A Sydney Morning Herald article recently asked: Would the United States defend Australia if it were attacked?
The article by a respected commentator pivoted on the astounding conjecture that a substantial war-risk faced by Australia was a potential attack by China!
Leading experts were consulted and quoted, including two former US National Security Advisors and the head of the National Security College in Canberra. All were reassuring: the US would, very likely, be prepared to devote blood and treasure to protect Australia.
However, a very open question is — how plausible is this threat which these elevated minds considered?
And do we not know that history tells us that it is the US that has launched most wars since its independence? Former US President Jimmy Carter certainly believes so: he noted, in 2018, that the US had only been at peace for 16 years of over 240 years as a nation. America was, he said, “the most warlike nation in the history of the world”. Moreover, is it not the risk of being drawn into these US-led wars that is most likely to place Australia in the firing line?
Renowned essayist Dan Sanchez, writing in 2016, credits the brothers, John Foster Dulles (US Secretary of State, 1953-59) and Allen Dulles (CIA Director, 1953-61) with creating a legacy of perpetual war for the US. The CIA was literally converted, under Allen Dulles, from an intelligence clearing house into a “perpetual covert war machine”.
One estimate by an Australian commentator, Joseph Camilleri, is that the US has, since 1945, been involved in more than 50 attempted regime changes and military interventions outside of the US.
According to the US academic Zoltan Grossman, US military interventions from 1890 to 1945 totalled more than 60 worldwide.
And how is all of this aggression managed? According to Politico magazine, the US has over 800 offshore military bases in 70 different jurisdictions maintained at a cost of more than US$100 billion a year within an annual military budget in excess of US$700 billion a year. Britain, France and Russia have about 30 offshore bases combined.
The Summary of War Spending from the Watson Institute, published in 2019, tells us that Post-9/11 wars in the Middle East have cost the US close to US$6 trillion. A Brown University estimate is that military and civilian deaths in these war theatres total close to 270,000.
But how does China compare?
Beijing has been involved in two significant external wars since 1949 plus the 1962 border skirmish with India. One was in the Korean Peninsula (1950-53) which was initially escalated with reckless vigor by US General Douglas MacArthur who saw a victory, best of all over the new People’s Republic of China, providing the basis for his bid to become US President, and the other against Vietnam (1979).
Thus far, China has established a single offshore support base in Djibouti, in the Gulf of Aden. China’s military spending is less than 40 percent of the US military budget, and it has no worldwide military footprint even remotely comparable to that of the US.
Moreover, unlike China, the US was able to spend hugely on developing its military capacity — and it has continued to do so ever since. Figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute indicate per capita military spending is currently over US$2,000 in the US and around US$200 in China.
Since World War II, Australia — led by the US — has been drawn into wars in the Korean Peninsula, Vietnam, Afghanistan and in several theatres across the Middle East. For Australia, these have all involved significant casualties and great cost. All of these wars have resulted in massive civilian fatalities and carnage and failed to produce any sort of “victory”.
Despite this reality and despite the total absence of precedent, a military attack by China is still discussed by key opinion-shapers in Australia as if this were a primary concern. What can one say? This grim speculation is both extraordinary and uncommonly misguided.
China has demonstrated resolve to reshape itself as a primary power without resorting to global strategic military build-up. And, as Lucy Best from the US Council on Foreign Relations noted in 2020: “China stands alone as a top provider of both human and financial capital to (UN) peacekeeping efforts”.
China, manifestly, has neither the means, much less any motive, to think of attacking Australia. In fact, pragmatic, exceptional mutual benefit has been the paramount hallmark of Sino-Australian engagement over the last 40 years.
Ever since Canberra began striking a more hostile posture (banning Huawei over two years ago) in support of Washington’s confrontational, Sinophobic project, the Sino-Australian relationship has soured. What on earth China could possibly gain from an attack on Australia is left unexplained in the above-mentioned article.
Just after the article appeared, New Zealand signed a mutually beneficially upgrade of the Sino-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement, and before that a new EU-China investment agreement was also clinched.
There is much Canberra could learn from others — especially New Zealand — about what its Beijing policy priorities should be and how to re-establish an adult relationship with China.
The author is a visiting professor in the Law Faculty of Hong Kong University.