Australia must remain vigilant about the “grave possibility” of military coercion from China, with the global power now within striking range of Australian shores.
A new report from the Lowy Institute warns that while the prospect of immediate Chinese military action against Australia remains low, the nation’s newly developed military capabilities arm it with long-range power capacities that “dwarf anything Japan threatened Australia with during the Second World War”.
“China’s recent military development constitutes the greatest expansion of maritime and aerospace power in generations,” wrote senior fellow of the Centre for a New American Security Tom Shugart.
“(This) is most obviously seen in its expanding long-range missile force, bomber force, and modernising blue-water navy.”
Mr Shugart warned that without assistance from allies and partners, China “already possesses the capability to strike Australia from existing bases with bomber aircraft and long-range missiles”.
China’s ballistic missiles force is the largest in the world and is expanding rapidly.
“This force continues to grow at a rate that only makes sense for the purpose of severely threatening US and allied capabilities in the western Pacific,” the Lowy report warned.
Mr Shugart said Australian policymakers should be particularly concerned about the “crown jewel” of the Chinese military – the DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile.
While China’s missiles do not appear to possess the range to threaten Australia directly from the Chinese mainland, if China were to deploy its missiles from its South China Sea island bases, this may no longer be the case.
With the ongoing and potential development of future weapon systems such as precise conventional intercontinental-range missiles, there is no clear obstacle to China developing weapons that could strike Australia from the Chinese mainland, warned Mr Shugart.
“Certainly, the clear trend over time has been China’s development of precise missiles with ever-greater range, with no clear endpoint in sight,” he said.
But it’s not all doom and gloom for Australia for the time being.
Mr Shugart said that while defence policy should remain vigilant about low-probability, high-consequence global events, war between Australia and China “remains a remote possibility”.
“Assuming ongoing US involvement and support, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is unlikely to be able to seriously threaten the environment in Australia’s immediate region, nor Australia’s sovereignty, in the immediate future,” he said.
But Mr Shugart insisted Australians must stay aware of the potential for China’s economic coercion of Australia to quickly evolve into military coercion.
“As the reach of China’s power projection capability grows, one need only ask Vietnam and the Philippines – both subject to threats of force by Chinese naval and maritime constabulary forces in recent years — what Chinese military coercion feels like,” he said.
“Australians should be clear-eyed enough to recognise that similar treatment could be in store for them.”