The growing influence of China in international affairs has not been ignored by the US and its allies, and, in fact, they have strengthened their resolve to contain China, as evidenced by President Biden’s assertion that China’s rise is ‘…not gonna happen on [his] watch.’ The 2020 Australian Department of Defence Strategic Update states that a key security priority is managing China’s growing influence in the region, and highlights key geopolitical tensions from ‘…north-eastern Indian Ocean through maritime and mainland South East Asia to Papua New Guinea and the South West Pacific.’ The geographical areas within the Strategic Update is vast and lays out an uncertain future of where and how a potential conflict could occur in Asia, and the potential effect it would have on the countries involved and the international community.
The US has strengthened its security partnership with Australia in the last few years, such as deploying the Patriot Surface to Air Missiles during Exercise Talisman Sabre 2021— an exercise that was conducted throughout the Australian Defence Force Training Areas in Queensland. An exercise which is intended to be a show of strength from the partnership between the US and Australia.
Australia also announced a AUD$747 million expansion of the Northern Territory defence training areas. This will increase the training capability, and coordination between the defence forces of the US and Australia. However, the most strategic announcement has been the declaration of the AUKUS, a partnership between Australia, United Kingdom, and the US. A strategic partnership that cancelled Australia’s deal with France for 12 conventional submarines and in turn, will bring nuclear submarines to the Australian Navy, an asset that will enable the Navy to engage in longer missions.
In consideration of the actions by Australia and the US, and most importantly, the announcement of AUKUS this year, there is a clear shift, led by the US to contain China and prevent them from unseating the traditional US hegemony.
The US and Australia can take all necessary actions to prevent conflict from occurring, however, there is still a potential risk that a conflict with China may arise in the future. The notable confrontational conflicts involving China are Taiwan and the Spratly Islands. The US and China have differing views on Taiwan, where China wants Taiwan under its influence, and the US have affirmed its commitment to Taiwan that is ‘rock solid’ in ensuring that it can defend itself from China. China has claimed the area of the Spratly Islands, and the US has asserted that it is there to enforce the laws of the sea, freedom of navigation, and securing lines of communication.
The said conflicts could have the US and China weighing in directly or most likely, indirectly. A potential type of indirect conflict is a ‘proxy war’, famously employed in the past between the US and the USSR during the Cold War. Proxy wars are an alternative to direct confrontation that may be used for reasons such as avoiding a nuclear war. In some cases, local forces may accept assistance from great states, such as the Afghanistan war, where the US supported the rebels against the USSR.
A ‘proxy war’ could feasibly occur between China and the US, as both countries have nuclear capability and China is expanding this capability. As such, to maintain its interests and mitigate nuclear war, a ‘proxy war’ may be a consideration. The said consideration is just one example of multiple reasons for a ‘proxy war’ occurring between the US and China.
If a proxy war were to occur in the Asia Pacific region, Australia should appreciate its own position and circumstances, to ensure that any involvement meets the national interest, as any conflict would lead to a substantial contribution of resources both financially and physically.
In the past, Australia has provided air, naval and army forces—for example, Australia provided 1,550 soldiers from the Army for Afghanistan. During the Iraq War, Australia provided a small, but effective combined force, and by 2006, it provided 1,400 soldiers from the Army alone. Australia also provided geostrategic resources as a key base of operations, such as during World War 2, when General MacArthur established his headquarters in Brisbane, or most recently the rotating force of US Marines in the Northern Territory.
The Spratly Islands may be a most likely hotspot in the future, where a confrontation could arise due to the overlapping territorial claims. If the said conflict were to arise, and Australia decides to be involved, it may provide a combination of defence forces and geostrategic resources as evident by previous contributions.
It is evident that the US and Australia are strengthening their security ties to contain China. However, should a conflict arise, such as a proxy war, Australia must ensure that any involvement meets the national interest.
Aaron Santelises is a solicitor in the area of employment law and industrial relations and is an Infantry Platoon Commander with the Australian Army Reserves.