It’s time we talked about war with China

(From the National Interest)

By Hugh White

Whether Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull intended it or not, his new Defence White Paper has been widely interpreted as sending a clear message that Australia is willing to join our allies in using armed force if necessary to defend the “rules based global order” from China’s strategic ambitions in Asia. Moreover, most people apparently think that’s a good message to send.

Royal Australian Navy Landing Helicopter Dock Canberra

Royal Australian Navy Landing Helicopter Dock Canberra

So it seems wise to ask whether this message is really true. Would we go to war with China over any of the issues which now loom as tests of the future order in Asia—in the Spratlys, or the Senkakus, or even Taiwan?

Most people who approve of the White Paper’s message probably do so with complete confidence that the issue will never arise. They assume war won’t happen because they are sure the Chinese would always back down rather than risk a clash. Maybe they are right. Confronted with U.S. and allied resolve, Beijing might decide that even Taiwan was simply not worth the immense costs of conflict.

But we shouldn’t bet on that, because the Chinese probably think the same about America and its allies. They think a war would be just as costly to us as to them, and they believe the issues at stake matter more to them than to us. So they are likely to assume that, whatever we say now, on the brink we would back off rather than fight. And the more confident they are of that, the less likely they are to back down. It has happened before: in an escalating crisis, both sides assume the other will step back, and so neither does before it’s too late. This is exactly what happened in July 1914. Read more



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