Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 5 July 2021

 US must be clear: hit an ally and we hit back

Military vehicles carry DF-31AG intercontinental ballistic missiles during a parade at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 2019. Picture: AFP
Military vehicles carry DF-31AG intercontinental ballistic missiles during a parade at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 2019. Picture: AFP

The editor of Beijing’s Global Times – which belongs to the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily – has threatened Australia with “retaliatory punishment”, with missile strikes “on the military facilities and relevant key facilities on Australian soil”, if we send Australian Defence Force troops to assist the US and participate in war with the People’s Liberation Army over Taiwan.

The specific threat made by editor Hu Xijin on May 7 is: “China has a strong production capability, including producing additional long-range missiles with conventional warheads that target military objectives in Australia when the situation becomes highly tense.” It is remarkable that such a blatant threat has received so little attention by the Australian media.

The key phrase used by the Global Times is “long-range missiles with conventional warheads”. But, even with soph­isti­cated intelligence methods, it can be virtually impossible to detect reliably the difference between an incoming missile with a conventional warhead from one with a nuclear warhead. This is made more difficult by the fact China co-mingles conventional with nuclear warheads in its theatre missile forces. But why the emphasis on conventional? It may be aimed at reassuring the US that China will not be attacking Australia with nuclear weapons.


However, Beijing is not only careless about how Washington might be prevailed on to accept the difference between conventional and nuclear long-range missile strikes. There is the additional problem that some of what China terms the “relevant key facilities on Australian soil” would be critical for US understanding of the nature of such a conflict and whether escalation could be controlled. For example, taking out the joint US-Australian intelligence facility at Pine Gap might be seen in Washington as an attempt to blind any warnings of deliberate nuclear escalation by Beijing.

In the Cold War, this sort of danger was well understood. In my experience in the late 1970s and ’80s, Moscow made it clear to us that attacks on Pine Gap, Nurrungar and North West Cape would occur in the context of an all-out nuclear war.

The Soviet leaders knew that blinding Washington in the early stages of a nuclear exchange would be a foolish act, not helping the continuing existence of any post-nuclear Soviet Union.

The problem with Beijing is that it does not seem to see any benefit in detailed discussions about high-level nuclear arms negotiation with any other country. It does not understand the value of detailed discussions about nuclear warfighting. This is a dangerous gap in Chinese understanding about war – especially as its strategic nuclear warheads, which number “in the low 200s” according to the Pentagon, are barely credible as a second-strike capability.

However, US estimates suggest China is planning to double its strategic nuclear forces in the near future and The Weekend Australian last Saturday has reported that Beijing is building more than 100 new silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles in the northwest of the country. All this suggests movement away from a minimum nuclear deterrent force.

By comparison, the US has 1500 deployed strategic nuclear warheads and another 5000 or so stockpiled or retired. (Russia has a similar number of strategic nuclear warheads totalling about 6800.) However, Beijing has about 2000 theatre missiles capable of targeting much of the Indo-Pacific. Most of these are nuclear-armed but some of its conventionally armed theatre missiles already can target the north of Australia.

The main point here for Australia is that unless we acquire extremely long-range missiles, we will not be able to retaliate against any attack on us. In any case, for a country our size to consider attacking a large power such as China is not a credible option.

So, resolving the threat posed by the Global Times depends on the US making it clear to Beijing that any missile attack on Australia as the US’s closest ally in the Indo-Pacific region would provoke an immediate response by Washington on China’s territory.

The US has an overwhelming superiority in being able to deliver prompt global conventional precision strikes.

Beijing also needs to understand that because of the density and geographical distribution of its population it is the most vulnerable among continental-size countries to nuclear war. The virtual conurbation that extends from Beijing in the north to Shenzhen in the south would make it particularly susceptible to massive destruction in an all-out nuclear war. China would no longer exist as a functioning modern society.

As far as Australia is concerned, the growing torrent of threats and bullying from Beijing mean we need to have a much clearer understanding from our US ally about extended deterrence, including not just nuclear deterrence but also conventional deterrence against Chinese long-range theatre missiles with conventional warheads.

Moreover, the time is rapidly approaching for us to consider acquiring a missile system capable of defending us against ballistic missile attack. The first step could be to fit this capability to the air warfare destroyers, while noting that a nationwide capability would need to be much more extensive.

When marking the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party last Thursday, Xi Jinping made the facile claim that the Chinese nation does not carry aggressive traits “in its genes”. However, we cannot rely on the words of a communist dictator such as Xi. In the final analysis, we depend on the US – as the only military superpower in the world – to deter China from escalation dominance and its threatened use of ballistic missiles against us.

Paul Dibb is emeritus professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University. He is a former deputy secretary of the Department of Defence and a former director of the Defence Intelligence Organisation.

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