As tensions continue to be ratcheted up between the United States and China, it leaves third parties—including traditional American allies and partners—with the task of charting a course through those increasingly troubled waters. This task naturally becomes more pressing and more challenging, and carries substantially greater stakes, if at some point in the future this new era of great power competition slides into one of great power conflict.
Australia, for example, must consider the possibility that it could find itself involved in a protracted conflict between great powers in its region. While open conflict may be unlikely today, if it comes to conflict in the future, Australia will be forced to respond accordingly. That response may be necessarily based on a complex network of economic or diplomatic factors, but the combination of military power, shared democratic values, and longstanding ties with the United States is likely to heavily influence Australia’s strategy in favor of its traditional ally. This is particularly relevant given recent diplomatic efforts by Washington to raise awareness of the United States’ economic contributions to Australia.
Australia is already heavily involved. After multiple clashes between Australia’s regional partners and China, tensions are rising. A maritime standoff earlier this year generated diplomatic friction between Australia and its partners, with Australian ships contributing to a United States task group rather than working directly with the countries involved. Australian naval assets have also been involved in several incidents with the Chinese, always in concert with the United States. Against the backdrop of an increasingly assertive and belligerent Chinese foreign policy position, ongoing revelations about Chinese intelligence gathering operations, and the challenges posed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this paints a picture of a region ticking toward an increasing likelihood of armed conflict.
China has reason to take advantage of these rising tensions for its own benefit as American and Australian audiences are focused on the pandemic and domestic responses. Beijing has taken numerous measures to bolster its claims in the South China Sea under the cover of the pandemic. China’s redesignation of the region from “offshore” to “coastal” is one example. This redesignation adds weight to economic claims against smaller countries in the region once the pandemic has passed and provides China diplomatic cover to justify increasing confrontations with United States forces.
Protracted Conflict vs. Fait Accompli
To be sure, armed conflict—especially large-scale armed conflict—is far from guaranteed. But it presents a real enough risk to explore the scenario and its implications. Indeed, there is a real possibility Australia may face a protracted regional conflict between the great powers in the future. China is not the only state in the region militarizing the area—military spending in the region has increased at three times the global average over the last decade. As tensions rise and more military assets are moved into the region by both China and the United States, so does the likelihood of a mistake that leads to conflict. For instance, if a Chinese vessel collides with a United States warship during a freedom of navigation exercise in waters claimed by China, a violent exchange could quickly escalate. There is also the chance of unilateral Chinese action to solidify Beijing’s claims in the region.
Unless the United States and Australia pre-empt the conflict and increase forward-deployed forces with a maritime pressure campaign, any regional conflict will likely entail a lengthy campaign, due in part to two features of the conflict. The first is a function of the reality of distance and the force concentration problem this creates for expeditionary militaries like those of the United States and Australia, and logistics restrictions this generates in the Pacific region. A lengthy campaign provides vastly different challenges to the fait accompli generally preferred in military planning, but it may be the only option to counter a Chinese fait accompli in the South China Sea, given the advantage generated by proximity to mainland China and recent moves to strengthen forces in the region.
The second feature was described in a recent study, where Dr Andrew Krepinevich stated that “wars between great powers can be protracted only if political constraints are imposed on vertical escalation.” The Southeast Asia region is a valuable trading zone, but neither China nor the United States gains by significantly increasing the intensity and lethality of conflict in the region over relatively narrow interests. It is highly unlikely China would seek vertical escalation to the level of decisive strikes against the United States, nor would the United States be able to use sufficient conventional force against China to cause it to capitulate militarily in its own backyard without triggering extreme levels of escalation. This makes any conflict more likely to become protracted, and Australia must prepare for this eventuality.
What Would a Protracted Conflict Look Like?
Imagine a continuation of China’s aggressive foreign policy in which Beijing decided to unilaterally enforce its determination that the nine-dash line does in fact demarcate Chinese territorial waters, and utilizes its powerful coast guard and maritime militia to impose navigational restrictions. This would simply be the next step, albeit vastly more serious, from its recent threats to impose an air defense identification zone. The United States would likely continue to demonstrate its commitment to freedom of navigation and step up operations throughout the region, perhaps even going so far as to escort friendly shipping to protect against Chinese interference. It may impose sanctions against China. China may turn to its allies in East Africa and the Indian Ocean, such as in Djibouti and Cambodia, leaning on them more heavily for the critical materials required to fuel continued development. Tensions may rise sharply with Taiwan and Japan over contested islands if China sought to demonstrate a much more assertive relationship with countries that border its maritime claims. The United States may respond by using the Pacific Fleet and Marine units to force entry into the region and maintain sea trade lanes and enable global trade, protecting its interests and those of its allies—particularly, South Korea and Japan—and seeking to place economic pressure on China to return to a more acceptable position. As tensions increase, the proximity of military assets increases the potential for mistakes, raising the risk of further escalation.
In this context Australia may agree to forward-deploy forces in support of a US-led coalition with its partners in the South China Sea to ensure freedom of movement for its neighbors. These forces may eventually be required to interdict Chinese shipping, or even conduct strikes on assets in the region. They will also be required to remain for extended periods.
To be sure this imagined scenario is just that—imagined. But states in the past that failed to imagine the possibility that a string of events could propel them into conflict during a period of high tensions have paid a terrible cost. And in any case, the thought experiment serves a useful purpose of enabling states like Australia to foresee the decisions points it would confront in the event of conflict. In this imaginary scenario it is likely that the situation would last for months, if not years, before a diplomatic breakthrough is achieved. And this is only one potential future, with various other triggers that could lead to a similar outcome, including conflict in Korea or with Taiwan.
Alliance- and Partnership-Based Deterrence
Australia’s recent Defence Strategic Update and the resulting $70 billion (Australian) boost to defense acquisition will go some way to positioning the Australian Defence Force (ADF) for a potential conflict, but the ADF cannot end a conflict alone. Alliance relations and partnerships provide the strength to present a credible deterrent effect to great powers. As noted by Dr. Van Jackson, Australia’s deterrent effect will generally fall into one of two categories, punishment or denial. It is difficult to believe that even with additional investment in long-range strike options, such as hypersonic missiles or cyber tools, Australia alone could have a punishing effect against any regional adversary. It is also difficult to believe that Australia could dictate access into the Southeast Asian region given the political ramifications for countries in the region who believe they have legitimate political rights to territorial expansion.
If you consider deterrence in the context of an alliance with one of the major powers, or better yet in the context of partnerships between nations in the region with values aligned to Australia, the value of a deterrent strategy notably increases. This is particularly true if the deterrent effect is not aimed at winning a large-scale conflict in the short term but instead at transitioning the conflict into a sustainable political solution.
The keystone to partnership- and alliance-based deterrence is investment in Australia’s partners and allies. While a powerful ADF is an inherently useful tool for wielding national power in an uncertain era, without the support of a great power such as the United States and strong working relationships with regional partners, the ADF is not able to compete. In protracted regional warfare, Australia can expect its armed forces to be deployed forward, but within the region. For example, there may be cooperation with regional allies such as Malaysia, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea, with Australian forces positioned to create a deterrent effect in support of American actions elsewhere in the region. Under Australia’s new Force Structure Plan the ADF is developing into a force that would support this concept, focusing on sensors, long-range fires, and “gray-zone” capabilities such as cyber warfare. This commitment has been demonstrated through the recent $800 million (Australian) purchase of Long Range Anti-Ship Missiles. In this concept, the value of Australian forces is in the ability to support alliance and partner actions rather than being directly involved in great power conflict. This includes using military force to apply economic and diplomatic pressure throughout the region.
The deterrent effect of forward-deployed Australian forces becomes notable in the alliance context when that effect is focused on achieving alliance strategic aims. For instance, Australian forces providing an anti-access/area denial effect to support commercial entities such as shipping rather than directly targeting military forces would free the forces of the United States and regional partners to conduct counteroffensive operations. If Australia can create a bubble for safe trade in its region the value to its alliance is immense. It will also be critical for Australia to provide a credible demonstration of staying power—while Australian naval and aviation assets are highly capable, they are not able to remain on station indefinitely. This may require the Australian Army to accelerate plans for long-range fires capabilities that can be forward deployed for months at a time to supplement other ADF assets.
No matter how prepared the ADF is to participate alongside allies in a protracted regional war, it will only play a part in the larger Australian context. The more important role comes from Australia’s national resilience on economic, social, and political levels, and the resolve this demonstrates to its strategic partners. It is more likely that Australia’s most important role would be its ability to contribute to alliance industrial capability and human resources. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed frailties in existing civilian supply chains and the consequences of any over-reliance on just-in-time logistics supply systems. Military logistics systems are not immune from their own, similar frailties. Given its geographic position, incredible mineral wealth, and highly educated population, Australia is well positioned to contribute to overcoming logistics challenges its allies are almost sure to encounter in the event of a conflict.
Still, contributing in this way would be no small feat. It would require Australia’s economy to shift toward supporting the replacement of consumables and assets that will be needed in order to continue fighting. I have previously argued for conducting mobilization planning as a mechanism to demonstrate that Australia has a credible method to remain viable in conflict and generate national resilience, and this becomes even more critical in the case of protracted warfare.
However, this is a much deeper problem than simply mobilizing. Australia would need a plan to protect points of vulnerability in the event of a regional conflict. Some of these actions have already been taken—for example, the Australian government’s decision to develop a fuel reserve in the United States. More effort is required. Previous sources of manufactured goods would likely not be available in the event of a protracted conflict. This would have social and economic effects; no longer would cheap disposable goods and a single-use consumer culture be viable. As John Coyle points out in his excellent commentary, Australia must “stop relying on dumb luck” when it comes to national resilience.
One area of particular interest is manufacturing. The Australian government has committed to expanding advanced manufacturing and industry, calling for renewed long-term focus on the sector. However, there is a lack of national strategy linking Australia’s foreign policy and security interests to the national manufacturing and industrial support base. For example, there is criticism that the COVID-19 Recovery Commission in Australia is focusing almost entirely on developing the gas industry while ignoring other potential value prospects. The government must provide guidance on what sovereign manufacturing capabilities will be key in any coming conflict.
Finally, any potential conflict will have an important component tied to narrative and public sentiment, and Australia needs to focus heavily on understanding it. The Australian people need to be prepared for the dangerous prospect of a protracted regional war, unlikely as it may be. A discussion needs to start between Australia’s citizens and leaders. Central to this discussion must be the topic of what hardships would be endured in an armed conflict, and a clear narrative will be key. Eric Rosenbach and Katherine Mansted have argued that democracies need to craft and promote genuine narratives. Such narratives are essential to building resolve, and in a protracted conflict this resolve will be tested; if not adequately addressed, it may lead to political capitulation.
The Way Forward
Given the stakes of a protracted regional conflict between great powers in the future, states like Australia must consider their strategy and the actions they would take in the event such a conflict emerges. This conflict would be characterized by a progressive upscaling of intensity to combat operations, with a focus on endurance rather than attrition. There are some concrete steps that should be considered to ensure Australia is best placed to deal with this potential conflict.
The first is that approaches should be made to the United States in the diplomatic, defense, and economic spheres to determine what US expectations of Australia would be in such a situation. This should also incorporate what Australia has to offer, including the recent boost to defense spending.
Secondly, diplomatic approaches should be made to Australia’s partners and allies in the South Pacific and Southeast Asian regions to normalize discussions of regional security involvement in the event of a regional conflict. This should include discussions of political support and practical concerns such as basing and status-of-forces agreements in case they are required.
Thirdly, the Australian government should commit to discussions with the Australian manufacturing sector backed by specific guidance on critical industries to prepare the sector for increased demands in the future.
Lastly, Australia should deeply consider the social narrative being prepared to share with the Australian people and manage expectations about the duration of any future regional conflict, and the hardships it will impose.
These steps are not unique to Australia—many states would be affected in the event of a US-China war. While such a war is far from a certainty, especially in the immediate future, and much can and should be done to avoid that possibility by both great powers and others, prudence requires consideration of the strategic questions such a conflict would require states like Australia to be prepared to answer.
Zach Lambert is a serving Australian Army officer and Fulbright scholar in alliance studies between the United States and Australia. He focuses on mobilization, logistics and operational planning.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense, or those of Australian Defence Force, the Department of Defence, or any organization with which the author is affiliated.
Image credit: Staff Sgt. T. T. Parish, US Marine Corps