South China Sea: Australia in firing line if US and China go to war, experts warn
21st Jan 2017
The South China Sea sits about 5,000 kilometres from Australia. That puts us in the firing line of a war between the United States and China.
If a major global conflict erupted many observers believe it will happen right there in Australia’s backyard.
“The South China Sea is definitely a flashpoint because it is the area where we might find US aircraft and warships actually clashing with Chinese aircraft and warships and the possibility of an unintended shoot down of an aircraft or sinking of a ship I think is quite high,” said Peter Jennings, of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
The area is a key fault line, a global trade route and a hotbed of disputed territory heightened by an escalating military presence. China has been accused of militarising the region, building air strips and artificially expanding islands.
In his confirmation hearing, Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, put China on notice.
“We are going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island building stops and second, your access to those islands is not going to be allowed,” he said.
Sow Keat Tok, a China expert from Melbourne University, is concerned that China may be forced into a showdown from which it could not retreat.
“When its legitimacy, the regime’s legitimacy is undermined, everything is up in the air,” he said.
“When it’s pushed to the corner you expect the Chinese regime to punch back at some point.
“China is unlikely to back down. In fact, you’re going to see China try and raise the stakes.”
The stakes are high too for Australia. The US is Australia’s greatest ally and strategic partner while China is its biggest trading partner.
James Brown from the US Studies Centre at Sydney University said Australia would potentially be caught in the crossfire.
“We would need to make some hard decisions on how and where we would contribute support to the US in that kind of conflict and we’d also need to think through seriously the impact on our economy,” he said.
Mr Jennings said any conflict between the two super powers would potentially escalate and Washington would be looking to call in its allies.
“Frankly the situation could spin out of control very quickly … at that stage I would expect that Washington would be talking very directly with Canberra and Tokyo to say, ‘Where will you guys be when it comes to a conflict situation in the South China Sea?'” he said.
Military strategists preparing for possibility of war
So, how would a war start?
The potential for premediated provocation is low, but observers fear an accident of miscalculation.
Mr Brown is a former Army officer who led troops into combat in Iraq. Now, he works from a desk contemplating the worst case scenarios.
“US military assets and Chinese military assets operate in close proximity all the time, every day. Any time a US ship goes into the South China Sea there’s a Chinese ship shadowing it,” he said.
“In the air the Chinese and US planes have passed within tens of metres of each other. There are protocols that govern those operations but there are pilots and ship captains who are known to be rogue operators.
Any clash between the US and China is potentially catastrophic. But how likely is it? There are American and Chinese military strategists preparing right now for just such a possibility.
Global think tank the Rand Corporation prepared a report in 2015 for the American military they called War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable. It said premeditated war was unlikely but there was a danger that crisis could be mishandled.
China, it said, 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 and inconclusive war.
“They pointed out that on the US side and the Chinese side there are strong incentives to escalate quite quickly, particularly if control is handed over to military early on and not retained by political leaders,” Mr Brown said.
Mr Brown and Mr Jennings both put the risk of conflict on the lower end of the scale.
“I think it is extremely unlikely. I think both countries would stop well ahead of escalation to broader military conflict. The truth right now is that for the next 10 years China is significantly over-matched by the military force America can bring to the table,” Mr Jennings said.
‘I think war is likely’
Sow Keat Tok, though — monitoring the Chinese side — is not so optimistic.
“The whole situation is quite combustible. I’m not going to say yes or no but the war is likely a self-fulfilling prophecy. If at this current stage the Trump administration will continue to push China into a confrontation, I think war is likely,” he said.
The incoming US President looms as critical. The South China Sea may just be the biggest flashpoint of Trump’s presidency. He has already said that China needs to be taught to respect the US and observers say it remains unknown just how he would react to a confrontation with Beijing.
“We don’t know how Trump would handle some sort of conflict scenario with China or in Asia. We know that some members of his team have sharp views on China taking a more assertive approach. They point to the fact that Obama really got pushed around by China in the last eight years,” Mr Brown said.
To those with a long view of history, the South China Sea is a tinderbox. It mirrors the drift to war in 1914. Then the world thought conflict was unthinkable, yet a rising power, Germany, challenged the prevailing power, Britain, and a series of events sparked a tangled web of alliances that tipped the globe into a catastrophe.
Historians now say the world back then was sleepwalking to war, and lessons should be heeded.
Mr Brown said the unthinkable can and indeed has become a reality.
“These mistakes do happen. Countries do make decisions to embark on wars that are completely counter-logical. We haven’t grappled with the fact that although it is a low risk, it is a real risk and it is a greater risk than it was several years ago.”