EXPLAINER

Are the 'drums of war' beating louder and what does it mean?

The language is stark, frightening even. Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo declared that the "drums of war" are beating and Australia must prepare for conflict.

Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

The unthinkable has become thinkable.

We are in a situation like we faced on the eve of the Second World War, according to Malcolm Davis of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

"Sometimes, war is imposed on you. You have no choice," Dr Davis said.

"That was the situation in 1939 and that's the situation now."

Really? War against whom?

A likely flashpoint would be Taiwan which China says is part of its territory.

It sees the island democracy off its coast as a breakaway province which must - and will - return to the rule of Beijing, peacefully, ideally, though it hasn't ruled out force.

China has recently tightened the pressure. Its war planes are making more frequent incursions into Taiwanese airspace. On one day last month, the Taiwanese government said 20 Chinese military aircraft entered its "air defence identification zone".

China is already improving its forces.

In a recent ceremony watched by President Xi Jinping, China commissioned three new vessels, including a helicopter carrier, a submarine and a guided-missile cruiser.

It is improving what military strategists call its A2AD capability (anti-access and area denial) - the ability to destroy US or Australian vessels which went anywhere near Taiwan if war started.

"China surpassed the size of the US Navy in battle force ships in 2020. They are moving towards a 400-ship navy by 2025 - the US Navy will struggle to get to 355 ships by 2030," Dr Davis said.

He thinks the Chinese People's Liberation Army will have the ability to invade Taiwan in five or six years.

How does this affect Australia?

The United States has a "security partnership" with Taiwan whereby it supplies it with weaponry.

It has not made a cast-iron commitment to defend it but there is a widespread view that not defending Taiwan would be tantamount to conceding China uncontested power in the region.

Australia as a loyal ally of the United States would be under immense pressure to join any military action. "There's very little daylight between Canberra and Washington," Dr Davis said.

"This is a situation that is so important. If they take Taiwan, they have a secure forward base which threatens other countries like Japan and the Philippines and Guam. This is really critical."

Dr Davis thinks that an attempt to compel Taiwan to accept rule from Beijing, either through military force or severe economic pressure, would be much more serious than the recent imposition of rule on Hong Kong.

He thinks the relevant comparison today would be with 1939 when the western powers first stood by when Hitler's troops annexed a small country but were then compelled to go to war when Germany invaded a bigger one.

"If Hong Kong is Czechoslovakia, then Taiwan is Poland," Dr Davis said.

"We faced the same choice in 1939."

What to do

The threat of the (expensive) big stick. "We are trying to deter China from taking Taiwan. They are trying to deter us from intervening if they do - and that's where the critical balance is," Dr Davis said.

"But we are facing the reality that it is increasingly costly for the US navy and its allies to deploy forces forward."

The tougher question is what to do short of war. Strategists talk of "grey zone" operations - cyber attacks, harassing shipping and the like.

How should the US and Australia respond if there were a heavy-duty cyber attack on Taiwan, for example? "There is no hard and fast play book," Dr Davis said.

China also has weaknesses, according to John Blaxland, Professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies at the ANU.

"It's critically reliant on trade. It can't afford to go to war because it would suffer too much," he told this paper.

Professor Blaxland thinks China is likely to make out that it is prepared to go to war to put pressure on Taiwan, but stop short of war, engaging instead in a host of those "grey zone" activities from cyber attacks to pressure on business to diplomacy.

The US can't afford to let China take over Taiwan, he says: Taiwan is the world's big maker of computer chips and the US wouldn't want China to have that monopoly; 100,000 US citizens live in Taiwan; if Taiwan "fell", Japan would be next in a line of islands and Professor Blaxland doesn't think there would be the will to resist in Japan.

Any alternatives?

"Australian policymakers should be doing much more to head off the possibility of a Taiwan conflict," according to Brendan Taylor, Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University.

He wants Australia to push for measures to prevent accidental war: "Crisis management and avoidance mechanisms are typically not controversial. At the height of the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union developed and used such arrangements, most famously in the immediate aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis when a high-level hotline connecting the Kremlin and the Pentagon was established."

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What would war be like?

Do we need to say? It might well be on a par with the two world wars but with nuclear weapons on both sides. War is not controllable. Military Times, the magazine for US military people, contacted more than a dozen experts who described "how this hypothetical nightmare could erupt fully, perhaps as Chinese missiles start hitting targets in Taiwan.

"A conflict could spin out of control quickly as sensors across the region light up with simultaneous events, stretching the United States and its allies in every imaginable domain all at once."

It is not certain that the US and its allies, including Australia, would win. According to the US broadcaster NBC, "In simulated combat in which China attempted to invade Taiwan, the results are sobering and the United States often loses, said David Ochmanek, a former senior Defense Department official who helps run war games for the Pentagon at the RAND Corp. think tank."

The cost to Australia in terms of blood and money would be unimaginably immense whoever "won".

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This story Are the 'drums of war' beating louder and what does it mean for us? first appeared on The Canberra Times.