The poor state of Australia's diplomacy with Beijing won't be the cause of war with China, says former governor-general and Defence chief Sir Peter Cosgrove.
If Australia is to be dragged into a war involving China, Cosgrove says Australia will face a highly modern and "very powerful" military capable of keeping the US military on their toes.
Cosgrove also urged urgent fixes to the ADF's culture following claims of Afghanistan war crimes.
"Whatever we say to China, that won't be the cause of war," Cosgrove told the Conference of Major Superannuation Funds in Adelaide.
"They will possibly continue to create difficulties for us in a commercial area or a social area, but I doubt whether the hostilities will be at a heightened level because possibility because of our present estrangement from China."
The dominance of the US military as a result of the advances in China's armed forces, he says.
"The US were more relaxed about 20 years ago and now they're on their toes because of the power that's been added to the People's Liberation Army - Navy, Army and Air Force - a very potent force."
China was watching the Biden administration in the US as its top strategic concern, he said, but also had concerns about nuclear powers in the Middle East and the Korean peninsula.
Declining to criticise Defence Minister Peter Dutton's comments that the majority of special forces who served in Afghanistan should not be punished for the actions of "bad apples", the decorated soldier says it was "obviously a cancerous culture" in the long-term deployment in Afghanistan.
"Blind Freddy would say that's criminal", says the former Defence chief of early warning signs that Australian troops were committing "terrible and shameful" war crimes in Afghanistan.
"Some may say it's a dirty business. Of course it is. Some may say it would be to have one hand tied behind our back. Of course it would. But that's what we do. We are rules-based society," he said.
"We do have to [abide by rules of war] for the confidence, support and affection of the Australian people. For our legitimacy as an armed force, we have to obey the law."
For our legitimacy as an armed force, we have to obey the law.Peter Cosgrove
Answering questions on leadership culture and how it falls off the rails for an audience made up of superannuation fund managers, Cosgrove said the damage to Australian's reputation could have been lessened if early warning signs had been acted upon.
"It strikes me that this would have been not nearly as terrible as it's now alleged if the very first time something absolutely criminal had been undertaken, if somebody put their hand up and say 'I can't live with this'."
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