Australia's escalating rift with China could see the hypothetical prospect of war swiftly become a reality if the government doesn't urgently rethink its approach, according to a leading expert on Australia's strategic defence.
Hugh White, an emeritus professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, has warned about the serious consequences that could arise from not adequately addressing tensions with China.
Officials in the Morrison government have increasingly warned of war. Such a prospect could prove nuclear, Prof White warned.
"Now our government has begun, with disconcerting nonchalance, to talk of war," he wrote in The Saturday Paper.
"And yet our government seems to have no idea how serious, and dangerous, our situation has become, and has no viable plan to fix it. This must count as one of the biggest failures of statecraft in Australia’s history."
Prof White is a former deputy secretary of the Department of Defence, wrote Australia's Defence White Paper 2000 and is the author of How to Defend Australia. Few people have given more thought to the defence of Australia in the modern world.
On the current trajectory, he believes China's growing power and assertiveness could force opposing regions into "the biggest war the world has seen since 1945", putting Australia in an unwinnable position.
"It would be a war the US and its allies would have no clear chance of winning. Indeed, it is not even clear what winning a war with a country such as China means. And it would very likely become a nuclear war," he wrote.
Recent reports from the government saying Australia's troops should be ready for a military conflict suggest Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Defence Minister Peter Dutton are prepared to go to war with China, Prof White noted.
He urged against any notion of heated conflict and implored the Federal Government to rethink its relationship with China from the ground up.
China's inevitable rise needs to be accepted, combined with "a new order in Asia" which includes the rise of India and Indonesia.
"Australia must conceive a new relationship with China, one that takes account of this reality and works to balance and protect the full range of our interests ... this would require hard work, deep thought and subtle execution. It would mean a revolution in our foreign policy."
Collapse in relations will have long-term consequences
While Mr Morrison has so far been successful in downplaying the economic consequences of Australia's trade tension with China, he can only get away with this approach for so long.
Record iron ore prices have offset earnings lost from an array of Australian commodities China has blocked in recent months.
Beijing on Thursday pulled the plug on the China-Australia Strategic Economic Dialogue framework.
In suspending the arrangement, China described Australia as exhibiting a "Cold War mindset" and accused the Government of "ideological discrimination".
The provocation could dampen Australia's economic prospects in coming years as China reacted angrily to the Federal Government cancelling Chinese investments in Australia.
"We will be a much poorer country as a result" of the souring economic ties, Prof White said.
"But this economic loss is trivial compared with the strategic costs and risks that we run by advocating a policy of containment against China."
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