In The Gathering Storm, his memoir of the origins of World War II, Winston Churchill, war correspondent and later Britain’s wartime leader, wrote that at the end of the Great War of 1914-1918, there was a deep and almost universal hope that peace would reign. Are we entering a similar delusion?
To be sure, we know what happened next. As the BBC ‘s brilliant recent 17-part drama series based on archives of the Nuremberg trials recounts, Adolf Hitler turned Germany’s fragile new democracy into an anti-semitic European monster in just 13 years. Historians are still counting the millions who died during WWII and the Cold War and other conflicts that racked much of the 20th century. And yet the drums are beating again and, although it would be an exaggeration to speak of another gathering storm, there is a lot of “war talk” that should concern us.
In recent days, the first headline to catch my attention reported that General Mike Minihan, head of the United States Air Force’s Air Mobility Command (AMC), predicted the US would be at war with China in 2025. When an American four-star general makes that sort of comment, I need to know more, and was surprised to find the full text in the Air and Space Forces Magazine – a useful resource. Minihan had addressed his airmen and women on how to prepare for such an unwelcome outcome. “I hope I am wrong but my gut tells me we will fight in 2025,” he tells them, citing the coincidence that 2024 will see elections both in America and Taiwan, and that the US military’s task will be, first, to prevent a Chinese invasion of the island and then if necessary, to fight it.
Michael McCaul, the relatively new chairman of the US House of Representatives foreign affairs committee, told Fox News, “I hope he is wrong but I think he is right,” adding that if China could not take over the island without bloodshed, it would look to a military invasion. Not everyone agrees: NATO argues that Russia’s experience in Ukraine might dissuade Beijing from going ahead.
There is also a provocative contribution to this debate from an old Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade China-watcher, John Lander, who insists that the US is not planning to go to war against China, but is actively preparing its ANZUS ally to do so. Lander bases his opinion on increased American influence in Australian corporate and political life rather than on military preparations. An edited version of Lander’s speech appeared in John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations policy blog. He points to an upgrade to Pine Gap, the establishment of a US Indo-Pacific command headquarters in Darwin, plans to expand the runways of Royal Australian Air Force stations in the Northern Territory (at Canberra’s expense) and the proposal to lay out AUD$170 billion on nuclear-propelled submarines which have a better chance of sneaking undetected through the South China Sea.
Pope Francis, in front of a mass attended by one million people in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, eloquently called for an end to violence and laying down of arms. “Embrace mercy,” he said. And then there’s the war in Ukraine, which is entering its most dangerous stage, and Washington–Beijing relations reaching a new low just as we thought they were set to improve. A huge Chinese balloon, armed with cameras and detection devices, waded into US airspace from Canada and hovered over a US Air Force nuclear base in Montana. President Joe Biden was advised to hold off shooting it down in case falling debris might cause damage and injury on the ground. The government chose instead to wait for a few days until it had crossed the Atlantic coast South Carolina, and then firing a missile from a fighter jet which sent it spinning into the ocean.
Beijing protested, calling it an aggressive and unnecessary act and threatened retaliation. China had claimed it was a metrological balloon that had been blown off course. The White House has not explained, as far as I’m aware, why the balloon was allowed to enter US air space; the Canadian authorities had earlier alerted the US government to its presence. It has also emerged that over-flights by such balloons are quite common, with the Pentagon admitting that Chinese surveillance had taken place on several occasions in Hawaii and elsewhere where the US Navy is active, and over many other continents. Another was sighted over Venezuela and Colombia last week, with no action taken.
How things have changed! I recall that on my first flight from Adelaide to Alice Springs the flight attendant drew the curtains on each window of the aircraft immediately after take-off from Cooper Pedy, warning that photos, or even looking, at the Woomera rocket base was forbidden. In many ways, the American reaction to the Chinese airship is equally bizarre, especially as the Pentagon said they had disabled the balloon’s ability to transmit any information.
It seems ridiculous that the Biden administration should cancel last weekend’s carefully planned visit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing, the first in many years. It had been agreed at a one-to-one meeting between China’s president Xi Jinping and Biden as a follow-up to the Bali agreement last November and was aimed at improving relations between the two countries. But has the balloon saga really worsened relations between China and America? The good news is that Blinken has only postponed the visit, not cancelled it. Biden did not mention the latest bust up, or the balloon incident, in this week’s State of the Union address, which was largely focused on domestic issues.
There may be much talk of war, but I believe that the people of America, Europe, and China want peace. Even the Russians must be having doubts about the wisdom of the war in Ukraine, as the country’s income has slumped sharply despite the cushion provided by Gulf Arab sheiks and India. The International Monetary Fund says Russia’s economy is now in deficit, and forecasts its second biggest fall in GDP this year.
It is hard to see how the United States, even with Australia’s help, could win a war against China, even in the few areas where it still has military superiority. The United States’ best hope of greater prosperity for its citizens is a clever mix of competition and cooperation with China, the European Union, Japan, and elsewhere. It is hard to see China fighting a global war as an aggressor, but it is bent on reuniting Taiwan with mainland China, and the US and some allies will fight to prevent it. The resultant bloodbath would harm both sides, and the winner would see few, if any, benefits.
Ending the war in Ukraine should be a priority for the United Nations. My friend George Friedman, founder of Geopolitical Futures, pointed out that Kyiv will be tempted to use US and other missiles to attack Russian supply lines beyond its border. If that happens, he predicts, Putin will have the excuse he needs to strike American troops based in Poland. You can guess the rest. It is time for this war to be stopped in its tracks, and Germany’s bold reconstruction plan for Ukraine implemented. It is time for the world biggest democracy, India, to stop buying Russian oil.
That great statesman, president Franklin D. Roosevelt, who occupied the White House through WWII, used to say, “More than an end to war, we want an end to the beginning of wars.”. The G20 leaders of today might take a leaf out of his book.
Colin Chapman is a writer, broadcaster, public speaker, who specialises in geopolitics, international economics, and global media issues. He is a former president of AIIA NSW and was appointed a fellow of the AIIA in 2017. Colin is an editor at large with Australian Outlook.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.