Aerial view of construction at Mabini (Johnson) Reef by China, in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
Aerial view of construction at Mabini (Johnson) Reef by China, in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. ARMED FORCES OF THE PHILIPPINES

Ex-admiral calls region a 'tinderbox'

A FORMER chief of the Australian Defence Force says it is only a matter of time before Australia will be invaded and we should be worried about rising tension in the Asia-Pacific region.

Retired admiral Chris Barrie was quoted in an analysis by the ABC, "Australia is plunging headlong into catastrophe and we are utterly unprepared ... the time bomb is ticking and it will explode in our lifetimes”.

He argued there were many points of tension in the region: China's construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea; America's unrelenting naval patrols - leading China to protest Monday's US defence bill that could have US warships visit Taiwan.

North Korea's missile program is another, with Japan calling on the United Nations to increase pressure on leader Kim Jong-un and grind testing to a halt.

The article described the region as a "tinderbox” poised to descend into war.

"A miscalculation or misunderstanding ... could tip us over the edge, countries would be backed into corners and we have no way right now of talking our way out,” Mr Barrie said.

But Ashley Townshend - a research fellow at the University of Sydney's United States Studies Centre - told of another possibility.

It all depends on the fragile balance of power that maintains the region's stability.

He agreed with the admiral's comments that miscalculations and misunderstandings between the major powers could be disastrous, but noted significant steps have been taken in the past few years to manage some of the risks.

"There is a clear and sustained strategic competition taking place between the US and China in our backyard. But it is not preordained how this rivalry will work itself out,” he said.

"The US and China ... have a number of military-to- military confidence-building measures that are designed to reduce the risk of an accidental clash between fighter aircraft or warships in the open seas and open skies.”

"That's not to say there won't be a deliberate provocation or a deliberate outbreak of hostilities. The entrenched disagreements in the East and South China Seas, on the Korean Peninsula and between the US and China more broadly will all continue to cause friction.”

While war is one possibility, he argued it's also entirely plausible the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region will shift peacefully over time.

If both countries remained risk averse, there could be a gradual decrease in American strategic influence with a rise in Chinese geopolitical weight.