War involving China in the Indo-Pacific increasingly likely, former defence minister warns

A video shows a crew of pilots board a Chinese Air Force H-6k bomber and take off into a sparkling dawn sky, directed by senior military strategists on the ground.

When in position, a red button is pressed, deploying a nuclear-capable missile that plummets towards its target — the United States of America’s Anderson Air Force Base on the island of Guam.

Aerial footage shows a fireball engulfing everything in its path, as the victorious Chinese bomber crew turn towards home.

Back on the ground, the airmen grin widely and chat happily, now thousands of miles from the death and destruction they’ve unleashed.

These scenes were depicted in a highly stylised propaganda film released by the People’s Liberation Army last September, sending chills down the spine of defence officials in Australia and the US.

The clip quickly went viral for a number of reasons – its sinister tone, primarily, but also for its creators having lifted chunks of footage from Hollywood blockbuster films like The Hurt Locker.

But as time goes on, fewer and fewer observers in the West are laughing about the provocative video.

There are fears that fantasies like these are a dark insight into what Beijing has planned in our backyard, the strategically crucial Indo-Pacific region.

War. And a former Australian defence minister now believes deadly conflict is increasingly inevitable … and within five to 10 years’ time.

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China’s military threats ‘are not rhetoric’

In the modern era, it’s not been uncommon for China to become easily offended and lash out diplomatically at those it perceives to have hurt its pride.

But those overtures are no longer harmless. Beijing has the means and the nerve to put words into action.

Former Defence Minister Christopher Pyne, a now-retired veteran Liberal MP and minister in several governments, said as much in a keynote speech last night said as much.

In his address to graduating students at the University of Adelaide, Mr Pyne declared that “the strategic posture of the People‘s Republic of China is not as benign as it was”.

“The reality is that China is confident and capable and is not embarrassed to show it,” Mr Pyne said, adding that the likelihood of war in our neighbourhood is increasingly high.

“Five years ago, I would‘ve said that the possibility was very unlikely, now I would have to say that the possibility is more likely than it was then.

“Not a cyber war, but a real one involving loss of life, destruction of military platforms, with aggressors and defenders on different sides.

“This isn’t rhetoric, this is something that you and I may well have to confront in the next five to 10 years.”

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Mr Pyne is now a lobbyist for defence contractors, it should be pointed out.

But Professor John Blaxland, an expert in international security and intelligence at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU, told news.com.au that he’s inclined to agree about a sense of growing risk of conflict involving China.

“Pyne’s speech reflects a growing consensus that in terms of capability and intent – the two benchmarks for intelligence forecasts – the threat looks set to peak in the next five to 10 years,” Professor Blaxland said.

“I note though, that China has been masterful at salami-slicing its way to achieve its outcomes, operating below the threshold that would warrant a heavy handed-kinetic military response. China has been cleverly avoiding presenting a ‘nail’ to the US military’s ‘hammer’. It’s taken this approach to the Himalayas, the South China Sea, and elsewhere.

“Pyne’s remarks appear to reflect a deepening sense of urgency, of raising community awareness of the need to take defence and security more seriously than we have for generations.”

The US is considered to have the strongest and best-resourced military in the world, spending US$718 billion (A$941 billion) in 2019-20.

But China is growing its defence spending too. Its disclosed budget for 2021 is US$210 billion (A$275 billion).

“China‘s military is very capable in an asymmetric war against the US and its allies around the island chains of the western Indo-Pacific and South East Asia — Australia is one of those allies,” Mr Pyne said.

Why Chinese video depicted the bombing of Guam

Guam is hot, humid and tropical, and the climate is pretty much the same all year round, which is why it attracts to many tourists.

It’s visually beautiful, extremely friendly and overflowing with culture.

But look at the location of Guam on a map and you’ll begin to understand why this 50-kilometre long and 19km wide island is so important to the US.

One-third of the total land area is consumed by military installations, occupied by thousands of personnel.

Its presence is perhaps the most strategically vital to the US in the Pacific.

The simulated attack on Anderson Air Force Base on the island of Guam isn’t the first act of aggression Beijing has shown towards the US territory.

China’s military has also been testing a ballistic missile that it chillingly nicknamed “the Guam killer”.

Admiral Philip Davidson is the head of the US Navy’s Indo-Pacific Command and has expressed his grave concern about the preparedness of Guam to defend itself from attack, as well as to defend the region.

Last month, he appeared before Congress to urge the government to fund a new missile defence base in the Pacific.

The US$77 million (A$100 million) spend would construct an integrated air and missile defence system, with associated weapons delivery, on Guam.

Admiral Davidson stressed the system was a crucial part of a broader strategy, the US$27 billion (A$35 billion) Pacific Deterrence Initiative, to push back against China’s military threat in the region.

“It’s the key piece that we’re missing, that signals to the region that the US is a reliable and committed security partner, that we are there to defend not only US territory but our interests abroad,” Admiral Davidson said.

Such a system would further demonstrate to Beijing that it “can’t knock Guam out with an easy shot”.

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Among the Pacific Deterrence Initiative’s measures are the development of new defences in Japan and Hawaii, an upgrade of “undersea warfare” capabilities and greater military co-operation with Australia.

The US is also mulling over boosting its ground missile stock on Guam, capable of firing on targets more than 500km away.

“Guam is a target today, it needs to be defended, and it needs to be prepared for the threats that will come in the future,” Admiral Davidson told Congress.

“Guam is not just a place that we believe that we can fight from, as we have for many decades — we are going to have to fight for it.”

Guam isn’t the only location at risk from China’s growing military presence in the Indo-Pacific region.

Multiple flashpoints in the region

In his speech on Monday, Mr Pyne said Beijing’s bolshie behaviour in recent times – brushing off international condemnation of its mistreatment of Uyghurs, attempting to roll back democratic freedoms in Hong Kong, and its trade war with Australia – shows it means business.

And its recent massing of Chinese ships at the Whitsun Reef in the Philippines has sparked fury and concern.

“(Beijing) feels strong enough to press its claims over the South China Sea and despite assuring the second Obama administration in Washington that it would not militarise reefs and shoals, go ahead and do so anyway,” Mr Pyne said.

“Most concerning of all, it has turned up pressure on Taiwan, the most likely next flashpoint in the region.”

Michael Shoebridge, director of defence, strategy and national security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said deterring Beijing from striking Taiwan “won’t come from political engagement alone”.

“Christopher Pyne is right to say that governments across the region need to take Chinese aggression and confidence seriously to reduce the risk of conflict with an overconfident China,” Mr Shoebridge told news.com.au.

“As we saw with Obama and the South China Sea, Xi [Jinping, China’s president] exploits engagement that isn’t backed up with strengthened military deterrence – meaning sufficient military capabilities combined with the political will to use them.”

In an interview on Sunday, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken warned China it was watching its aggressive movements closely and would step in if forced.

The next day, the People’s Liberation Army flew 25 warplanes into Taiwan’s restricted airspace, marking the largest incursion so far.

In speaking to Congress last month about the defensive and offensive readiness of Guam, Admiral Davidson made a point of mentioning Taiwan.

Boosting the island’s capabilities would show Beijing that the US stood ready and able to intervene in the event of an attack by China on Taiwan.

And America’s most senior diplomat in Australia, Michael Goldman, said last month that the two countries had discussed scenarios for a military conflict over Taiwan.

“I think we‘re committed as allies to working together, not only in making our militaries interoperable and functioning well together but also in strategic planning,” Mr Goldman said during an appearance on an ANU podcast.

“And when you look at strategic planning, it covers the range of contingencies that you‘ve mentioned, of which Taiwan is obviously an important component.”

That unity among allies to stand up if China makes a move on Taiwan will be a key measure of prevention, Mr Shoebridge believes.

“Deterring Beijing isn’t just about the US. It’s a multilateral effort involving the US, groups like the Quad (a security coalition comprising the US, Australia, Japan and India), along with broader allies and partners.

“But the challenge to us is to change Xi’s calculations about taking risk in the expectation others won’t respond in a united way.

“This, at core, is about seeing the problems face from Beijing – like the threats if force against Taiwan – as part of the common challenge we all face from China under Xi.”

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