Washington’s Missing China Strategy
To Counter Beijing, the Biden Administration Needs to Decide What It Wants
IF the United Nations are to conduct successful military operations in the Far East they require a base. They must have a base to which they can safely transport men and machines and from which those men and machines may be employed effectively against Japan. Such a base must be something more than a mere fortress like Singapore, or a small island like Guam. It must be sufficiently large to accommodate heavy concentrations of air power and to provide enough airfields in sufficient depth to permit the conduct of efficient air operations. Further, in addition to possessing sure communications with remote sources of power, it should have some resources of its own. The greater its own man power, industrial capacity and raw material resources, the less vulnerable it will be to enemy attempts to interrupt its lines of communication and the less likely it is to be carried by assault. Finally, of course, it must be properly situated geographically in relationship to the areas to be attacked.
The island of Great Britain affords just such a base for operations against any continental power of Western Europe. The island continent of Australia affords just such a base for operations in the South China Sea and against Japan.
Allied operations in the Southwestern Pacific now rest upon Australia as a house rests upon its foundations. So long as Australia is held, the United Nations retain the possibility of taking the offensive whenever their fighting strength becomes sufficient for that purpose. So long as Australia is held, the Japanese positions in the islands to the north can never be secure. The present Allied problem, therefore, is to build up in the Australian continent a total striking force superior to anything that Japan can maintain in the islands which she is now occupying or may occupy; when this has been done, the Japanese can be driven out of them. True, the Japanese are nearer to the islands than either the United States or Great Britain is to Australia; but it is also true that Australia can contain and support much larger forces, including air forces, than those islands can.
As the contest goes on, each side obviously will attack and try to interrupt the other's lines of communications. The line of communications from the United States to Australia by way of Pearl Harbor, Samoa and the Fiji Islands lies very far away from Japan. It can be raided, but it can be severed only if the Japanese are prepared to risk a major fleet action, and can win it. With this in mind, the United States has strongly fortified the island "stepping-stones" along the way. The quality of the heavily armed Marine battalions used for this purpose has already been shown at Wake Island -- which was defended by a half-battalion only.
If the Japanese hope to seize these islands by assault they will need to send a fairly strong landing force, with a heavy naval escort including at least one aircraft carrier. Operating at such a distance from their nearest base, they would have to be prepared either to risk losing the expedition if it were attacked by superior American forces, or else to back it up with the main Japanese battle fleet. For them to send their main battle fleet into these far southern waters would be a desperate gamble -- the most desperate of the many gambles which they have taken. By their treacherous attack on Pearl Harbor they purchased a certain amount of time in which to make themselves secure in the South China Sea. In other words, they struck at Pearl Harbor in order to make sure that our fleet could not, for the time being, take the offensive in the southwestern Pacific. In this they were successful. But there is no reason to suppose that they obtained a sufficient degree of superiority over our naval forces to justify them in risking a major fleet action in an area 3,500 to 4,800 miles from their home bases. Nor has our recent raid on the Marshall and Gilbert islands made such an undertaking any easier for them.
There is another route by which supplies and reinforcements can reach Australia -- around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean.[i] At present, this is the main line of communication from Britain to Australia and it also is used for shipments from our East Coast ports. A Japanese break-through into the Indian Ocean will menace it seriously, for there are no adequate Allied bases in this whole area. The nearest fleet bases are Sydney, in southeastern Australia, and Simonstown, in South Africa. The lower tip of India is over 5,000 miles from the first and more than 4,400 from the second.
The Indian Ocean does, however, possess three good harbors, with fortifications and fuel storage, which might in time be developed into naval bases. One is at Trincomalee in Ceylon, another is Fremantle in southwestern Australia, the third is the island of Mauritius, about halfway between India and Cape Town. If the Japanese continue the tactics which have served them so well thus far, we may assume that they will seize the earliest opportunity to direct a heavy attack against Ceylon, and will endeavor to seize all the strategically placed islands in the Indian Ocean, such as the Cocos group and the Chagos and Laccadive Archipelagoes. Nor must we forget the possibility that at a given moment the Vichy Government may permit Japan to use the French naval base at Diego Suarez, in Madagascar.
What naval power can our side marshal to beat back Japanese naval operations against our lines of communication in the Indian Ocean? Here we must take into account the heavy existing naval commitments of the United Nations in other areas. The forces already occupied include those which are: (1) patrolling the North Atlantic and convoying ships on the vital line to Great Britain; (2) convoying across the South Pacific to Australia; (3) in British waters, watching the German fleet; (4) in the Eastern Mediterranean, engaging in active operations against Axis communications with Libya and watching the Italian fleet; (5) in the Western Mediterranean, watching the French naval forces in Toulon and on the west coast of Africa; (6) in the Pacific, engaged in active operations against Japan; (7) in other areas performing the multitudinous convoy, patrol and other activities required to safeguard Allied maritime communications, including the protection of American coastwise and inter-coastal shipping.
In view of these far-flung operations, none of which can be abandoned, the strain of taking extensive naval measures for the protection of shipping in the Indian Ocean -- all the heavier because of the lack of good bases in that area -- will tax Allied resources to the full. The one bright spot in the picture is the fact that the Japanese seem, at the time of writing, to have had 19 cruisers sunk or badly damaged out of the total of 35 or 36 with which they began the war. In view of the tasks they face in the Pacific, this does not leave them many cruisers to devote to raiding in the Indian Ocean. However, they can utilize armed merchantmen and long-range submarines for that purpose, to say nothing of converted aircraft carriers, which might prove particularly effective for attacks on merchant shipping.
If the Japanese could establish themselves securely in Vichy-held Madagascar or in the Seychelles Islands they would stand squarely athwart the main line by which the British and ourselves at present send reinforcements and supplies to the Allied forces in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as, via the Persian Gulf, to 'Iraq, Iran and the Caucasus and also to some extent to Russia. Interruption of this flow of supplies might well condemn the British defense of Egypt to failure, especially if at the same moment the Germans succeeded in closing the Mediterranean by making their long-heralded entry into Spain. Equally bad would be the consequent weakening in the Allied support now being built up behind Turkey and in the Caucasus, leaving those areas an easier prey to a German spring offensive.
The rôle Australia can play in warding off the foregoing evil developments is to serve as a base for Allied naval forces. The direct "Great Circle" route from Cape Town to Adelaide and Melbourne seems to lie outside the radius within which Japanese raiders can act most effectively. If Fremantle could be well-equipped and were well defended; if Ceylon could be held; if means could be found to anticipate the Japanese in Madagascar, regardless of the tender susceptibilities of Vichy; if the Allies and not the Japanese are able to use the Chagos and Seychelles islands -- if these things could be achieved, then the Indian Ocean might still be made reasonably safe for Allied shipping.
Meanwhile, Australia's first assignment is to defend itself until offensive striking power can be developed there. Japan's success in piercing the Netherlands Indies shield was a hard blow in this respect. Now the points most in jeopardy are the ports of Darwin, on the north coast, and Fremantle, on the west coast, both of which have naval and military installations. As the accompanying map shows, Darwin is the only place in North Australia which has any land communication with the main centers of the country. Today it is exposed to direct attack; and since Sydney is more than 3,000 miles away by road and rail the Japanese may be able to neutralize it with comparatively small forces. Not only is Darwin distant from the main centers of Australian life; such communications as exist are very inadequate. There is no through railroad; and the stretches of railway which exist (connected by a highway) are themselves broken into separate sections by changes in gauge. Thus goods or troops proceeding from Sydney to Darwin must be transshipped at Broken Hill or at Albury and again at Port Pirie; must be transferred from rail to truck at Alice Springs; and must be transferred back from truck to rail at Birdum. The Northern Australia Railway is narrow-gauge and has limited rolling stock. Until more and better roads can be built and more motor-trucks supplied the task of defending Darwin will remain
difficult. However, that task must be attempted, as Darwin is one of the only two doorways through which fighting power which has been developed in the main centers of Australia can be sent in a westerly or northwesterly direction against the enemy.
Australia's other door on the Indian Ocean is the port of Fremantle. There are direct rail connections from Sydney and Melbourne to Fremantle, but here again breaks in gauge complicate the handling of through shipments.[ii] Fremantle has some fortifications, some oil storage tanks, and anchorage and berthing space for the largest ships. There is no dry dock, however, and facilities for carrying out naval repairs do not exist. A great deal of work would have to be done, therefore, before it could be regarded as a naval base.
Unfortunately there are good landing places up and down the coast from Fremantle, which means that if the Japanese gain full freedom of action in the Indian Ocean they might consider it worth while to land in Western Australia, destroy the port and railway installations at Fremantle, and perhaps attempt to occupy temporarily the port and neighboring city of Perth. But they would find this a much more ambitious enterprise than an attack on Darwin. Their communications would be 1,700 or 1,800 miles longer; and the Australians should find it possible to concentrate much stronger forces of resistance in Western Australia than in the Northern Territory.[iii] In the end, whether Darwin and Fremantle could be successfully defended or not would very probably turn on the question of relative air power. It ought to be possible to collect a considerable air force at both points to meet any Japanese attack.
Further north, along the coast between Geraldton and Darwin, are many spots where Japanese forces might land. But there are no railroads in this whole region, the communications by road are scanty, and the desert interior is so inhospitable that the enemy would find little reason for landing on this coast unless it were to establish air bases which could be utilized to cover more important operations elsewhere. This was their procedure in Luzon, Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. However, they might also see advantages in seizing the airfield at Onslow, which is the Australian terminus of the air route across the Indian Ocean from Mombassa, in Kenya, via the Seychelles, Chagos and Cocos islands.
Australia is a very lopsided continent in population and economic development; and this fact, and the paucity of internal communications and the vast distances to be traversed in any general movement of troops or supplies, condition every aspect of the problem of defense. Most of the seven million Australians live in the southeastern coastal belt extending from Brisbane around to Adelaide; in Victoria the density of population is over 2,000 per 100 square miles, whereas in Western Australia it is only 45, and in North Australia it is less than one. In the southeastern area are located most of the industries, and there, also, are the principal seaports. This means that Australia's own military resources as well as most of the supplies which it receives from abroad have to be moved either by sea or land from this southeastern zone to the particular points where they are needed. In hostilities against Japan these points seem likely to be Darwin and Fremantle.
However, the very obstacles which impede the development of a flow of offensive power northward and westward in Australia, and hence from Australia outwards against an enemy in the Netherlands Indies and the Indian Ocean, also put obstacles in the way of an invader coming from those directions. The waterless condition of most of the interior bars it for large troop movements. Probably the high command of the United Nations would be delighted to hear that the Japanese had landed 200,000 troops, let us say, in Western Australia, and were preparing to try to maintain them there. Moreover, it would be very risky for the Japanese to make direct attacks on the large ports and centers of population on the east and southeast coast unless they had previously obtained full possession of the French islands of New Caledonia and the New Hebrides (fortunately now under Free French government), and had succeeded by air attack in neutralizing all Allied forces in the harbors of New Zealand. Raids by means of aircraft carriers on cities like Brisbane and Sydney would be possible, though risky.
But after making due allowance for the difficulties attending a Japanese invasion, we still must emphasize the fact that Australia's own resources are not adequate in themselves to enable it to maintain a prolonged defense. If it is to serve as a great Allied base, not only must it develop and improve its own facilities, but the United States and Great Britain must reinforce its army with great numbers of men and they must ship in vast quantities of war materials.
Here again we come back to the factor of distance, which intrudes into the discussion of every Australian problem. True, it is 4,300 miles from Yokohama to Sydney. But it is 11,800 miles from New York to Fremantle around the Cape of Good Hope, and about the same from Liverpool; while it is 6,400 miles from San Francisco to Sydney, and 7,600 miles from Panama to Sydney. Across these vast distances must move every man, plane, gun and ton of ammunition sent to Australia from the United States or Great Britain. Except for the long-range bombers which can fly across the Atlantic or the Indian Ocean by island "stepping stones," all troops and supplies must move in merchant ships which average 10 or 12 knots an hour. And all of these must be escorted and protected by naval vessels and aircraft. Interoceanic operations on such a scale are subject under the best of conditions to great delays. In addition, there will be delays resulting from enemy operations, actual or threatened. And the troops and materials arriving at last in Australia must be distributed across a continent as big as the continental United States and deficient in railroads and highways.
One of the first tasks of the Allies will be to drive the Japanese out of the positions they have seized in the great island of New Guinea and in the adjacent archipelagoes. This must be done in order to make the east coast of Australia and the communications lines across the South Pacific reasonably safe from Japanese raids. Later, other offensive operations will be called for, both northward and in the Indian Ocean. As Australia receives help, its own offensive power will of course grow. But both in winning back lost positions and later in turning to the offense we must help its forces to the full limit of our capacity. For the possession of Australia is necessary if we are to have the mastery of the Pacific and Indian Oceans; and on the mastery of those oceans are built our hopes of eventually smashing Japan.
[i] Cf. the map "The Strategy of the Indian Ocean," facing the first page of the present issue of FOREIGN AFFAIRS.
[ii] Three different gauges are encountered between Sydney and Fremantle. It has been proposed to alter the South Australia Railway between Broken Hill and Port Pirie to standard gauge (4′ 8½″), which would leave only the change of gauge at Kalgoorlie. However, no information is available to indicate that the plan is as yet being put into operation.
[iii] About 350 miles south of Fremantle, around the southwest corner of Australia, lies the port of Albany, on King George Sound -- a magnificent harbor. To the north is Geraldton. Both have rail connections with the main Australia railway system. To cut these connections the Japanese would have to advance 170 miles east of Perth. Neither Geraldton nor Albany has anything in the way of naval facilities at present. They are mentioned merely as possible spots for future bases.