ASPI resorts to bullying to deter strategic debate on China

Dec 8, 2020

Peter Jennings, Executive Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), has launched an ad hominem attack belittling those who take a contrary approach to Australia-China relations rather than advocating for war preparations. But it is his poor grasp of his subject matter that is most disappointing.

In a piece published in both ASPI’s The Strategist blog and The Australian, Jennings maintains that “Beijing’s collection of local useful idiots are tested to see how far they will defend the indefensible behaviour of their patron”. This implies anyone disagreeing with the China hawks are somehow mentally deficient, and that failing to fall in behind the anti-China crowd is somehow treasonable. This language is inappropriate for a government funded organisation purportedly set up to foster an informed public debate on defence issues.

In his enthusiasm for Australia to decouple from China, its biggest trading partner, Jennings misrepresents and oversimplifies the issue. Although he claims there is “now a consensus that Australia must diversify its trade markets”, it still seems clear that the Australian government and the minerals extraction and export sectors, among others, are not part of that consensus. The economic and social disruption of exacerbating the trade spat with China, and the momentous task of finding new markets in a highly competitive world, are simply ignored by Jennings. Although Jennings might claim, ”Decades of diplomatic nuance in our China relationship have delivered nothing”, others might point to a long period of sustained prosperity off the back of a beneficial trading relationship.

Economics and trade policy aren’t ASPI’s brief, or supposed area of expertise; strategic policy is. Although this is not apparent from Jennings’ piece. First though it needs to be made clear that thinking that a more informed and nuanced approach to managing the relationship with China doesn’t mean denying or downplaying the abuses of the Uighurs or other minorities. It doesn’t indicate approval of authoritarian government. But these, along with many other objective facts, are part of the situation in which the Australian governments must manoeuvre, making judicious decisions about when to speak up publicly, when to make views known through government channels, and when to galvanise action. A balancing act Australia no longer seems able to perform, even when it is in its interests to do so.

On to strategic policy issues. Jennings notes the Australian Defence Minister announced that Australia and the US will cooperate on the development and testing of an air-breathing hypersonic cruise-missile prototype. He says that such a capability will add “more deterrence weight to our defence force and ensuring that an adversary will have to deal with that risk thousands of kilometres from our shores”, and advocates accelerating this development and acquiring this capability as soon as possible.

Three issues jump out immediately from Jennings points. The first is that hypersonic missiles are potentially a strategically disruptive innovation that will increase instability. Virtually impossible to defend against at present, hypersonic missiles compress dramatically decision-cycle times and increase the prospect of misunderstanding in times of tension. They are complex and expensive items, and many technical issues around the air-breathing versions remain to be resolved. Hypersonic cruise missiles also need to be launched at near supersonic speeds and therefore present complex operational and deployment challenges.

Most contentious among Jennings’ claims are that Australia’s possession of a weapon like hypersonic cruise missiles will act as a deterrent. There are a number of basic questions involved in Australia deterring China. Deterring it from what? If China had an objective that could only be met by an attack on Australia, and it is difficult to conceive what that might be, how would Australia having these weapons dissuade it? Would Australia strike pre-emptively at Chinese forces? Would it strike a targets on the Chinese mainland and open Australia up to retaliation?

Another factor is the issue of quantity, actually a decisive factor. China will possess many more of these types of long-range hypersonic missiles than Australia, and once Australia’s supply was exhausted it will be extremely vulnerable. Moreover, China’s forces are not only vastly superior in numbers, platforms and munitions, they have many more tactical options for attacking Australia, if ever they had the desire. Deterrence between asymmetrical powers is a fantasy of armaments makers.

Unlikely as its seems, the Chinese might “envy the military capability we extract from the US alliance and a force of 90,000 regulars and reserves”.  It maybe that Chinese combat aircraft “suffer from critical capability deficiencies in engine and stealth technology, among others, and are no match yet for the F-35 joint strike fighter and the linked systems of the wider ADF”.  Currently though they have far more fighters and bombers, and ballistic missiles, and it would not be wise to believe that a nation that just put a rover on the moon and launched an ambitious Mars mission is not going to make continuous and rapid technological advances.

The public airing obtained by these indulgent war fantasies is dangerous. Whipping up anti-China hysteria and broadcasting misleading information about the military realities and relativities between Australia and China can inflame a situation could  end badly. In key ways China is an alien country to Australians, and many of the political, social and economic norms it follows are at serious odds to those of Australia. That doesn’t make it an enemy.

It is not unreasonable to factor China’s immense military power into Australia’s strategic policy calculations. It would be irresponsible not to. Moreover, the government also would be derelict if it didn’t provide adequately for a realistic level of defence capability, and one that not only bore in mind the likely missions that the defence force would be called on to undertake, but also had regard for the capability required for success while keeping service personnel as safe as practical. However, when those two things are considered together, it is clear that a deterrence strategy makes no sense for Australia, and avoiding a war is the only sensible objective.

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