruise missiles, air strikes with precision-guided munitions, and counter-command and control strikes14 with specialised weapons would isolate or degrade US military forces in the region. China’s Strategic Rocket Force has stated that it has ‘been sparing no effort to foster the capability to conduct nuclear retaliation and intermediate- and long-range precision strikes and has obtained a succession of breakthroughs in new weapons’ research and development’.15

The US Office of Naval Intelligence projects that China’s submarine force will double its fleet of nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines from four to eight by the end of the decade. These submarines represent China’s first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent. Each one is armed with twelve nuclear-armed submarine-launched ballistic missiles with a range of 7200 kilometres, permitting retaliatory strikes against targets in parts of Alaska from protected bastions close to China, targets in Hawaii from locations south of Japan, targets in the western half of the forty-eight contiguous states from mid-ocean locations west of Hawaii, or targets in all fifty US states from mid-ocean locations east of Hawaii.16

China has also been testing an alternative submarine route near Benham Rise, a 13-million-hectare undersea plateau 250 kilometres east of Luzon in the Philippines. Its research into subsurface water temperatures there will allow it to determine the thermocline structure—a layer between warm surface water and deep cold water where the temperature drops abruptly from 25 degrees Celsius to almost zero Celsius. The thermocline is critical for submarine warfare because sonar pulses do not penetrate it, allowing a submarine to hide just below it.17 For its part, the United States has built a network of undersea and overhead sensors near China’s coastline, allowing it to monitor Chinese ballistic-missile submarines as they try to gain access to the western Pacific Ocean. US hunter-killer submarines could potentially trail them and sink them at the outbreak of hostilities, eliminating China’s nuclear deterrent. China therefore would have an incentive to launch first if it believed an attack to be imminent. 

What role would Australia play?

Brian Toohey’s book Secret: The Making of Australia’s Security State reveals that the naval communications base at Western Australia’s North West Cape has systems that allow the United States to send firing orders to its hunter-killer submarines directly from the continental United States without Australia’s knowledge. These systems ‘eliminated the previous small chance that some Australian staff member…could discover what was happening and inform the Australian government’.18 The Australian construction firm Sitzler has built a facility to house the Space Surveillance Telescope at North West Cape. It forms part of the US Space Surveillance Network, along with the C-Band Space Surveillance Radar at the same location. The equipment provides a space situational awareness capability and will be operated remotely from the Jindalee Operational Radar Network control site at RAAF Edinburgh in Adelaide.19 

The Pine Gap Joint Defence Facility in the Northern Territory acquires information from US satellites detecting heat from aircraft, artillery, missiles, drones and space vehicles, as well as military and civilian communications. The data is processed into usable intelligence and ensures that Australia is deeply integrated into the US war-fighting machinery. These capabilities allow the United States to detect and destroy Chinese and Russian satellites—‘incompatible with Australia’s ratification of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty preventing the militarisation of space’, as Toohey observes. 

The Royal Australian Navy’s submarines might also be expected to play a role. Australia’s requirements for its submarines include full interoperability with the United States, such as the most sophisticated sensors and weapons and the capacity for very long ranges and endurance. These boats can do much more than patrol the undersea areas proximate to Australia. They can operate in the tropical waters of the South China Sea, with its complex subsea terrain, varied salinity and marine biodiversity. Since Australia has no domestic nuclear power industry—an essential component of a country in possession of nuclear submarines—it cannot use nuclear submarines, which have great endurance, speed and indefinite submerge time. It has therefore acquired diesel-electric boats but imposes on them demands far in excess of any other non-nuclear navy. Australia’s submariners are embedded in the US torpedo and combat data system program. The relationship was so close, one insider observed, that ‘the first live warshot firing of the latest variant of the main US Navy heavyweight torpedo, the Mark 48 CBASS, was conducted by an Australian submarine’.20 

The Australian air warfare destroyer HMAS Sydney recently conducted interoperability tests off the coast of California with one of the US vessels previously targeted in the Bashi Channel attack simulation, the guided-missile destroyer USS John Finn.21 If China occupied Taiwan, Australia’s commandos might be expected to conduct a guerrilla insurgency alongside the Taiwanese resistance, recalling their history in Portuguese Timor against Japanese forces during the Second World War. It would be ironic if they went from fighting an insurgency in Afghanistan to becoming insurgents themselves. 

These matters pass without significant commentary by the two Australian defence ministers we have had in 2021. The first, Linda Reynolds, resigned after allegations in Parliament House about sexual assault occurring in her office. Her successor, Peter Dutton, announced that his first priority was to repair a morale slump across the Australian Defence Force following the Brereton Report into war crimes in Afghanistan. He reassured the troops that ‘the government has their back’.22 China has the wherewithal to cause much more than a morale slump. It has the capacity to inflict serious damage, unlike the Taliban, which lacked even the most basic form of air power.

The central policy objective of Australia’s long war in Afghanistan and its prospective role in the Taiwan Strait is the same: the desire to achieve greater relevance in the minds of US strategic planners. Military activities in Afghanistan (or Iraq, for that matter) were less important than having senior US figures visit the Australian area of operations and appreciate our contribution. In that sense, Afghanistan was a success: the Australian flag flew alongside the Star-Spangled Banner, demonstrating Australia’s contribution to the US effort. A Royal Commission into suicides in the Defence Force and possible war crimes prosecutions will deal with the aftermath of our Afghan adventure. But the aftermath of a conventional war in the Taiwan Strait may be an altogether different matter. As our government is now clearly readying itself for this possibility, the Australian public would do well to understand the likely consequences of what may be a turning point in Australian history.

The author thanks Philip Dorling and two other colleagues for their helpful comments on this article.

1 Andrew Greene, ‘Afghan soldier Hekmatullah, who killed three Australians, flown to Qatar ahead of peace talks with Taliban’, ABC News, 11 September 2020. 

2 Jacob Greber, Michael Smith and Andrew Tillett, ‘Canberra plans for Taiwan conflict’, Australian Financial Review, 17 April 2021. 

3 Philip Dorling, ‘At the Brink: The ANZUS Allies in the Off-Shore Islands Crisis, 1954–1955’, PhD thesis, Flinders University, 1995, p. 363.

4 Dorling, ‘At the Brink’, p. 363.

5 Jian Lan, Ningning Zhang, and Yu Wang, ‘On the dynamics of the South China Sea deep circulation’, Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans, vol. 118, pp 1206–10, doi:10.1002/jgrc.20104.  

6 USS Theodore Roosevelt Public Affairs, ‘Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group Enters South China Sea’, 23 January 2021, https://www.pacom.mil/Media/News/News-Article-View/Article/2480931/theodore-roosevelt-carrier-strike-group-enters-south-china-sea/. 

7 Kathrin Hille and Demetri Sevastopulo, ‘Chinese warplanes simulated attacking US carrier near Taiwan’, Financial Times, 30 January 2021.  

8 Greg Waldron, ‘H-6 evolves from Cold War relic to Beijing’s hammer’, Flight Global, 4 September 2020, https://www.flightglobal.com/fixed-wing/h-6-evolves-from-cold-war-relic-to-beijings-hammer/140043.article 

9 Michael Crowley, ‘Biden Backs Taiwan, but Some Call for a Clearer Warning to China’, New York Times, 9 April 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/08/us/politics/biden-china-taiwan.html. 

10 David C. Gompert, Astrid Stuth Cevallos and Cristina L. Garafola, War with China: Thinking through the Unthinkable, Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2016.

11 Chris Buckley and Chris Horton, ‘Xi Jinping Warns Taiwan That Unification Is the Goal and Force Is an Option’, New York Times, 1 January 2019, Xi Jinping Warns Taiwan That Unification Is the Goal and Force Is an Option – The New York Times (nytimes.com) 

12 Kathrin Hille, ‘TSMC: how a Taiwanese chipmaker became a linchpin of the global economy’, Financial Times, 25 March 2021. 

13 Thomas Shugart, ‘Has China Been Practicing Preemptive Missile Strikes against U.S. Bases?’ War on the Rocks, 6 February 2017, https://warontherocks.com/2017/02/has-china-been-practicing-preemptive-missile-strikes-against-u-s-bases/. 

14 The doctrinal term is unwieldy: Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR).

15 Zhao Lei, ‘PLA deploys latest ballistic missile to newest brigade’, China Daily, 18 April 2018, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201804/18/WS5ad67c0ca3105cdcf6518e29.html

16 Congressional Research Service, China Naval Modernization, 9 March 2021. 

17 Raissa Robles, ‘Chinese research raises security fears’, South China Morning Post, 1 February 2018.

18 Brian Toohey, Secret: The Making of Australia’s Security State, Carlton: Melbourne University Publishing, 2019, p. 94.

19 Gregor Ferguson and Simon Louie, ‘The Strategic Importance of the North West Cape’, WA Defence Review, 3rd edition, September 1990, pp 140–6. 

20 James Goldrick, ‘Submarine Acquisition in Australia’, in Geoffrey Till and Collin Koh Swee Lean (eds), Naval Modernisation in Southeast Asia, Part Two: Submarine Issues for Small and Medium Navies, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.

21 Scott Macpherson, ‘Strengthening partnerships at sea’, Defence Media Release, 12 April 2021, https://news.defence.gov.au/international/strengthening-partnerships-sea. 

22 Ben Packham, ‘We’ve got your backs, Dutton tells Diggers’, The Australian, 9 April 2021. 

About the author

Clinton Fernandes

Clinton Fernandes is a professor at the University of New South Wales. His research focuses on emerging technologies ranging from hypersonic missiles to electromagnetic pulse weapons, directed-energy weapons, human performance enhancement, bioengineering, nanotechnologies, and advanced materials and manufacturing methods.

More articles by Clinton Fernandes

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