An Australian Perspective on Chinese Military Capabilities

An Australian Perspective on Chinese Military Capabilities

by Michael Shoebridge
January 6, 2022

This essay provides an Australian perspective on China’s military capabilities and considers options for Australia to increase cooperation with the U.S.



China’s more powerful military creates new challenges for Australian strategic interests. Analytic focus on the technical capabilities of individual weapons systems like ships, missiles, or aircraft misses the strategic implications of China’s ability to outproduce Australian and allied sustainment systems. This production gap is a critical vulnerability, particularly in the new “consumables” of conflict—unmanned systems and guided missiles—that Australia and its U.S. ally must address. China’s military capabilities are also likely to be supplemented by its civil sea and airlift companies, which will work in support of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) during conflict. And at times of crisis, China’s opaque military doctrines for space, cyber, and nuclear, including concepts for “blinding” the U.S. and its allies early in a conflict, are dangerously destabilizing. There is a need to increase credible military deterrence of Beijing not only by addressing capability vulnerabilities but also by enabling Australian and U.S. force postures within Southeast Asia and the South Pacific to prevent PLA power projection from these regions against Australian and U.S. interests.

  • Australia and the U.S. must prioritize rapid identification, development, and adoption of new capabilities that give combat advantage and can be consumed, lost, and replaced at low cost to reverse the shifting strategic capability balance with the Chinese military.
  • If left unchanged, China’s ability to outproduce Australia, the U.S., and other allies and partners will likely give China the advantage in a future conflict—perhaps a decisive one.
  • The force posture for Australian and U.S. forces must become more positive and less reactive to Chinese moves than has been the case for at least the past decade. For Canberra, enabling greater U.S. presence in Australia, along with greater Australian and U.S. presence in the South Pacific, is an achievable goal.
  • The new AUKUS arrangement is a key symbolic and practical response to Chinese power that begins to shift strategic dynamics in the Indo-Pacific. While the focus has been on the nuclear submarine elements, the more critical and time-sensitive purpose is to accelerate powerful new technologies into the hands of Australian and U.S. militaries well before 2030 and to enable a more dispersed and active regional military posture for the U.S., the UK, and Australia.
  • Reversing Beijing’s narratives about Taiwan being an internal matter for China—and reversing Beijing’s moves to further isolate Taiwan from the international community—is part of effective deterrence of Xi Jinping from using force to unify Taiwan with the mainland.

Michael Shoebridge is Director of the Defence, Strategy and National Security Program at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).