Senate debates

Tuesday, 3 August 2021


Regional Security

8:39 pm

Photo of Rex PatrickRex Patrick (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

In December 2017 I gave a speech to the Senate in which I highlighted Australia's changing strategic circumstances. I argued that we were living in a time of rapid strategic change characterised by uncertainty, risk and potential danger. I highlighted this observation in the government's 2017 Foreign policy white paper:

… China's power and influence are growing to match, and in some cases exceed, that of the United States.

The white paper went on to observe:

China's military modernisation is rapidly improving the capability of its armed forces. It has the largest navy and air force in Asia and the largest coast guard in the world.

That was four years ago. A lot of water has flowed underneath the bridge since then. The broad reality is that Australia's strategic outlook has deteriorated sharply, and, for the first time since World War II, we face a significant risk of high-intensity conflict within our region of strategic interest, especially between China, the US and Japan over the island democracy of Taiwan.

Tonight, against this background, I want to highlight a major strategic revelation of the past month, which has received little attention in this country and which the Australian government is yet to comment on or to respond to. Over the past month, national security researchers and imagery analysts in the US have used commercially available satellite imagery to reveal a major expansion of the Chinese strategic nuclear arsenal. Satellite pictures have revealed that China is constructing two strategic missile silo fields, one of some 120 silos near the small city of Yumen, in Gansu province, and another of some 110 silos near the city of Hami, in eastern Xinjiang. These new strategic facilities are in addition to approximately one dozen missile silos constructed at a training facility in Inner Mongolia.

The silos could be a ruse; the actual number of new missiles may not equal the number of new silos. However, given China's highly secretive strategic posture, it can only be assumed that each of the silos will eventually contain an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM. That would be another 120 ICBMs. Western strategic analysts anticipate these will most likely be solid-fuel ICBMs, known as the DF-41s, with multiple warheads and a range of 15,000 kilometres, potentially putting the US mainland and indeed Australia within reach of China's far west. The Chinese People's Liberation Army Rocket Force has, for decades, operated about 20 nuclear missile silos to support a small force of ageing liquid-fuel DF-5 ICBMs. The PLARF has also deployed about 100 road-mobile ICBM launchers, which operate from a dozen or more bases. In addition, China has also been expanding its force of ballistic-missile carrying submarines.

The deployment of as many as 240 new ICBMs, each potentially carrying three warheads—a total of 720—would represent a dramatic shift for China, which, up to this time, was believed to have possessed a relatively modest stockpile of 250 to 350 nuclear weapons. The scale and speed of the construction underway in China's remote deserts has been described by Western analysts as 'incredible'. Matt Korda and Hans Kristensen of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists observed:

The silo construction at Yumen and Hami constitutes the most significant expansion of the Chinese nuclear arsenal ever.

…   …   …

The number of new Chinese silos under construction exceeds the number of silo-based ICBMs operated by Russia, and constitutes more than half of the size of the entire US ICBM force. The Chinese missile silo program constitutes the most extensive silo construction since the US and Soviet missile silo construction during the Cold War.

Of course, these revelations have not been new for the US and Australian governments. Highly classified reconnaissance satellite imagery would have become available before non-government analysts picked up the new developments. In April, Admiral Charles Richard of the US Strategic Command told a US congressional hearing that a breathtaking nuclear expansion was underway and that China's nuclear weapons stockpile is expected to double, if not triple or quadruple, over the next decade. These are very significant strategic developments.

However, the Australian government has had nothing to say. The defence minister, Mr Dutton, has been silent. So, too, has the foreign minister, Senator Payne. This is somewhat surprising given the Chinese government's continued hostility towards Australia and the fact that in May the editor-in-chief of the Chinese Communist Party controlled news outlet The Global Times urged the Chinese military to develop plans for 'long-range strikes on the military facilities and relevant key facilities on Australian soil'. When I asked the Minister representing the Minister for Defence about that, I got a very dismissive reply, with Senator Cash saying nuclear threats were nothing new.

Some analysts see the Chinese silo expansion as an effort to upgrade a deterrent force that could survive a hypothetical US first strike in significant numbers to defeat US missile defences. This might be taken as a minimalist interpretation of China's likely plans. After all, the scale of the prospective ICBM deployments arguably constitutes an abandonment of Beijing's longstanding minimum deterrence posture. However, it may well be the beginning of a concerted movement towards achieving strategic nuclear parity with the US and Russia.

China's President, Xi Jinping, made no secret of his ambition to place China in a position to challenge—and, indeed, displace—the US as the paramount economic military power. National prestige is probably at play here. China is getting richer and more powerful. Great powers have more missiles, so China too wants to have more missiles in order to underpin its status and ambitions.

Some decades ago, Australian peace activist Helen Caldicott coined the phrase 'missile envy' as a factor in the Cold War arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States. President Xi may be suffering a bit of missile envy. That said, the important question is: what is the strategic significance of the developments? Last month, President Xi declared that any power that challenged or obstructed China will face 'broken heads and bloodshed in front of the iron Great Wall of 1.4 billion Chinese people'. In a recent editorial, TheGlobal Times further declared that China will deploy a nuclear force 'strong enough to make the US, from the military to the government, fear. Equilibrium will be achieved when the US completely lose the courage to even think about using nuclear weapons against China, and when the entire US society is fully aware that China is untouchable in terms of military power.' The words 'equilibrium' and 'untouchable' are probably key there.

In some astute strategic commentary Bates Gill, a professor of strategic studies at Macquarie University, has observed that an expanded Chinese arsenal is probably intended to achieve a strategic equilibrium that will free up China's ability to assert itself through conventional military forces. He said: 'The last thing China wants is a nuclear exchange. This, in China's mind, is a way of stopping others from using nuclear weapons against it. What it means is China feels more confident in engaging in a conventional war. Because they’re not going to be deterred by the possibility of nuclear escalation. And, increasingly, they believe they can win.' That is the real significance of what has been constructed in the far west of China is that equilibrium.

Last November, I warned about the growing threat to Taiwan, a democratic country of some 24 million people. President Xi has made re-unification with Taiwan an absolute national priority. China's nuclear weapons will likely give President Xi increased confidence about making a military move against Taiwan. That is likely to be one of the biggest diplomatic and strategic challenges for the US, Japan and Australia in the next few years. In concert with our allies, the Australian government needs to define our position and not stand silent on the sidelines waiting to be overtaken by events.