Friday essay: if growing US-China rivalry leads to 'the worst war ever', what should Australia do?

·21-min read

Should Australia join the United States in a war against China to prevent China taking the US’s place as the dominant power in East Asia? Until a few years ago the question would have seemed merely hypothetical, but not anymore.

Senior figures in the Morrison government quite explicitly acknowledged that the escalating strategic rivalry between the US and China could lead to war, and their Labor successors do not seem to disagree. That is surely correct. Neither Washington nor Beijing want war but both seem willing to accept it rather than abandon their primary objectives.

There can be no doubt that if war comes, Washington would expect Australia to fight alongside it. Many in Canberra take it for granted that we would do so, and defence policy has shifted accordingly. Our armed forces are now being designed primarily to contribute to US-led operations in a major maritime war with China in the Western Pacific, with the aim of helping the United States to deter China from challenging the US, or helping to defeat it if deterrence fails.

In fact, the risk of war is probably higher than the government realises, because China is harder to deter than they understand.

Read more: China does not want war, at least not yet. It's playing the long game

The biggest war since WWII

If war comes, Australians would face a truly momentous choice. Any choice to go to war carries special weight, because the costs and risks that must be weighed against the potential benefits are qualitatively different from those involved in other policy choices. A nation’s leaders must decide whether those exceptional costs and risks are justified by the objectives for which the war is fought.

That is a big responsibility even for the relatively small wars which Australia has joined in recent decades in Iraq and Afghanistan. But a war with China would be nothing like those. Once fighting began, there would be little chance of avoiding a major war, because the stakes for both sides are very high, and both have large forces ready for battle.

This would be the first serious war between two “great powers” since 1945, and the first ever between nuclear-armed states. It would probably become the biggest and worst war since the second world war.

If it goes nuclear, which is quite probable, it could be the worst war ever. A decision to fight in that war would be as serious as the decisions to fight in 1914 and 1939, which were arguably the most important decisions Australian governments have ever made.

It is important to be clear what the decision would be about. If war comes, it will be sparked by a dispute between the United States and China over something like Taiwan or the South China Sea.

But the specific dispute would not be the reason we would go to war with China, any more than we went to war in 1914 over the fate of Belgium or in 1939 over the fate of Poland. On both occasions the decision for war was driven by our concern to help prevent a defeat in Europe which would destroy British power in Asia, which we then relied on for our security.

We would go to war with China to preserve the US strategic position in Asia on which we depend for our security. That is not quite the same as saying that we would fight to preserve our alliance with the US. Many people assume that that would be our primary objective, because the US might abandon its commitments to us if we failed to support it.

But Washington’s disappointment with us does not threaten our US alliance nearly as gravely as Washington’s defeat by China. As long as they have strategic ambitions in Asia, Washington will have good reasons to help defend Australia. What would destroy the alliance would be American defeat and withdrawal from Asia.

Australia would be profoundly affected by a US–China war whether we joined the fighting or not. That might tempt some to think that our decision didn’t matter much one way or the other.

That obviously overlooks the consequences for those who actually serve, and the possibility that Australia itself could be targeted. But more importantly, it overlooks the possibility that Australia’s decisions would influence decisions elsewhere – including in Washington.

Recent scholarship has highlighted the remarkable weight given to Australia’s attitudes by British policymakers in the crises of 1914 and 1938–39. Douglas Newton has shown how, at a critical moment, Britain’s choice for war in 1914 was nudged by Australia’s eager support, while David Lee and David Bird have shown the influence of Stanley Bruce and Joseph Lyons on Britain’s innermost councils in 1938 and 1939.

The possibility that Australia’s choices might help to shape the ultimate decisions for war or peace in Asia over the years ahead make it all the more important that we weigh those decisions carefully.

Choices for war are profoundly shaped by historical analogy. Often this is the primary driver of a decision, in part because there is so little else to go on – nothing like the kind of data that can guide decisions on, say, tax policy or health policy.

We decide whether to go to war or not largely by looking at what our predecessors did in previous crises. Much depends, then, on which earlier crises we choose to consider, on how well we understand them, and on how closely yesterday’s crisis resembles today’s.

As Australia considers whether to join a US-China war, it is natural and prudent to look for guidance to the two previous occasions when we have faced comparably serious choices: 1914 and 1939. When we do this, we find an acute contrast between the way these two choices are now understood.

Two world wars, two lessons

Today, no one seriously doubts that we – Australia and its allies in the British Empire – were right to go to war in 1939 against Nazi Germany, nor that we were wrong not to go to war over the Czech crisis of 1938.

This was also the seemingly universal view of those who lived and fought through the war. In 1961 the historian A.J.P. Taylor noted how little interest there was in contesting the accepted view of these momentous decisions. The same is true today. The second world war is seen as a war that had to be fought.

The contrast with 1914 could hardly be starker. No one today seems seriously to doubt that the first world war should not have been fought. Again, today’s judgment matches the verdict of those who lived and fought through the war itself.

Throughout the troubled decades from 1919 to 1939 there was an almost universal belief that the war had been a ghastly mistake and should never have been fought. Ever since, and despite lively debates about details of the debacle that led to war, especially how much of the blame lay with Berlin, the clear consensus has endured that war came that long-ago summer through the collective folly, weakness and ineptitude of the statesmen involved.

The British wartime Prime Minister, Lloyd George, writing soon after the war ended, said the nations of Europe “slithered over the brink” into a war that none of them intended. Sleepwalkers, the title of Christopher Clark’s notable recent account of how it all happened, suggests how little those essential judgements have changed.

The intriguing thing about these very different verdicts is that the underlying reason for Britain and the empire going to war was much the same on both occasions. It was to prevent the domination of Europe by a single power that would then be strong enough to threaten Britain itself, and hence Britain’s capacity to defend its empire, including Australia.

Both times Germany threatened to upset the balance of power between the European Great Powers, on which Britain had relied for centuries to safeguard its security across the Channel and thus allow it to project power around the globe to build and defend its empire. After 1918 this seemed a wholly insufficient reason to go to war. And yet when the same strategic logic drove Britain and its empire to war again in 1939, this seemed entirely justified.

Read more: World politics explainer: The Great War (WWI)

Why the difference? One important reason concerns who did most of the fighting. In the first world war the hardest fighting was done by Britain and France on the Western Front. In the second world war it was done by the Soviet Union against Germany in Europe, and (as we all too easily forget) by the Chinese against Japan in Asia. That is why, for all its horrors, the second world war was less horrific for Britain and Australia than the first.

But the main reason is of course the nature of the Nazi regime. During the first world war many lurid things were believed about the evils of Prussian militarism, and some of them no doubt were true.

But no one would compare them with the truly astonishing evil of Nazi Germany, which turned out after the war to be far worse even than most people had imagined. As the liberation of Europe in 1944 and 1945 revealed the reality of life under Nazi rule, it was hard to doubt that this was a challenge that must be defeated.

Not surprisingly, the lessons that have been drawn from 1914 and 1939 are very different – indeed they are diametrically opposed. After the first world war it was universally accepted by national governments that war on that scale must be avoided at almost any cost. It was therefore always better to compromise and accommodate the ambitions of a country that wanted to change the international system in its favour, rather than fight to defend the status quo. The word they used was “appeasement”.

The lesson drawn from 1939, and especially from the failure of the last gesture of appeasement at Munich in 1938, was never to make concessions to any power that seeks to expand its influence in the international system.

Accommodation only encourages further demands. An unshakable refusal to compromise, backed by a clear determination to fight if necessary, will probably force the challenger to back off, thus avoiding war. And if they do not back off, then better to fight sooner before the challenger gets any stronger. They will have to be fought sooner or later, before they become too strong to be stopped.

It is not surprising that this stark and simple rejection of the lessons of 1914 should have appealed to people during the six hard years of the second world war. It is a bit more surprising that it has retained such a strong influence ever since.

Today these simple, powerful precepts remain perhaps the most potent element of that vague set of ideas, preconceptions and prejudices that provide the intellectual framework for foreign and strategic policy-making in the Western, and especially the Anglo-American, world.

The ideas that we should always be willing to fight rather than compromise, and that the more willing we are to fight, the less likely we are to have to fight, took on the aura of timeless precepts of universal application. As such, they had, and have, obvious appeal. They make difficult policy decisions look easy, and allow leaders and their advisers to look and sound tough.

But the results have not always been happy. The “lessons of Munich” inspired Britain’s debacle in Suez, the US’s defeat in Vietnam, their invasion of Iraq in 2003 and many other mistakes. These failures are easy to explain.

Lessons of history are inevitably tied to the original circumstances of time and place from which they are drawn, and how well they apply to new situations depends on how far and in what ways the new circumstances resemble the original ones. The lessons drawn from the failure of appeasement in 1939 are specific to the circumstances of that failure, and some of those circumstances were very unusual.

Above all, the shadow of Nazi Germany was unusual and perhaps unique in several critical ways. One was the sheer evil of the Nazi regime to which we have already referred. Another was its unusually stark and clearly stated strategic ambitions.

From Mein Kampf onwards, Hitler made clear that he planned to do more than build Germany’s position as the leading power in Europe by expanding its influence over other countries. He wanted to destroy other countries by seizing and occupying large tracts of territory to provide Lebensraum for the German people.

A third was its potential to realise its ambitions on the basis of its formidable national power – economic, demographic, technical and organisational – compared to its neighbours. Against this kind of challenge, the only possible response may well be, as the lessons of Munich suggest, unwavering and uncompromising opposition; if necessary, by fighting a major war.

But neither Nasser’s Egypt, nor Ho Chi Minh’s North Vietnam, nor Saddam Hussein’s Iraq were anything like Hitler’s Germany. The dangers they posed were nowhere near as serious as was assumed, and the costs and risks of resisting them by force turned out to be much higher than expected, and higher than could be justified to avert those dangers. Even more strikingly, however, the lessons of Munich had relatively little influence on a number of much bigger questions.

The postwar architecture hammered out between US president Franklin Roosevelt and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin at Yalta, based on the United Nations, was premised on a spirit of accommodation and compromise.

Even more strikingly, so was the West’s approach to the one adversary it faced in the postwar decades that was in some ways comparable with Nazi Germany – the Soviet Union. Western leaders sometimes invoked the follies of Munich to advertise and justify hard-line Cold War postures, but their policies were most often guided by a prudent recognition of the need to negotiate understandings with Moscow in order to avert the danger of war.

This was of course all the more imperative as the Soviet capacity for nuclear warfare grew. In the 1950s even the archetypal opponent of appeasement, Winston Churchill, became a fervent advocate of negotiation with Moscow to settle differences in order to avoid nuclear war.

In the darkest moment of the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy was influenced much more by the lessons of 1914 than by those of 1938–39, which prompted him to offer the concessions which defused the crisis. In any case, the policy of Détente that evolved in the aftermath of that crisis owed a lot more to the lessons of 1914 than those of 1938–39.

It seems clear that, as a new Cold War looms between the United States and China, the lessons of 1939 loom much larger than the lessons of 1914, both in Washington and Canberra. Washington has made it clear that it has no interest in seeking an accommodation with China that would meet any of China’s aims to expand its influence in Asia and beyond.

Washington’s talk of preserving the “rules-based liberal order” plainly embodies its intention to perpetuate the old status quo of US primacy, and its emphasis on meeting China’s military challenge reflects its willingness to go to war with China rather than to compromise that objective. In Canberra, Scott Morrison made clear the influence of Munich on his policy when, launching his government’s Defence Strategic Update in 2020, he explicitly compared today’s strategic circumstances to those of the 1930s and early 1940s.

Is this the right way to think about the problem of China? To be clear, the question is not whether we should try to resist China’s ambitions, but how far we should resist them, and at what cost. Should Australia be willing to go to war, whatever the cost may be, to preserve the US-led regional and global order, and block any expansion of Chinese power and influence? Or should we be willing, reluctantly, to accommodate some of China’s ambitions by accepting an expansion of its influence, in order to reduce the risks of war? It is not a simple question.

The lessons of Munich do not seem to offer a very helpful guide to answering it. The Chinese Communist Party has many faults and is responsible for much brutality and oppression, but it is not by any stretch comparable to the evil of the Nazi Party.

China today is certainly strategically ambitious, but there is no serious reason to fear that – the special case of Taiwan apart, its claim to which the rest of the world acknowledges – it seeks to conquer and absorb others’ territory. And although China is set to become the most powerful country on earth, it cannot dominate and subjugate such strong neighbours as India and Russia.

Overall, then, the risks that China poses to the regional and global order, though significant, are not like those posed by Nazi Germany, or indeed the Soviet Union.

On the other hand, a war with China may well be as costly as the world wars of the 20th century, or even more costly, especially if it becomes a nuclear war. That would be an almost unimaginable disaster even if our side won – a victory, as Churchill wrote of the First World War “bought so dear as to be almost indistinguishable from defeat”.

Moreover, there is no reason to assume that we and our allies would win. Indeed, it is hard to see how a major war with China could be “won” without the kind of full-scale invasion or subjugation of the enemy’s country that brought victory in the two world wars. It is somewhat easier to imagine how China could defeat the United States – by imposing such heavy costs that Washington decides to abandon the war, and withdraw from Asia to the Western Hemisphere.

That raises the very real possibility that a war with China launched to preserve the US’s position in Asia might well end up destroying it, just as the First World War destroyed the empires that went to war to preserve themselves in 1914.

Read more: Australia's untold reaction to the Cuban Missile Crisis

The limits to accommodation

What, then, do the lessons of 1914 offer as a guide to our policy choices today? In the 1920s and 1930s the majority of those who survived the first world war would have been quite clear about that.

They would say that we should avoid war at almost any price, by being willing to go a long way to accommodate China’s ambitions by according it a much larger share of influence and authority in the international system. They would have been confident, however, that China’s ambitions could be constrained by limits imposed, not by armed force, but by a powerful international institution – the League of Nations – and by what they called “international public opinion”.

They repudiated war as an instrument of policy, but they placed great faith in these alternatives to achieve what war, or the threat of war, had long been relied upon to do. Of course, this did not work.

As the historian E.H. Carr wrote just before war broke out in 1939, their misplaced confidence in these constraints, and what he later called “the almost total neglect of the factor of power” did much to create the crisis which then confronted Britain with no alternative but to go to war again.

We would be wise, then, not to follow their example. Where then to turn? We might begin by noting that the lessons of 1914 and of Munich are both aberrations. They depart from much older traditions of statecraft which had developed over many centuries as the modern European state system had emerged and evolved.

Those traditions do not by any means forswear war. Indeed, as the former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, one of its foremost contemporary exponents, wrote in the first page of his first book: “those who forswear war will never have peace”.

But the aim is always to achieve the maximum advantages without war, and that entails a willingness to negotiate and accommodate; to appease, in other words. War is not an alternative to accommodation; it is used to set the limits to accommodation and to enforce those limits.

This approach prevented any single power dominating Europe for centuries, and after the 1815 Congress of Vienna, it prevented any Europe-wide wars for almost a century until 1914. Seen in the light of this tradition, the appeasers’ mistake at Munich was not that they accommodated Hitler over Sudetenland, but that they failed to make it absolutely clear that they would go to war to deny him the rest of Czechoslovakia, or any of Poland.

As that example makes clear, the key to this kind of statecraft lies in deciding where to set the limits to accommodation. These are hard decisions to make. As we have seen, one of the attractions of the lessons of Munich as a template for strategic decision-making is its simplicity. But it achieves simplicity by lazily assuming that all ambitious powers are essentially the same and must be treated the same by refusing any accommodation.

Taking a more responsible approach requires careful judgements about the current and probable future extent of an adversary’s ambitions and power, and nuanced assessments of the implications for our future security. Then we can judge how far we can afford to accommodate them before the costs and risks of doing so exceed the costs and risks of the war we would need to fight to stop them.

Looking back, for example, it is interesting and instructive to think about the alternatives to war in August 1914. Had Britain stood aloof, France and Russia may well have been defeated, leaving Germany the unquestioned leading power in Europe. That appeared an unacceptable outcome to the majority of the cabinet in Whitehall, but a minority argued that Britain could live with it more easily than it could bear the burdens of war, and in the light of events since then they were probably right.

After all, the Germany of 1914 was not Nazi Germany. And Australia might well have been better off had the arguments for peace prevailed in Whitehall. Not only would we have been spared the losses we suffered, but Britain would have remained a stronger global power that was better able to defend its Pacific dominions than it proved to be in 1941.

Read more: Australia would be wise not to pound 'war drums' over Taiwan with so much at stake

Rhyming history

History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. As we face the challenge of a rising China we can hear the clear echoes of the choices faced by our predecessors in the last century and the centuries before that. Those echoes tell us that to meet that challenge we need to do a lot more than mouth slogans about Munich.

We have to think carefully and realistically about the nature of China’s challenge to the old order in Asia, the kind of new order that might be created to accommodate it, the safeguards that would be required to protect our most vital interests in that order, and how that might be achieved at minimum cost and risk. We must also think about how best we can influence our major ally as it addresses the same questions, because its answers will have immense significance for us.

All this is a formidable task. Indeed, it is probably the most demanding foreign policy task that Australia has ever faced. But we should not be surprised by that, when we remember that China’s rise is the biggest shift in Australia’s international setting since Europeans first settled here in 1788.

In meeting that task, it falls to the present generation of political leaders, policymakers, commentators and, ultimately, citizens around the world to navigate one of the biggest, swiftest, most disruptive and most dangerous power transitions in modern history.

One might say, too, that it falls to the current generation of historians to contribute to that work by offering a deeper understanding of the choices that were made by earlier generations navigating similar transitions.

That is not easy, because the accepted versions of earlier episodes like 1914 and 1938–39 are encrusted with tradition, sentiment and ideology, and few historians have sought to challenge or overturn these accepted versions. Perhaps more will step forward as the nature and seriousness of today’s choices, and the need to illuminate them with lessons from the past, become clearer.

One key element of such work will be the methodologically vexed but undoubtedly stimulating exploration of counterfactual histories. To assess and learn from the decisions of 1914, we need more nuanced and sophisticated views of how Europe and the British Empire would have fared had Imperial Germany dominated the Continent.

To assess and learn from the decisions of 1938 and 1939 we need to better understand what might have happened had different decisions been made. We also need to recognise and meditate on what might have happened had “our side” not won the last two major power wars. Because we might not win the next one.

This is an edited extract from Lessons from History: Leading historians tackle Australia’s greatest challenges, edited by Carolyn Holbrook, Lyndon Megarrity and David Lowe (NewSouth Press).

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Hugh White, Australian National University.

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Hugh White does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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