Australia’s new defence strategy fights last war

Apr 28, 2024
Chinese national flag stuck into the skin of a lemon. Souring, sour, bitter relationship between the two countries over trade export and import relations.

The Ukrainians changed the face of modern warfare with inexpensive Chinese-made drones equipped with cheap Chinese-made cameras. These provide both battlefield intelligence and a platform for delivering destructive weapons.

Interestingly, the Chinese did not interfere with these Ukrainian drone operations against China’s friend, Russia, despite the claims by Senator Patterson and others that Chinese kit puts us all at risk because the Chinese somehow have ultimate control.

The paradigm of warfare has changed, although the Colonel Blimps and their spokesman, Australian Defence Minister Marles, are still committed the fighting the last war, but this time with China identified as the adversary. The recently released National Defence Strategy focuses on preparing the military to help Australia withstand Chinese coercion. The updated equipment priorities are no more than advanced iterations of old weapons, all designed for denial of battlefield space.

The idea that China would block its own trade-critical sea lanes is a policy oxymoron embraced by Australia .

Former Home Affairs Department chief Michael Pezzullo said the government should prepare a ‘‘war book’’ because of the ‘‘credible’’ risk of conflict by 2030. In shades of the Blitz, he spoke of the need for plans covering evacuating and sheltering population centres. The concept may be beneficial, but the execution is already mired in obsolescence because it fails to appreciate the non-lethal nature of modern conflict as it applies, in particular, to Australia.

Let’s for a moment take the prognostications of the warmongers as a starting point. What would China need to do to bring Australia to its knees in a modern conflict? Australia’s unique vulnerability lies not in its geography, nor its trade routes.
The Australian economy relies heavily on three main export earners to give Australia the balance of payments security and prosperity Australia desires.

It takes no weapons or cyber warfare attack, to simply halt Chinese orders for Australia iron ore and coal. Australian resources are a major component of China’s import needs but the accelerated development of the Simandou iron ore deposit in Africa and the ramping up of Brazilian production, makes this order suspension strategy possible. Complete, or partial suspension of orders for 3, or even 6 months, would not cause the Chinese economy to collapse, but it would rapidly drive Australia’s economy toward the fiscal wall.

No need to disrupt shipping in the South China sea as suggested in the latest Defence Strategy update.

A similar outcome is achieved by prohibiting Chinese tourists from coming to Australia, and stopping Chinese students from attending Australian Universities. In two simple administrative and regulatory decisions, the second and third largest components of Australia’s export earnings would suffer grievous blows.

Not a single submarine is deployed, not a shot is fired and no naval exercises close to Australia are required. No Australian systems need to be hacked, no cyber security breaches or covert operations are required.

This is not warfare as the Colonel Blimps know it. Nor is it warfare as Senator Patterson envisages where every Chinese product is a potential military asset from WeChat to household security cameras and from a Great Wall SUV to a Haier washing machine.

The cumulative damage to the Australian economy would be rapid and devastating. Expensive AUKUS submarines, naval assets, grey nurse drones and rocket artillery do not stand in the way of simple regulatory obstructions to trade. 30 billion dollars for submarines, and counting, is rendered impotent although it remains a Viagra to the Colonel Blimps and the foreign arms industry intent on selling hardware to Australia.

If China does not need to physically block trade routes, or attack Australia, then how can Australia prevent this economic damage?

The currently poorly funded dogsbody of foreign affairs is the answer. For a fraction of the cost of AUKUS submarines, Australia’s diplomatic engagement with China could be increased tenfold. For a fraction of the cost, Australia could boost University studies of China and develop a serious depth of understanding of China to replace the simplistic cartoon characterisations that drive Australia’s public and policy discourse.

The second step is to recognise the legitimacy of China’s desire to play a more active role in formulating the structures of the global rules based order. Like President Biden, Australia thinks that compliance with U.S. demands is the same as co-operation. President Xi wants co-operation based on the U.S. acknowledging the legitimacy of China’s perspective. Global regulatory structures that do not recognise China are no longer fit for purpose.

Currently Australian foreign policy brings an adversarial approach to China where almost everything China does is wrong or seen as a threat to Australia. This lack of respect is deeply woven into the fabric of current Australian diplomatic and military policy. True to its mission, the military views the world through a gunsight.

Diplomacy can and should take a different perspective. Foreign Minister Penny Wong has smoothed the rhetoric, but Australia’s position is virtually indistinguishable from the aggressive position adopted by the previous Government. Marles wants to ensure Australia is able to resist coercion but submarines don’t sit at the negotiating table. Economic warfare by regulation is resolved with diplomacy, not guns.


A more internationalised version of this appeared in South China Morning Post, April 25, 2024

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