Anti-China Threat Production in Australia: A redundant, out-of-control industry

May 10, 2021

Australia cannot lay claim to being the sole, or even senior author of its defence strategies and policies.

For many years now, Australia has seemingly dispensed with its own rigorous analysis of who, if any, its enemies might be: the ambiguities and uncertainties of such a process have been jettisoned in favour of a quintessentially neoliberal outsourcing arrangement whereby they are manufactured, prepackaged, and annotated for it within the United States. On arrival they are revered as Mosaic texts, the product of revelation, literally and absolutely true, and a compendium of what constitutes friends and enemies, and true and false beliefs.

The consensus abstracted from the most recent formulations is extreme: in December last, the US Director of National Intelligence, John Radcliffe, described China as “the greatest threat to democracy and freedom worldwide since World War II.” The same sentiment was quickly repeated by the newly confirmed U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, who went further into history to declare that the relationship between the United States and China is the world’s “biggest geopolitical test” of the century (which still has 79 years to run).

As befits their status, they were duly certified by the designated authorities in politics, government, the universities, security studies institutes and the media to vouchsafe for their authenticity and the imperative to act accordingly upon receiving the word.  Foremost among these are the National Security College of the ANU, the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).

The last named and clearly the most prominent is “a wholly-owned Commonwealth Company formed . . . as an independent, non-partisan think tank . . .  that produces expert and timely advice for Australia’s strategic and defence leaders . . allowing them to make better-informed decisions for Australia’s future.” While it is 68 percent funded by the  Department of Defence and other federal government agencies, and only 3 percent funded by defence industry, it sees fit to prominently display on its publication, The Strategist, the logos of two French defence contractors, Thales, and Naval Group, and the US conglomerate, Lockheed Martin.

Whether ASPI determines, influences, or merely echoes Australian strategy and policy is not at all clear.   Normatively, policy development is the prerogative of specialist areas in government itself and it would be profligate to duplicate them at considerable expense.  That said, what is clear is that ASPI’s extreme formulations and pronouncements on China seem to trail-blaze government statements on China.

If that is the case, then research by the Washington-based Centre for Responsive Politics, and published under the title, “Capitalizing on conflict: How defence contractors and foreign nations lobby for arms sales,” is relevant, It reveals that a constellation comprising Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon Technologies and General Dynamics outlaid a total of $USD60 million in lobbying in 2020 to influence policy.

It also details that, in the two decades to 2020, the network of lobbyists and donors provided $USD285 million in campaign contributions, and $USD2.5 billion in lobbying, and reinforcing this subvention by hiring more than 200 lobbyists who had previously worked in government agencies that regulate and decide on funding for the defence contractors.

Across the wider spectrum of defence contractors who employ 663 lobbyists, research has found that 73 percent of them were previously employed in defence-related areas by the US government. To belabour the obvious, these are agents of interests whose profitably, and even existence, are directly dependent on the maintenance of high levels of threat and/or war. Indeed, they are an existential imperative.

A caveat is in order:  It is accepted that, in and of itself, the overall arguments that China is a threat can be made in good faith by people who have examined the evidence and proceeded according to their frames of logic; no aspersions are cast upon those who do so.

At the same time, it becomes difficult, sometimes impossible, to accept these conclusions when they follow closely, and with great fidelity to every nuance in the original, from sources which rely on the maintenance and, preferably, enhanced levels of threat because they profit to an extraordinary degree significantly from them.

Unsurprisingly, a general distillation of the extraordinary range and type of general and specific threats which the People’s Republic of China is held to present in the tracts and pronouncements of these organisations leads to five conclusions. First, they are immanent; that is, to accept them is to accept that it is impossible to conceive of China without associating it with characteristics that are inherent in its very existence.

Second, they are global, with all the distinguishing features of a pandemic; third, that China is an enemy in waiting, and that a suspecting glance should be cast in the direction of all matters and people Chinese in general.

Fourth, being aroused to high levels of fear and retaliatory action by these threats is both natural and righteous. And finally, all contribute to a permissive environment for empowering the most militant and illiberal voices in politics.

To understand this mobilisation of fear it is essential that its framing is foregrounded: specifically, it is America’s uninhibited psychological depression and descent into self-pity on understanding that it is in a state of relative decline on the one hand while, on the other, is China’s grand strategic vision and capabilities and its intention to shift the locus of geopolitical power away from the maritime periphery and deep into the Eurasian continent’s heartland, unifying that great landmass into a single economic zone stretching 6,500 miles from Shanghai to Madrid.

For the United States this represents an actual, or potential loss of dominance, despite the fact that it is not an Eurasian power. The loss, nevertheless, is not only resented, but seen as an undeserving displacement which, in turn, is experienced (by those in decision-making and policy making roles) as an epochal shift of Copernican significance – a reorientation which constitutes nothing less than existential humiliation which, in the worst of prospects, can only be redeemed by demonstrating to the world of states its essential, indispensable superiority.

Australian defence planners experience this also but to it must be added the trauma which someone suffering from a dependent personality disorder experiences when confronted with the possibility of a paradigmatic revolution – to the uncharted territory of self-reliance. To forestall such a debilitating onset of greater sovereignty the government’s mid-2020 Strategic Defence Update was welcomed as an unambiguous notice to the country that the situation in the Indo-Pacific was one of incipient war and demanded that appropriate strategic measures be taken to ensure that the ADF be made capable of fighting major wars.  In the name of deterrence, of course.

Three questions beckon. First, what are the silences in these threat narratives? Answer: a body of existing expertise, possessed of a working knowledge and understanding of China and its politics, beyond the subsidised views of the current gatekeepers of the national security debates.

In practical terms, to consult this corpus of knowledge would entail adopting the Enlightenment habit of institutionalised skepticism and profound political agnosticism in relation to all Mosaic distinctions and Manichaean assertions of good and evil, especially when they concern a drift to war, and most especially when they emanate from sources such as politicised agencies with an empirically proven record of dishonesty and error. And to these should be added the history of the United States and its record of almost perpetual, unconstitutional and unsuccessful wars.

Such an approach would question US edicts, and perforce, their repetition by Australian sources of expert opinion which are in effect the local agents for an alliance acting irresponsibly and dangerously.

It bears repeating that the antagonism directed to China has been cogently argued, on this site and elsewhere, by a range of highly experienced and knowledgeable former members of the Australian Foreign and Defence policy community, and the Australian Defence Force – among them Sam Bateman, Alan Gyngell, Angus Houston, John Menadue, Geoff Miller, Geoff Raby, Mike Scrafton and Hugh White.  I mention so many because the reception they have received in the realm of informed public debate is biblical: voices crying in the wilderness or, when heard, only selectively listened to.

How has it come to pass that such distinguished people, whose careers were marked by experiences which demanded sober-minds and sound judgements, and whose advice was valued, are now relegated to, and beyond, the margins of public discourse? To use a more recent term are they now possessed of so little insight and wisdom that they are to be  subjected to a Wilhelmine dismissal – as Australia’s “Old Contemptibles?”

Second question: what is being attributed to China? Answer: an irrational strategic mindset. China, is not a complete major power and is, in several respects, extremely vulnerable.  Consider the allegation against it which arises from the strategy of Area Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) a measure inferred to promise the disruption of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

What would China gain from such a move (let alone war), given the likely reactions to it? We need to ask because: China is the world’s largest oil importer, the bulk of it imported from ostensible US allies. Currently, 80 percent of China’s oil imports, 50 percent of its natural gas imports and 42 percent of goods transit these waters. In the event of disruption, furthermore, Chinese trade through the straits of the Indonesian archipelago would be easy to interdict – and even if that is eventually circumvented by the port projects in Burma and Pakistan, the fact remains that routes across the Indian Ocean are also extremely vulnerable.

To enter, as best as one can, the strategic mindset in Beijing, therefore, facilitates the logic of China responding, by way of Area Access/Area Denial (A2/AD), to potential threats to its territory. Simply expressed, China rejects the suggestion that, given the possibility of war, its intention to deploy deterrent measures (by way of a modernised fleet, undersea warfare capabilities and air warfare systems capable of attacking US fleet elements out as far as Guam) should be construed as unreasonable and threatening when it is the defensive prerogative of every nation state in the same position, not least the United States.

Thus, for Australia, as for the various allies that the US expects to join its “confrontation” and potential war, the suggestion that China’s wartime strategy of A2/AD implies a clear and present danger to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea short of war needs to be disaggregated from the conflation of ideas and prejudices that confuse capabilities with intentions and reduce complex geo-economic, geo-strategic, and geo-political forces to simple questions of strategic (military) power.

For Australia to accept that China is prepared to act in such a way that it becomes hostage to easy destruction is to also believe in the absurd proposition that China is suicidal.

Third question: who needs an ASPI and its close relatives?  Mass produced threat narratives entirely in accord with those produced by the longer-established, like-minded think tanks elsewhere are essentially franchise operations. This might even be tolerable if the product was high quality but, by any reckoning, it is not. Worse, it is dangerous.  Attitude is not a substitute for policy, even less does it resemble a strategy.

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