Former United States wrestling coach, Mark Riptoe said, strong people are harder to kill than weak people, and more useful in general. Riptoe meant the strength to remain free from control. History demonstrates free people do not remain free if they are unable to defend themselves. Now, there is much talk of war, in relation to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) ambitions for Taiwan. At its core, war is a contest between freedom and control. The question for Australia is, are we really prepared to go all out to defend Taiwan against the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the CCP; a regime without restraint. Australia needs to get its head around what this might mean.
The successful application of war is the concentration of strength against weakness. The unvarnished reality is Australia has a shallow pool of material resilience and self-reliance. That’s why the Aukus agreement and the Quad (Australia, India, US and Japan) could be so important. Yet, only if there is real resolve. Still, the Aukus nuclear-powered (not armed) submarines may be nothing more than a political fantasy. Recent US war-gaming demonstrates its chances against the PLA are dismal. The US exit from Afghanistan revealed its military leadership is distracted. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley says he is focused on what he calls ‘white rage’. Anyway, Milley told political author Bob Woodward he’d give the CCP a heads-up should the US decide to attack.
If the new Cold War turns hot over Taiwan the scale of attrition could be colossal and unlikely to be tolerated politically. For the last twenty years our frame of reference for war has been Afghanistan; a low-intensity, counterinsurgency campaign. This does not represent the scale of war against the PLA. Surprisingly, lessons can be learned from the Ukraine.
What the hell has the Ukraine got to do with it? To begin with in April 2014, a democratic nation was invaded by its former parent. In 1991, the Ukraine became independent from the Soviet Union. Russian President Vladimir Putin believes the Ukraine should be controlled by the motherland. Arguably Putin is continuing the Brezhnev Doctrine. Named after former Soviet president Leonid Brezhnev (1906 – 1982), a threat to socialist rule in any state of the Soviet bloc was a threat to them all. This was used to justify the 1968 Soviet-led occupation of Czechoslovakia. Much like how the Victorian government dealt with those challenging lockdowns, Brezhnev used force to normalise the situation for the good of the population. This is how Xi views the CCP’s relationship with Taiwan. Normalisation through control.
At first the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Eastern Ukraine were destablised by ‘pro-Russian militia groups’. Putin claimed any Russian soldiers involved were volunteers on holiday. Russian armed forces then conducted two large-scale offensives in August 2014 and January 2015 involving thousands of troops. They combined with massive artillery fire destroying Ukrainian units from afar. This shaped the conditions for Moscow to negotiate a favourable ceasefire-agreement. By 2019, around seven per cent of the Ukraine was occupied by Russia. What has the freedom-loving European Union done about it? They observed and made speeches. Although they became really fired up when US President Donald Trump told them to get their Nato defences into shape.
If only the Ukraine had followed Riptoe’s advice and maintained its physical strength. Instead, it succumbed to post-Soviet kleptocracy. In late 1991, the armed force of the Ukraine was a giant with nearly 1 million personnel, thousands of tanks, personnel carriers, aircraft and hundreds of warships. It had 176 intercontinental ballistic missiles including 2,500 tactical nuclear weapons. It became an arms bazaar for the likes of Viktor Bout. Weakness set in.
Then there is the physical toll. Since 2014 the Ukraine has lost 4,000 soldiers. Around 13,000 civilians have died, including those on Malaysian Flight MH17, which saw 38 Australian citizens and residents killed. Over 13 years of war in Afghanistan, Australia lost 41 soldiers. Remember the national heartache when every one of those soldier’s names was revealed by the prime minister of the day. Hard to say how many would be lost in the defence of Taiwan. At a minimum it could be hundreds within weeks. During the war in Afghanistan no battleships, aircraft, submarines or tanks were lost. Our trading routes, supply lines, manufacturing capability, cyber infrastructure, fuel stores and sea lanes were never in doubt. Our nation was not mobilised.
A probable scenario in defence of Taiwan is the CCP simultaneously launching conventional military forces and ‘grey-zone’ tactics such as through its armed fishing fleet and pro-CCP militia and activists it has cultivated and infiltrated – not just into Taiwan, but across the region. The Australian Defence Force (ADF) is superbly trained and highly adaptable at this style of combat operations. A conflict bouncing around our northern waters and islands within our sphere of influence might be a scenario Australia could sustain; but for how long? Don’t forget those South China Sea islands the CCP said they would never militarise. They would be used to strike our naval assets. All before we even reach Taiwan. And when would our Quad or Aukus friends intervene? The leader of our most important partner is a rambling, ice-cream eater who doesn’t even know his own government’s policy on Taiwan.
Alternatively, the CCP might launch a massive missile strike to end it swiftly. Especially since allied forces would be well within range as they closed in on Taiwan. The CCP doesn’t have to destroy the US and its allies. Just bloody them into realising it’s not worth it. Fearful that the CCP might push on after Taiwan. Again, Taiwan is vanquished and Australia would have lost significant people and hardware necessary for defending ourselves. Australia could face another John Curtin moment and find itself on its own.
The late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher (1925 – 2013), explained that deterring wars and being in a position to win wars that are forced upon one are two sides of the same coin: both requiring continuous investment in defence and a constant and unbending resolution to resist aggression.
Unfortunately, today there are no Churchills, Eisenhowers, Thatchers or Reagans – they would not be tolerated.
Just imagine Churchill’s tweets.
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