When the ‘war on terror’ was only seven years old, an Australian former Ambassador to Beijing pointed to its risks and costs for Australia. Garry Woodard warned that rather than protecting ‘national security’, such an open-ended war could widen our obligations to the US and narrow our options in dealing with China.
That is exactly what has happened.
Since 2001 the Federal and State governments have passed hundreds of security laws, and many Australians have been arrested and imprisoned for terrorism. In the name of national security, Australian journalists have been raided, Chinese journalists and academics in Australia have been interrogated or expelled, and politicians have been stood down over ‘foreign influence’ (from China). None of it has made Australia safer, according to the heads of our intelligence agencies, who repeatedly warn us that threats to national security, both from terrorists and from Chinese influence, are increasing.
Sino-phobia has come roaring back in Australia. But its origins are much older than the war on terror. The Australian colonies sent troops to fight for Britain against the rebellious Chinese ‘Boxers’ in 1900. Chinese Australians petitioned colonial governors, complaining of discrimination and pointing to their contribution to the nation’s economy and society, and were ignored. Australia’s first act after Federation was to exclude them, as the US did.
But when China was America’s ally against Japan, it became Australia’s too, and remained so after WWII. Like the US, we refused to recognise the Communists in Beijing, favouring the Nationalists in Taiwan until the 1970s. At least Menzies, no friend of communism, refused to join the US in fighting China over Quemoy and Matsu. War was averted, though not in Korea or Vietnam, where Australia fought the ‘southward advance of Chinese communism’.
As China took the capitalist path and bought the US debt, and joined international organisations, it gained America’s favour, and loyal Australia became a China enthusiast. Alexander Downer’s finest hour was when he said Australia would not go to war over Taiwan. But in Beijing in 2000 he explained that Australia still differentiated between ‘cultural regionalism’ (meaning shared historical identity, values, instincts) and ‘practical regionalism’ (economic dealings, interests). His Chinese listeners would at once have understood where that placed them.
China’s sustained demand having enabled Australia to survive the GFC, some in Canberra claimed we didn’t have to choose between our militarily powerful ally and our economically powerful trading partner: but we already favoured instincts over interests. As China’s rise began to threaten US hegemony, conservative Australian leaders clung to past pieties, that ANZUS would defend us and America would lead the world for another thirty years. Successive White Papers were based on this belief. ASPI’s Peter Jennings has now reduced that to ‘five to ten years’ (Weekend Australian 12-13 September 2020: 12). But others argue – as Ken Henry did in the 2012 Asian Century White Paper ̶ that the American century is over, and global power has shifted to Asia. If Australia fails to admit that, we can’t contribute to it or benefit from it, a retired NSW judge now writes (Michael Pembroke, America in Retreat – The Decline of US Leadership from Hiroshima to Covid-19, 2020. Title of Asian edition).
The 2007 Defence Update expressed some reservations about joining distant wars against America’s enemies. It was the last to do so. Since then, and without demur from the Opposition, successive Australian governments have sent more troops to war, raised military expenditure, increased interoperability with US forces, and encouraged the US to expand its military and intelligence presence in Australia. In the name of ‘national security’ against terrorism they have already committed the country to three US wars in the Middle East. Pine Gap and the other bases are inextricable from these operations. They make Australia a primary target. If China chose to fire a warning shot at the US, it might aim it at America’s assets in Darwin, Geraldton, or Alice Springs. So instead of making us safer, the alliance itself endangers Australia, just as Malcolm Fraser wrote in 2014.
Hard-nosed security advisers who occupy influential positions in government and universities argue for ‘push-back’ against China. Whatever national security policy does for Australia, their personal security is ensured by promoting it. No-one who warns that the US and Australia are unlikely to win a war over the South China Sea has good career prospects. The head of DFAT, a former Ambassador in China, now criticises China’s ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy and interference in other countries’ affairs, which she says Australia won’t tolerate (Frances Adamson interview, Cameron Stewart, ‘In defence of our freedoms’, Weekend Australian, 12-13 September 2020: 1,2, 13). Jennings goes further, wanting Australia to have ‘sufficient hitting power to raise the costs and challenges’ a (Chinese) aggressor will face (Weekend Australian 12-13 September 2020: 12).
Former Chair of the Australia-China Council Warwick Smith resigned this year after Marise Payne replaced it with the National Foundation of Australia/China Relations in 2019, appointing to the board Maree Ma, of the anti-PRC Vision China Times. Ma was Secretary of a US-funded website affiliated with Falun Gong, a movement banned in China. Other ‘push-backs’ followed, all on grounds of ‘national security’. Australia refused to join China’s international BRI program; rejected Huawei’s more efficient and economical 5G; demanded an independent inquiry into COVID-19 and blamed China for it; pursued universities over Chinese influence on students and academics; criticised China’s reaction to demonstrations in Hong Kong and offered visas to those wishing to leave; and published critiques of China’s treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang (East Turkistan). This last is interesting, as China complains that Islamist Uighurs, active in Iraq and Syria, are terrorists. In Australia too, they would be ‘foreign fighters’, but Penny Wong advocates for their human rights.
Push-back arrived in Australia before the recent exchange of fire on journalists and academics. Australia’s exports to China fell for each of the last five months to August 2020, even while China’s imports from all nations grew by 6 percent in the year to August 2020. Chinese in 2019 far outnumbered other foreign students in Australian universities, but that market has virtually vanished. The same is the case with Chinese tourists, the largest group in 2019 (James O’Neill, ‘Australia Confronts a Changing Economic World’, New Eastern Outlook, September 2020).
Revival of trade and cooperation with China, and respect for its legitimate aspirations, are essential for Australia’s national security, as they are for our Asian neighbours. Further wars against terror are not. ASEAN countries will not join the US in a catastrophic war against China, nor should we. Australia’s national security depends on saving lives from the pandemic, not destroying them by war.
After several years, Dr Alison Broinowski AM has just completed a book on terrorism. She is Vice-President of Australians for War Powers Reform.