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Australian Defence Force uniform

Escalation risks in the Indo-Pacific: a review for practitioners

By William Leben

The outbreak of war in the Indo-Pacific is a real possibility. Increased competition, a growing trust deficit between global and regional powers and potential miscalculations heighten the risk. There needs to be a more engaged Australian discussion on conflict-escalation risks and how they might be managed.

Policymakers and leaders need to understand escalation risks as they manage Australia’s relationship with the US, China, North Korea and Australia’s key regional defence partners over coming decades. In rhetoric and in action, Australia also needs to be attentive to how the acquisition and employment of our own new capabilities—strike missiles, evolving cyber capabilities and nuclear-propelled submarines—affect strategic stability dynamics in a fast-changing world.

Multiple factors mean that there are all-too-imaginable possibilities for inadvertent and accidental escalation around flashpoints like the Korean peninsula, Taiwan, and in the East and South China Seas. Moreover, the maritime nature of the Western Pacific as a military theatre, combined with emerging technologies like hypersonics, means that decision makers could face very strong pressures toward pre-emption in a crisis. Put more simply, the fear-driven pressure to ‘shoot first’ could be very strong and very dangerous.

Managing these risks has clearly been made a priority by the Australian government – with senior ministers frequently talking about ‘guardrails’ – and the report suggests some options for doing so.