If you wish for peace, prepare for war.
The Romans knew a thing or two about warfare, and about keeping the peace. After a century in which the two bloodiest wars in human history were fought, we ought to, too, but the response in some quarters to the formation of Aukus suggests that some are slow learners. The greatest of those wars, and many smaller scale conflicts, were fought because peace-loving nations failed to take seriously the declared ambitions of tyrannical aggressors and to arm themselves accordingly, and because those aggressors mistakenly concluded that their adversaries lacked either the means to fight back, or the will; usually some combination of the two.
Does anyone seriously think that General Galtieri would have occupied the Falklands, had he known that Britain could summon both the will and the means to oppose him? Even if he might not have foreseen that his aggression would end in humiliating defeat, his actions were motivated by a belief in British acquiescence – a belief reinforced by British diplomatic ineptitude. Merely assuring him of determined opposition would likely have deterred him, saving thousands of lives.
Does anybody seriously think that Saddam Hussein would have invaded Kuwait if he had foreseen the outcome? Or that he would have persisted in his breaches of the terms of the subsequent peace, had not the UN done such a good job of convincing him that, huff and puff though its members might, they would never actually invade Iraq and hunt him down like a rat? The two Gulf wars cost hundreds of thousands of lives, and it’s conventional to blame those deaths on the actions of the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ for waging them. Yet the blame for convincing Hussein that he could get away with his egregious conduct surely lies with the UN Security Council for its habit of issuing stern admonitions threatening ‘serious consequences’ if he didn’t mend his ways, while simultaneously agreeing vociferously that those consequences should never include military action. Leaving aside the obvious question as to just what consequences they did think would deter a man like Hussain, it’s difficult to think of a course of action more likely to make war, eventually, inevitable.
Time and again, then, we have seen wars fought, not because the good guys were too aggressive, but precisely because they were not bellicose enough, and failed to communicate to their more belligerent adversaries their willingness, ultimately, to fight, until it was too late. These lessons cost millions of lives, yet as the Aukus treaty beds itself into the world’s strategic landscape, the same misguided belief that tyrants can be deterred by protestations of peaceful intent alone is again manifesting itself.
My own great-grandfather played a significant role in the establishment of the League of Nations, the first of the 20th century’s attempts to institutionalise pacifism. It was a terrific idea – get together a bunch of well-meaning nations, pledge mutual security, while at the same time renouncing belligerence. There were many reasons why the League failed so spectacularly (if you don’t think World War 2 was a spectacular instance of warfare, this post isn’t for you), but a key problem lay in the contradiction, inherent in the League’s aims, between the declaration that war was a folly of the past, and the claim to be providing collective security. Another key component of the League’s failure was the refusal of the democracies to simply take Hitler and Mussolini’s many declarations of aggressive intent seriously.
In the 30s, the seductive idea of unilateral disarmament rode shotgun with the League of Nations as a panacea for war. Although never entirely successful, it, together with the financial constraints of the Depression, ensured that Britain, its Empire and its allies entered the war perilously under-armed to fight it. Britain’s ‘ten year rule’, according to which she armed herself on the premise that no war could be expected within ten years, proved especially debilitating, and has particular relevance to our present predicament.
From the point of view of the well-intentioned, this chronic under-arming, and the confidence that peaceable intent had the power to preserve peace, all looked perfectly sensible at the time. But no security pact can succeed unless it is prepared to see the world as the ill-intentioned see it – as a place divided between the meek and the conquerors. From the point of view of Mussolini and Hitler, the League merely provided a convenient megaphone through which their adversaries communicated their reluctance to oppose them. The military deficiencies of the chronically underarmed peaceable nations confirmed the dictators’ belief that they could act belligerently with impunity.
Like so many similar initiatives, the League, instead of making the world a safer place, ended up making it a safer place to go to war in.
After World War 2, the League was disbanded, but the victorious powers didn’t give up on the quest for a panacea for war, and of course the United Nations was the result. It attempted to correct the perceived flaws of its predecessor, notably the requirement for unanimity in deciding upon military action against transgressors. Instead, we got a Security council with its own killer flaw – the veto exercisable by its Permanent Members, which, with the notable exception of the Korean War, (fought while China’s seat was still occupied by Formosa/Taiwan) ensured its paralysis. Instead, the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction performed the peace-keeping task nominally assigned to the UN, and for the duration of the Cold War, the superpowers and their clients delegated their conflicts, and the prodigious loss of life that they occasioned, to the third world. Pacifism in the developed world was a noisy, but nugatory force, until the Cold War came to an end. The nuclear umbrella also provided shelter for a generation of perpetual adolescents to berate their parents’ generation for its supposed belligerence – a habit that seems to die hard.
Since its formation, the People’s Republic of China has laid claim to the island of Taiwan. Until Deng’s reforms brought it the wealth it needed to enlarge and modernise its armed forces, the PRC was not a credible military threat to a US-protected Taiwan, and it contented itself with a typically face-saving ‘one country, two systems’ formula. Seeing how the PRC has dealt with Hong Kong under similar constitutional circumstances, has reinforced Taiwanese rejection of Beijing’s claims. When the necessary wealth finally did arrive, China set about, with a vengeance, building a military establishment- that far exceeds its defensive needs. It beggars belief that it does not intend to use its offensive capability, either operationally, in the form of acts of aggression, or, and this is in the first instance more likely, diplomatically, in the form of more or less explicit threats of aggression, should it be denied its territorial wishes.
Until very recently, China’s regular intrusions into Taiwanese airspace and territorial waters have been met by American bluster and finger-wagging, but nothing in the way of force deployment sufficient to discourage the view in Beijing that America no longer saw an attack on Taiwan as quite the casus belli it once did, and therefore not worth a try. Furthermore, China’s military rise coincided with a marked decline in America’s tolerance for putting its soldiers, airmen and sailors in harm’s way – a phenomenon we must assume is all but absent from Chinese strategic thought.
The disgraceful ineptitude with which America abandoned Afghanistan, and the fact that for the next three years it is to be presided over by a dotard whose cognitive decline becomes more apparent every day, must strike the Chinese leadership as a window of opportunity. It must foresee that the next presidential election is most likely to instal an individual chosen for his or her willingness to mount a far more credible threat than their recent predecessors to Chinese ambitions. Even more pertinently, the midterm elections next year may well turn the legislature red, and bind the Biden executive to a more robust approach to Chinese transgressions. The temptation for China to ask itself the question ‘if not now, then when?’, must be strong.
Were a Chinese military move, or even a full-scale, debilitating cyber-attack on Taiwan to be met by the sort of muddled fecklessness that characterised Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, the implications for Australia would be dire. Our independent offensive military capability is essentially zero, and our defensive capability inadequate. Our only sanction against a belligerent China would be to refuse to trade with her. Deprived of our coal and iron ore, and with US will to react seriously in doubt, the temptation, if not to invade Australia, then to issue threats of sufficient credibility to coerce us into acquiescence, would be great. China has made it clear that it sets no value upon the good opinion of the rest of the world, or of being seen as a peaceful collaborator in world affairs, and is expressing its strategic ambitions in increasingly threatening terms. In this post I have attempted to sketch out the dire consequences of failing to take seriously similar threats made by similar powers in the recent past, and of their adversaries failing to make absolutely clear what they see as their interests, their willingness to fight in defence of them, and their capability of doing so.
Australia must hope, and the formation of Aukus suggests, that those in the US administration who have their hands up their glove puppet president’s back are alive to this, but we cannot depend on it. China has made no secret of the fact that she is intent upon achieving a position of unassailable military pre-eminence, and it would be foolish to imagine that she is spending such vast sums of money merely in pursuit of prestige. Furthermore, her leaders’ tolerance for shedding the blood of her citizens and soldiers is likely to rival that of Stalin’s Soviet Union, while that of the USA is both far, far smaller and diminishing. Before it’s too late, Australia must equip itself, by a mixture of alliance-building and arms, to pose a credible defensive threat to Chinese aggression. It must use whatever diplomatic clout it can muster to persuade the US to reinvigorate its defence of Taiwanese sovereignty. Aukus and the Quad are therefore most welcome initiatives, but we need the subs now, not when they can be delivered by a building program. Leasing part of the mothballed American fleet may provide a solution, and should be urgently assessed.