MIKE SCRAFTON. The conversation about China

Senator Wong’s call for a mature conversation aboutf the issue of China is more than welcome. A serious discussions of the implications for Australia flowing from the rise of China was sadly missing from the recent election. However, there is an unexpected naivety in her suggestion that MPs and Senators receive ‘foreign affairs and national intelligence briefings about China’ to remedy the government’s failure to discuss Australia’s relationship with the emerging superpower.

Naïve because as far as can be discerned from the outside such a briefing would follow the US line that China is a strategic adversary, a revisionist power trying to subvert the rules-based global order, a malign disrupter of the sovereignty of smaller nations, and an artful practitioner of political warfare. And because the Australian national security establishment has a vested interest in having an ’enemy’ and China is the most convenient option.

That is not to say that the security and intelligence services don’t have considerable factual information on China and its activities. They do. Nor is it to suggest these agencies would deliberately set out to mislead MPs and Senators. I don’t believe they would. But they see the world through a paradigm that emphasises risk and tends towards interpretations of their data that lacks nuance or the perspective of the other.

It is also not to suggest that China is a benevolent and altruistic power that seeks good in the world at the cost of its own interests. Like any great power China will, to the extent its resources, circumstances, and opportunities permit, seek to maximise the benefits to itself from its actions beyond its borders and minimise the threats to its interests. It seems to be evident that China seeks to exercise its influence in Australia through many avenues and that it is engaged in overt opinion shaping campaigns as well as covert and deniable operations.

But the intelligence, security, and defence agencies tend to have only two colours on their analytical palette; black and white. The activities of China will almost always be painted as aggressive and not defensive. The national security arguments of defence of the homeland and national interests that are employed in justifying the US’s massive military presence in East Asia do not seem to be available to the Chinese. Their intentions are never just consistent with a major power protecting its own security and national interests. A nefarious motive is generally assumed.

MPs and Senators will most likely hear something similar to the US National Security Strategy’s accusation that ‘China gathers and exploits data on an unrivalled scale and spreads features of its authoritarian system, including corruption and the use of surveillance’. Putting aside the pot-calling-the-kettle-black element in this, it is a view common to ASPI, for example, which is close to the defence and intelligence organisations. If commentators like Paul Dibb, Ross Babbage, Peter Jennings and Michael Shoebridge and public comments by officials like General Campbell and Nick Warner, Director General of the Office of National Intelligence, are indicative, MPs are sure to hear a version of the NSS’s view that China wants ‘to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests’.

The institutional commitment to the US alliance is in the DNA of the national security community and is a bipartisan article of faith in parliament. The benefits to the defence and intelligence agencies from this tight relationship are palpable and significant. The access to advanced military equipment and exercising, the five eyes intelligence, and the professional relationships resulting are known generally by the public and supported, as is the reassurance of being allied to the greatest military power in the world. The bulk of the parliamentarians won’t want to hear that Australia might not be able to depend on the US in the future and they almost certainly wouldn’t from the security community. Although they should.

What the MPs and Senators need to get is a balanced and objective view of China’s policies and actions, of the challenges and options confronting the Chinese government domestically and internationally, its influence with other states and why those states might welcome Chinese investment and cooperation, and a realistic assessment of the state of relations between the US and China and China’s actual view of those relations. They will undoubtedly get, as they should, a briefing on the very real Chinese inference and penetration into Australian society, academia, and business as well as an update on Chinese cyber activities.

Hopefully they will be presented with the risks inherent in the current strategic confrontation between the US and China. And that they will be briefed on the economic costs of adopting a hostile stance towards China at the behest of the US, and of the costs of taking the dangerous step of undertaking obvious preparations in readiness to take sides with the US in a conflict in East Asia. It’s not clear they would. The tendency to parrot US views is ingrained in Canberra.

The China problem should have had a high profile at the last election. Other than global warming, it’s hard to think of anything that has more important implications for Australia. That Senator Wong is pushing for a discussion now is an important step. But it must be a discussion that is full and frank and allows for all voices to speak. A briefing of MPs by foreign affairs, security, and intelligence officials would be a start, but a very small one.

Mike Scrafton was a Deputy Secretary in the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, senior Defence executive, CEO of a state statutory body, and chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.

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7 Responses to MIKE SCRAFTON. The conversation about China

  1. Conversations are words. When it comes to emotions, can any Australian feel anything other than admiration for and solidarity with the brave people of Hong Kong? They are an inspiration, to quote John Howard.

    We need to stop talking and start working towards the defence of our continent as advised by Hugh White and Chris Mills. Then we can speak independently instead of sucking up to America or China — or both, which is the current, unsustainable and undignified policy.

    • Sam Lee says:

      “When it comes to emotions, can any Australian feel anything other than admiration for and solidarity with the brave people of Hong Kong?”

      You can if you try, Jerry. Try to see the HK police and administration as well as the majority of the HK population who had not participated in the protests as “people of Hong Kong” too. They may or may not be influenced or controlled by the PRC but they have just as much right to determine the future of HK as those striving to tear it apart for a new order.

      Then you can look into media that are less determined (by the US) than our own like news outlets from Taiwan and Japan where you will come across the condemnations of the protests and protestors from the other just-as-real people of Hong Kong (as well as the violence, damage and other negative aspects of the protests and protestors).

      After satisfying yourself that there is a bias in our media you can then expose yourself to the alternately biased news from the PRC (which, you can easily get access to in Australia via the SBS Mandarin news, shock horror for the Champions of Sanctioned Foreign Influence) to compare and contrast the same bias in our media, and get a much more nuanced and better appreciation of the HK issue from all sides.

      A good way to think about HK-PRC relationship I find is to see the parallels with the UK-EU relationship, and the HK independence movement as a parallel for the Brexit movement. The framework with which to place the different arguments and vested interests into context will then fall into place. If you find horror in the ongoing chaos of Brexiting and disagree with the idea of Brexit itself, as I do, you may find solidarity with the currently protesting HKers (not the ones who protested against the extradition treaty to the PRC who had ended their protests after achieving a compromise) less certain. Or not.

    • Sam Lee says:

      (Replying separately to the second part of your comment which I feel needs its own specific response)

      The “current … undignified policy of Australia” is “sucking up to” the US not the PRC in direct contrast to the ongoing brainwashing we are being subjected to by the Goebbels brigade. The US is taking us down a very dark road and similarities between the US (and Australia as a crucial chess piece and colony with strategic significance) and pre-WW2 Germany are terrifying.

      The fact Andrew Hastie made a reference to appeasement after our US masters made their infrequent but usually determinative visit isn’t a coincidence – the US appears to constantly put themselves in others’ shoes to gain strategic advantage but refuse to admit they are seeing reflections of themselves rather than the mind of their declared enemies (whose minds are very different).

      Jerry, if you are truly patriotic you will agree with those of us who want to challenge our constant kowtowing to the interests of the US that directly harm our interests.

      I have no problem with Australia kowtowing to the interests of the US if their interests align with our interests but my definition of “our” is all Australians not just those who want to bring back (and presumably belong to and/or benefit from the apartheidoid system of) White Australia (with echoes again of expelling or eliminating undesirable ethnicities in favour of the pure Aryan race in pre-WW2 Germany).

      The ongoing appeasement of Trump’s White Supremacist America and the American military-industrial complex independent of Donald Trump threaten our national security – not the narrow twisted definition of military and cyber security we are brainwashed with but the full security of our nation from our economy to our social fabric.

      We are a middle power with a small population. We are a diverse population with a racially defined ruling class that is deliberately made distinct and elevated to superiority over our immediate geographical neighbours. We are a large continent with a small volunteer military force. Our national security (including a strong economy, a happy or simply content and peaceful population with a future to look forward to and our survival as a people determined by our ties to this land not to our racial grouping) is supported by peace and cooperation in our geographical region and ethnic groups not by an arms race, trade disruptions and social disruptions driven by belief in racial (civilisational) clashes.

      The inconvenient truth is, most of the accusations we direct towards the PRC (expansionist, neo-fascism, trapping third-world countries with debt-trap diplomacy, applying foreign influence through lobbyists, think-tanks, university courses etc) are simply what the US does (and see reflected in her declared enemies), and the fear of the yellow peril and neo-McCarthyism reflect the silent infiltration of Australian politics and way of life by the extremists and ideologues from the US, and the fear of PRC occupation of Australian soil with military bases and control of Australian foreign and defence policy reflect the reality in Australia.

  2. Anthony Pun says:

    How can one have a frank and open debate about China when the Foreign Interference Transparency Scheme (FITS) Act has the effect of muffling any frank debate?
    How can one have an effect voice on the China debate when those whose opinion is perceived as pro-China are labelled China apologists or Panda huggers?
    How can one have a true and honest conversation when our Intelligence bodies have prejudiced the debate with their “unnamed source” as truth?
    A better set of pre-requisite conditions must be set up to allow the debate without fear or favour. As a nation, we must know the true geopolitical circumstances to make an truly informed decision for an independent Australian foreign policy.

  3. Colin Cook says:

    “Putting aside the pot-calling-the-kettle-black element in this, it is a view common to ASPI, for example, which is close to the defence and intelligence organisations.”
    ASPI – The Australian Strategic Policy Institute – on its website lists as its Major Sponsors, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, SAAB, Raytheon Australia et al. It claims to be ‘independent! Independent of who and what? Its sponsors?
    To say it is ‘close to defence and intelligence organisations’ is surely true – but it also seems to be close to SBS from some well-produced anti-China TV footage concerning Muslim unrest in western provinces of China.
    BTW, There is a listing of Silver Sponsors after the Major ones; the Australian Government is listed as a Bronze Sponsor.

    • Sam Lee says:

      Hi Colin,

      I have also noticed the new partisan direction taken at a (the) previously multifaceted TV station, and the news outlet that was taken over recently (which had a one-sided political editor in the past but not a total-war approach until the recent change in ownership). I do believe there is still a lot of open-minded and well-informed Australians and there is still hope a media organisation or non-aligned group will see the demand (and associated financial support) for a service filling this informational void.

  4. Cameron Leckie says:

    Well said Mike.

    Something else that is missing from this puzzle is the future trajectory of US power. Like all empires before it, the US is following the familiar pattern of decline; a decline that is rapidly accelerating.

    An objective view of the ‘China problem’ coupled with the ‘US problem’ taken together would suggest a very different approach to our foreign and defence policy.

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