The government’s Defence Strategic Update released in July warns the Australian public that there is now a significantly increased risk of major war.
Moreover, it could happen soon. It states: “The prospect of high-intensity conflict in the Indo-Pacific, while still unlikely, is less remote than in the past. Australia can no longer rely on timely warning ahead of conflict occurring.”
The increased risk of war has been obvious to allied security analysts for some time as they have watched China and the United States sharpen their strategic planning, accelerate their defence acquisition programs and quicken the pace of their military operations.
What is strange, however, is that the two sides appear to be preparing for different kinds of war.
In the event of such a catastrophe, the US and its close allies plan to use their advanced, highly networked military capabilities to track down and destroy all hostile maritime forces in the Indo-Pacific.
Priorities include the island chains stretching from Japan and Taiwan in the north to Indonesia and Papua New Guinea in the south.
This campaign would be designed to re-establish undisputed allied dominance in the Western Pacific and place great pressure on Beijing to sue for peace.
The Western allies mostly assume that such a conflict would be fast and furious and, when combined with a tightening of international trade and finance, would end the war quickly.
Beijing’s approach to a major conflict in the Indo-Pacific is markedly different.
China’s military doctrine and defence planning draws on the Communist Party’s history of largely successful military campaigns against advanced technology opponents from the nationalist Kuomintang, the Japanese Imperial Army, allied forces in Korea, as well as Chinese-supported communist forces in Vietnam.
Beijing would aim to demonstrate to allied publics the futility of continuing the struggle.
All of China’s major military campaigns during the last century have been preceded by subversive operations deep into "enemy territory". This is the framework within which Chinese agencies have been conducting intensive information, propaganda and intelligence operations against the Western allies in recent years.
Cyber and traditional espionage techniques have been used to penetrate allied business and government organisations, steal vast quantities of intellectual property, recruit agents and conduct other operations to undermine, weaken and divide the US and its allies.
The Chinese view these preparations of the battlefield as a major strategic advantage should a violent conflict erupt at short notice.
Were tensions to escalate into a shooting war, the Chinese envisage three main combat phases.
In the first phase, they are structured to launch hundreds of medium- and long-range ballistic and cruise missiles, strike aircraft and special force raiding parties against allied military forces, bases and infrastructure nodes across the region.
While these attacks would likely inflict extensive damage within the first 48 hours, Beijing expects allied forces to strike back hard and seriously damage China’s military forces, especially in its maritime approaches.
In the second combat phase, the Chinese expect an extended stalemate in which both sides would suffer further combat losses, but Beijing’s expanded political warfare and subversion operations would undermine the morale and willpower of allied publics.
Beijing plans to make continuation of the war contentious and very divisive in the West.
Then in the third combat phase, the Chinese plan a range of offensive operations against the US and its allies, many of which would take unexpected forms and strike in unexpected places.
Beijing would aim to demonstrate to allied publics the futility of continuing the struggle. They plan to exhaust and outlast the allies politically and force their eventual collapse.
This outlook raises important questions for allied security planners. In the event of a major war, Beijing will have as much if not more of a say over the shape of the conflict as Washington.
There is a risk that the West’s heavy focus on a high-technology, rapidly paced short war that is almost exclusively military may prove to be inadequate. By applying almost all Western resources to winning that type of conflict the allies may be preparing for the wrong war.
These are dangerous and very uncertain times for Australia and its allies. But Beijing is now confronted by a worsening economic outlook, an ageing population, a resurgent US military and much stronger international headwinds.
There have also been reports of domestic dissent in parts of the country and critical commentary by some members of the Chinese Communist Party.
The regime has responded by preparing the Chinese people for future crises with heavy doses of Leninist-Stalinist ideology, nationalist rhetoric and tightened information and physical controls.
President Xi Jinping talks about his struggle with the West as “fighting while embracing”, “preparing for a new long march”, and in recent weeks he has compared the challenges ahead to “fighting a protracted war".
One of the risks is that if Xi feels the survival of his regime is seriously threatened, he may be tempted to unite the country behind the party by launching a major military campaign against Taiwan, through the South China Sea or into northern India.
Given this disturbing outlook, we and our security partners need to be well prepared and vigilant. But we must also be sure that our assumptions about a major conflict in the Indo-Pacific are accurate. The credibility of allied deterrence, defence and reassurance across the region depend on it.