Shaping Allied Strategy to Deal with China


Recently, I had a chance to talk with Dr. Ross Babbage about his most recent work on the nature of the challenge which China poses to the liberal democracies. His work over the past few years has focused on the nature of the comprehensive challenges posed by the 21st century authoritarian powers, and the importance of Australia and its allies shaping the policy tools and responses required to protect our interest.

Recently, he published an article in the Australian Journal of Defence and Strategic Studies which focused on “Ten questionable assumptions about future war in the Indo-Pacific,”[1] and a jointly authored report entitled, Which Way the Dragon? [2]

Our discussion drew upon both of these sources.

He started by underscoring the rapidity of change, which means that there is a need for a range of options for forecasting Chinese behavior. He argued as well that the dynamics of change within China itself are not well understood, which makes forecasting behavior and shaping consensual policy responses in allied countries even more difficult.

“If you are relying on a single scenario to forecast Chinese behavior, you are very likely to get things badly wrong.”

He highlighted that in Which Way the Dragon?, the team constructed four very different scenarios and he argued that as events unfold, you can look at a particular event as falling into one scenario stream or another. They become lead indicators of a particular future rather than isolated events.

This allows for timely strategy and policy planning decisions with the nature of the probable future already known. It makes the most of trend lines rather than making unimodal judgements in response to individual events.

The four core scenarios can be read in detail in the report but break down into four trajectories.

The first one is Xi Jinping’s dream and his policies come to fruition with Chinese dominance. “We find that very unlikely, but if all the events unfolding over the next few years break well for China, then his dream could be realized.”

The second is they muddle through. The party survives to 2035 but does so by means of compromising domestically and globally in various ways to stay in power.

The third is regime change with China becoming primarily a nationalistic regime using international adventures to consolidate its power.

The fourth is Macro Singapore. The regime adopts dramatic liberalizing reforms so that the core problems within China are addressed, not by repression, but by fundamental regime change.

The central goals are to understand the likely future shape of China in a very timely manner: how China will generate conflict and how to get ahead of the game in dealing with it?

Babbage argued that the challenge will be not only to compete with China but also to be well placed to deter and fight an intense kinetic conflict if that is required.

How to manage crisis with a regime in significant flux and with a wide range of alternative futures?

Babbage argued that the Chinese currently view conflict as operating in “four layers.”  Some Chinese see the four layers as a sequence that they anticipate during the course of a future war with the allies. This thinking echoes the strategic approach of the Chinese Communist Party when it has faced technologically superior opponents in the past – the Kuomintang, the Japanese Imperial Army, UN forces in Korea and in supporting Hanoi’s long campaign during the Vietnam War.

The first layer is political warfare. One of the goals of this political warfare is the inclusion of Taiwan into China. The focus is upon extensive intrusion, interference and manipulation within the liberal democracies and their partners. The agencies of the Chinese Communist Party aim to divide and conquer all of its international opponents and especially a fractured “Western alliance.”

The second layer is a more intense kinetic phase. The PLA has deployed significant strike capabilities, especially their large number of theater ballistic and cruise missiles. “A lot of their capability is unlikely to survive for very long. Their intent is to use most of these missiles early and try and destroy as much allied capability as they can in the Indo-Pacific in initial strikes.”

But while many Western military planners think this would be the “war,” the Chinese do not.

The third phase is a long stalemate. “They don’t plan to surrender, even though they will have taken substantial losses. They plan to draw it out foster the “peace movements” in the West, further accelerate their offensive political warfare operations and stimulate as much disruption and division as they can. They repeat Mao’s famous saying about seeking “a monopoly on patience” and forcing a prolonged war on his opponents.

The Chinese Communist Party logic is that so long as they are not defeated, they are winning.” The CCP’s goal will be to induce a collapse of political will in allied capitals in a long war, whereas most allied efforts are directed towards winning a speedy, clinical military victory on a distant battlefield.”

The fourth phase is an evolution of the third that uses various asymmetric means to continue to inflict pain on the West. The goal: “You’re not going to come out of this well, you cannot win and so you must compromise.”

How then should the West respond?

Above all, it is to understand that we are in this competition for the long haul. “There is a clear need for enhanced resilience and endurance to defend our societies.”

“The term I use is “all-threats resilience” It’s all about resilience. There are currently many programs running in Australia to strengthen the resilience to protect the community against viruses, bushfires and other natural disasters.

“But, there is also increasing focus on making sure that Australia is better prepared for other contingencies, including the ones we are focusing on in this discussion. The clear aim of the Australian Government is to build much more resilience than we have had in the recent past.

“We’re focused on how to have enhanced supply chain resilience, certainly with the United States, but also with other friends, like Japan and South Korea.”

He noted that Australia has expanded its discussions with India, Indonesia and our South Pacific and other Southeast Asian friends about how to shape common responses to the challenges. And he noted that there are opportunities to take Australian rare earth resources, other critical minerals and other key capabilities not only for Australia’s benefit but also to assist our friends. He sees a good prospect for developing a new coalition of trusted, democratic partners to shape fresh, approaches to the resilience of the community of “trusted partners.”

This applies as well to the information space. There is a need to address the challenges of the dysfunctional media operating in the United States and not just in the authoritarian states.

He noted that there is a rising tide of unease and even anger in Asia with regard to China, and Australia is working to turn these deepening concerns into practical policy capabilities, trusted supply chains and greater resilience in the region to resist authoritarian coercion.

Babbage believes the next five years are the primary years of danger as Xi appears to see the window closing on his dream scenario of global ascendancy. Growth in the Chinese economy has slowed markedly, debt is at very high levels and the demographic drag driven by a rapidly aging population and a collapsing workforce are all starting to tell.   “The leadership worries that the sort of advantages that they have now, they’re probably not going to have in five-to-ten years.”

He concluded by arguing that “the tide is actually starting to move in our strategic direction. But we have a lot of work to do and we have a long way to go.”

Editor’s Note: The entry describing the “10 questionable assumptions” article follows:

Are the Indo-Pacific allies certain that their defence planning for the coming two decades is built on sound foundations? Many Western security analysts assume that a modernised version of their highly networked, combined arms operations will be able to prevail in any major conflict in the Indo-Pacific. 

But is this right?

If there is to be a major war in the Indo-Pacific, it is likely to involve a struggle between China and a small number of supporters on the one hand and the United States and its allies and partners on the other. The precise sequence of events in such a catastrophe is difficult to predict but it is certain that Beijing will have as much, or even more, say over the shape of the conflict as Washington.

This is a serious problem for the West because the core agencies of the Chinese government bring strategic cultures, strategies, operational concepts and priorities to the Indo-Pacific that are markedly different from our own. When viewed in this context, even an advanced version of conventional Western strategies and operations could prove seriously inadequate.

The Western allies need to ensure they plan to deter and, if necessary, to fight and win a future war, not just a part of a war, or even the wrong war.

There are at least ten reasons for doubting that the West’s perception of future war in the Indo-Pacific is sound.

For the text of the full article see:

[1] Ross Babbage, “Ten questionable assumptions about future war in the Indo-Pacific,” Australian Journal of Defence and Strategic Studies (August 21, 2020),

[2] Ross Babbage, et. al., Which Way the Dragon? Sharpening Allied Perceptions of China’s Strategic Trajectory (CSBA, August 2020).