Australia is fated, whether we like it or not, to live in interesting times, having entered, as one prominent observer puts it, a “decade of living dangerously.”
He is speaking of the very high probability of entering into some form of open military conflict with China, most likely precipitated by a sharp escalation in Beijing’s efforts to reunify Taiwan with the mainland.
Even without this particular acute threat, Australia faces enormous dangers on multiple fronts. Climate change is fast reaching the point of constituting an existential threat. There is still time to avoid this nightmare scenario, but it is going to take enormous effort and unprecedented cooperation.
It will require sustained levels of good governance.
Unfortunately, we are living at a time when good governance cannot be taken for granted. Threats to democracy and open society are more acute than they have been in decades.
The rise of populism, and the corruption of clinical institutions and traditions previously taken for granted, threaten a sharp contraction of democracy and constructive cooperation, both within nations and across the global community.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a reminder of how quickly the world can fall apart and peace evaporates. Fortunately, Ukraine was ready for what much of the global community was dismissing as an exaggerated threat.
And, as it turns out, Vladimir Putin’s Russia – corrupted, hollowed out and delusional – was not ready. What should have been a devastatingly formidable military was reduced to a pathetic facsimile of what Russian national myth and Western assessment had proclaimed.
Dictators and sycophants
The great lesson of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is that powerful leaders, particularly populist autocrats surrounded by the structures of a one-party state and accountable only to a circle of sycophants, choose to pursue an irrationally dangerous course contrary to all reasonable self-interest.
In late 2021 and early 2022, there was a high level of consensus among military analysts that Russia was preparing for war. There was also a similar level of consensus among political experts on international relations that Putin was bluffing.
All rational calculations pointed to the risk of war, both to the leader and to his nation, to be so enormously great that it made no sense to initiate conflict.
Sadly, the military analysts studying satellite imagery and the rapid escalation of military build-up on the borders of Ukraine proved to be correct. Thankfully, they had greatly overestimated Russia’s military preparedness and underestimated both the political will and defensive capacity of the people of Ukraine.
Could the same not be true of China? Is it not foolish to talk up threats of war and make inevitable what is avoidable?
Or were Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton’s extraordinary comments – on Anzac Day, of all days – about the need to prepare for war with China, however distasteful and reckless, founded on reasonable assessment?
Wishful thinking would have it that talk of war involving China is a confected threat manufactured by vested interests and hawkish assessments. There is far too much at stake, however, to fall back on wishful thinking.
“Peace in our time” is exactly what we should be working for, but we can’t achieve it simply by proclaiming it.
The problem with Dutton’s comments lies not in the assessment of the risk, but in how the government responds to it. In the midst of a tightly contested federal election campaign, with the Coalition on the back foot, there is a great temptation to resort to fearmongering in the name of national security to shore up votes.
‘Speak softly and carry a big stick’
In the words of former US President Theodore Roosevelt, we need to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” The concern with what Dutton is doing is not that his analysis is wrong, but that his response to the threat is reckless and counterproductive. We are neither carrying a big stick nor speaking softly.
It was Kevin Rudd who coined the phrase a “decade of living dangerously.” He uses it in his new book, The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict Between the US and Xi Jinping’s China.
Rudd makes a compelling and cogent argument that any form of war involving China and the United States is likely to be devastatingly costly. It would also risk cascading consequences that could dangerously transform the world we live in.
Avoiding conflict with China, he argues, will not be easy. If nothing changes, we are on a trajectory to disaster.
Rudd sets out 10 scenarios for possible conflict with China. Only one of the 10 ends well.
Yet, as is the case with the looming threat of catastrophic global warming, disaster is not inevitable. War with China is very likely, but avoidable if we take the threat seriously and act now.
The path to avoiding war with China, Rudd argues, is to work to achieve a system of managed strategic competition that is mutually beneficial to both China and the US. This would present a compelling alternative to an inevitable slide to war.
At one level, this requires making preparations for war such that China judges the risks of acting now to be unreasonably high. Beijing is not yet ready to escalate military pressure on Taipei. It judges that it needs another five or 10 years to prepare.
Part of what is required in avoiding war is to constantly shift the calculus, so the risk of immediate action and the uncertainty of victory remain intolerably high.
Avoiding a hot war
Deterrence, backed by considerable and steadily increasing capacity, is an essential part of the response required to avoid a hot war. But so, too, is making the case for avoiding the descent into a new Cold War.
The truth is, both China and America have more to gain from strategic competition than they do from a further deterioration of relations to the point at which war becomes a live option.
China’s rise, although not without problems, has so far been a net good for the world. It can continue to be good. Australia has enjoyed decades of peaceful growth and prosperity driven by the rise of Asia and led by the transformation of China.
Constructively managed competition with China is not only essential to avoiding war, it has the potential to enable both an effective, cooperative response to the challenge of climate change and the global need for improving good governance.
A great strength of Australian approaches to defense and security, historically, has been sensible bipartisanship. There is too much at stake with national security to let short-term self-interest distort and distract.