Saturday, November 30, 2013


The majority of wars don't begin with careful planning and aforethought: we blunder into the killing in an unthinking way.

(Thanks to Airpower Australia for the image)

I don't think we should necessarily stop playing in the water.

But if we wish to do so we need to consider the full implications of doing so, as this column for the Canberra Times points out . . .


If enough time passes strange, even wondrous things can happen – you might find yourself, for example, actually agreeing with Alexander Downer. It’s the sort of revelation that would normally be accompanied by the head spinning and the ground shifting underfoot; so let me travel back in time to explain exactly how I’ve come to believe Downer got something so right we should consider following his prescriptions today.

Like today, the story begins just after the election of a new Liberal government. John Howard came to office in 1996 just as tensions began rising in the China Sea. Beijing was flexing its muscle over Taiwan, test-firing missiles nearby. The US sent a couple of carrier battle-groups into the waters. Beijing was furious, but backed down without picking a fight. The new government in Canberra, however, was still unpacking its ideological baggage and decided to throw its weight around. China quickly decided to teach Australia a lesson. 

Analyst Graeme Dobell notes that by Christmas of that year, “Howard did a personal deal with China’s leadership. Its essence was that Canberra had felt the pain (after experiencing the diplomatic death-of-a-thousand-cuts) and got the message”. That was the background to a later, 2004 comment when Downer suggested that – although ANZUS committed Australia to ‘consult’ the US in case of conflict – this did not mean our forces would necessarily be drawn into war. Asked wether, if an actual conflict should break out over Taiwan, Australia would automatically become involved, the Foreign Minister said “no”. Unlike September 11th this wouldn’t be an attack on America’s homeland.

Downer’s intelligent, off-handed comment was met with horror. The US ambassador jumped into the media telling Canberra how to behave. Howard delicately sidestepped the issue. It’s worth revisiting now. Urgently. Because the danger of an accidental war has never been higher.

The issue is that sea is very different to land. Boundaries in the water can shift like the tide. Power alone determines who rules the waves, and this supremacy sways as time passes. And this makes water particularly dangerous environment. It’s exactly the sort of place that conflict becomes possible because civilians aren’t threatened.

Take the conflict over the Falkland Islands. The area of conflict was clearly limited. Sea boundaries made the act of war possible. Who in early 1982 even thought Argentina and the UK shared a border? Then amphibious attack units stormed ashore at Port Stanley and imprisoned the small British marine garrison. Neither side would back down and war became inevitable. The frozen, barren, stony ground ended up costing nearly a thousand lives.  

Today similar tensions are building in the seas around China. Beijing is making unilateral demands. Washington is provocatively challenging those assertions of supremacy. Tokyo is finding its voice and determined to protect the status quo. Taiwan is conflicted; so is South Korea. Both have grudges against Japan’s (previous) militarism, however neither desires China to dominate North Asia.

These are big countries. Take the most simple and basic measure of military commitment – manpower. China has more than 2.28 million service personnel; the US 1.4 million; South Korea 680,000 million; Taiwan 290,000 million. Australia can’t manage to put more than 60,000 full-time service people into the field. Sure, we’ve got hot equipment and a professional edge. But if we want to play with the big boys we’ve got to put-up the ante to get a seat in the game. The only area in which we manage to match the magnitude of our voice is in the size of our ego.

There’s nothing to stop a very deadly shooting war breaking out in the region, either by accident or design. Hostilities would necessarily be limited to the ocean around the disputed islands, but it would give China a chance to try out its new supersonic, sea-skimming missiles and see if there actually has been a change in the balance of power. Although the new leadership in Beijing is technocratic, there are no guarantees the military is in a box. An accident on either side would prove disastrous.

It’s time to get real. This week Foreign Minister Julie Bishop hauled the Chinese ambassador in to “convey Australian concerns”. Perhaps it might have been wiser to have a quiet word instead of playing to the gallery. Because last time we went out of our way to offend Beijing unnecessarily China quickly made it clear who held the economic power. A couple of quick tugs and we felt the pain enough to change our tune. China’s response so far? It’s called in our chargé and warned we should “correct our mistakes” (sic).

Four dragons – China, Japan, South Korea and the baby, Taiwan – are playing in the China Sea. And the Western Wind – America – is whipping the waves into huge peaks as they splash around some barren rocky outcrops offshore. One of the wilful creatures isn’t playing nicely any more but unfortunately, discipline’s broken down. Nobody has any ability to tell a dragon how to behave. It’s certainly doesn’t appear to be any sort of playground for a well-mannered, bright-eyed young koala.

1 comment:

  1. Well mannered bright-eyed koala ?.... the little beasts have a sharp temper, usually are drugged out on their gum leaves and urinate on unsuspecting handlers....bit like the Australian Government really, drunk with self importance and delusional scale. But the Asian nations in question are old societies with many subtle and not so subtle customs, long histories with each other and very territorial. They are not appreciative of outsiders with no actual stake in the region trying to lecture them on anything.