So Australia is considering performing its own freedom-of-navigation exercise in the South China Sea. That’s good. Things are coming to a head and this will let everyone know which side we are on, and, indeed, that we have taken sides. For maximum effect what the RAN should do is visit the Sierra Madre on Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratlys. This is a World War 2 tank-landing ship that the Philippine Navy ran up on the reef in 1999. It is manned by a dozen Filipino marines. As a Filipino naval asset, an attack by China on the Sierra Madre would trigger the US-Philippines Defense Treaty. China keeps two of its coast guard vessels circling the reef in an attempt to stop resupply of the base. The Philippines has resorted to air-dropping supplies to the Sierra Madre. This has been going on for a few years now and apparently China is somewhat miffed that the Philippines hasn’t given up yet. An Australian visit to the Sierra Madre would be much appreciated.
We needn’t be concerned about the possible effect on trade. The prices of the commodities we send to China have fallen to near what our operating costs are, so we aren’t making much of a profit anymore. In effect we are digging up a lot of dirt as a sort of public service, in this case for the benefit of ingrates who are planning to dominate and subjugate the East Asian region. This has been coming for a long time. Consider the following map which is from a Nationalist primary school textbook from 1938:
There’s more than a little Lebensraum in that map, which looks somewhat like a map of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. In fact, if Japan hadn’t got into race-based aggression against its neighbours first, China would have been on the warpath years ago. These days the Japanese are very polite about not flaunting their racial superiority. China has yet to learn that lesson, which can only be grasped from harsh experience. Unfortunately it seems that it is the lot of this generation to provide that harsh experience. Things might settle down afterwards.
China has been building bases in the Spratly Islands since the 1990s and things could have drifted along for decades more. Unfortunately President Xi is one of those leaders who seeks to have greatness thrust upon him. The baiting of the Japanese only really started once he became China’s leader, as shown by this graphic from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan website showing Chinese intrusions into Japanese territorial waters:
Those intrusions only took off in an organised way once Xi was in charge. The baiting is his doing, but to what end? One obvious explanation: it is an attempt to psychologically wear down Japan, which is well aware of this and has signed a defence agreement with the Philippines as a consequence. The problem for Xi is that there is no down-ramp from his chosen path of war. The South China Sea is now marked as Chinese territory on Chinese passports. If he was to back down now, he might lose control of the Party, and the Party might lose control of China. The dictatorship in China is of the sort that gets rid of party rivals by executing them, so Xi has bet the farm on his policy of encroachment and intimidation, up to war should it not extract the demanded obeisance.
China has completed one airfield in the Spratlys, with two to go. Combined with the other four island bases, they give each other mutual fire support. We can make a stab at what China’s war plan is, the question that remains is the likely timing. What pays for all this belligerence is China’s economy. Once the economy stops growing, then it is no longer a consideration and regime legitimacy must come from something dramatic and unifying — a looming international conflict, for example. As of December, 2015, China’s economic growth rate had fallen to 4%, with strong prospects of actual contraction starting at some point this year. The size of the contraction in prospect is indicated by comments by the deputy chairman of the China Iron & Steel Association that a fall in steel production from 800 million tonnes to 500 million tonnes per annum would be “still healthy”.
Thus the rush to build the bases in the Spratlys. As soon as the second quarter of 2016, China might well announce that its forbearance of foreigners occupying its sacred lands and seas in the South China Sea has reached its limit. Attacks on the bases of all the other countries in the Spratlys would then be an option.
Some have seen war coming for years. Robert Kaplan wrote an article in The Atlantic in June, 2005, entitled “How We Would Fight China”. As he says in the introduction, “The Middle East is just a blip. The American military contest with China in the Pacific will define the twenty-first century. And China will be a more formidable adversary than Russia ever was.” That is reflected in American military analysis which these days seems to be devoted 99% to China, with almost no discussion of Russia or the Middle East.
Ideally for China, its forces would attack in the Spratlys and the US would not respond. For completeness, this Youtube video shows what China’s last attack in the Spratlys, in 1988, was like. It shows unarmed Vietnamese soldiers standing on Johnson South Reef and being machinegunned by the Chinese (for the purists, it is more likely 20 mm cannon fire).
The US, under Obama, would be inclined to argue that possession of some rocks doesn’t trigger its defence treaties in the region, but they won’t have a choice. Japan realises that if China is successful in seizing the South China Sea, it will be next on the agenda. So Japan will come to the aid of the Philippines irrespective of what Washington might do. That is why Japan signed its basing agreement with the Philippines. It will be easier for Japan to defeat China with the help of Vietnam and the Philippines than take on China by itself, later.
China’s question will be the same as Japan’s upon its entry into World War II. Leave the United States alone in the hope that it doesn’t enter the war, or mount a surprise attack at the outset to destroy as much of the enemy’s war-fighting capacity as possible? Chinese military strategy favours surprise attack, thus we can expect the United States to be the target at the outset. China, Japan and the US would each have come to the conclusion that this is what is going to happen. The only thing that could stop that from happening is if the United States set out to stop Japan from going to the aid of the Philippines. But that in turn would mean that most of the countries in Asia would acquire nuclear weapons to protect themselves from China.
China’s preparation for war can be followed by satellite imagery and the Pave Paws early warning radar on top of Mt Leshan in central Taiwan. This radar can see 5,000 km into China and do so in great detail. So the US will get some warning of the rain of ballistic and cruise missiles on its bases from Japan to Guam. This is where Australia’s role becomes important. Most US aircraft in the Asian region sit out in the open on bases. If they stay put, most will be destroyed in by a rain of missiles with cluster munitions. So it seems that, as the threat rises, US aircraft will be dispersed away from their current bases to airfields just outside the Chinese threat arc. If sent to Australia, they won’t have that far to travel back to the war theatre. Psychologically, it is important that they don’t leave the war theatre. Places like Mt Isa might wake up one day to find they have US military aircraft parked at the airport. That is why the United States is looking to Australia to provide some strategic depth. RAAF Bases Curtin, Darwin and Tindal are with Chinese cruise missile range.
US operational doctrine is to wait for the initial Chinese attack, absorb it and then go on the offensive straight away. This explains a remark by the head of US Pacific Command on his appointment in May 2015,“If called upon, we would fight tonight”, on message with the deputy commander of U.S. Army Pacific’s words the previous day of “being ready to ‘fight tonight’”. The US response will await the hours of darkness on Day One because it will rely upon a lot of decoy and jammer cruise missiles to shield the aircraft carrying bombs. The Allied cause was given a big boost by a decision of the Philippines Supreme Court on January 12, 2016, to allow US use of military bases in the country, dismissing an appeal by leftists. This legal vistory allows US, Japanese and Australian aircraft to operate much closer to the South China Sea. Andersen Air Force Base on Guam might become a smoking ruin, but Allied aircraft will be able to surge back to the Philippines and have a much higher sortie rate over the Spratlys.
Some Chinese academics have crowed that China has already won the coming war because President Obama doesn’t have the stomach for conflict, as demonstrated by his announcing “red lines” and then not enforcing them.
If, as I think likely, push comes to shove, our No 1 trading partner will be attacking trading partners 2 & 3. Trading partners 4 &5 will be directly involved in the ensuing conflict. In fact we have to get down to trading partner No 10, Germany, before we find someone who is unlikely to be trading blows with China. The UK, trading partner No 7, has announced increased defence cooperation with Japan.
China has funded an organisation to try to winkle Australia out of its defence pacts with the United States and Japan. This is the Australia-China Relations Institute (ACRI) at the University of Technology, Sydney. ACRI is run by Australia’s wrinkliest Quisling, Bob Carr, former premier of New South Wales. We should not heed Mr Carr’s siren song to opt out of China’s war of choice. As to why we have to fight China, better advice comes from people who have been fighting the Chinese for over one thousand years. As quoted in the Pentagon Papers, Ho Chi Minh said,“the white man is finished in Asia. But if the Chinese stay now, they will never leave. As for me, I prefer to smell French shit for five years, rather than Chinese shit for the rest of my life.” Take that advice to heart.
David Archibald is the author of Australia’s Defence (Connor Court).