BRIAN TOOHEY. The quality of intelligence advice.

Aug 17, 2016


A  former top US intelligence official David  Gompert has issued a sober warning to those who  want to lock Australia into any future war with China. Speaking  on Monday, Gompert  said a war between the US and China could be so ruinous for both countries and the world that it might seem unthinkable, yet it’s not. He said,

“China and the US are at loggerheads over several regional disputes that could lead to military confrontation . . . If a crisis overheated, both have an incentive to strike enemy forces before being struck by them.”

Gompert,  whom President Obama appointed as Deputy Director of National Intelligence in 2009, said China’s losses would greatly exceed those of the US in a war today, but  the conflict could still be “prolonged and destructive, yet inconclusive”.

Others argue that an enduring victory could require a horrendous invasion to occupy large areas of the Chinese mainland,  then win  a  decades long gorilla war.

This prospect might explain why US army and marine commanders had a lot less to say than their air force and navy colleagues at the 2010  press conference to announce their Air-Sea Battle plan for a war with China.   Apart from deep missile strikes into China, the plan envisaged a role for Australia in blockading Chinese trade, including imports of Australian iron ore and natural gas.

This plan, which was earlier shared with the Australian  military,  reinforced China’s conviction that the US and its allies are determined to contain its rise as a major power.  Kevin Rudd’s 2009 Defence White Paper included a classified appendix with a massively costly shopping list of weaponry for Australia to participate in a war with China. The Air-Sea battle plan (re-named in 2015) is only one of the planning options to which about 60 Australian Army officers have contributed while embedded in US Pacific headquarters in Honolulu.

These days, Canberra policymakers assume Australia will be part of any war   with China and there will be no substantive role for our diplomats in trying to avoid it.

John Menadue highlighted these developments in his August 12 blog,’Military/Security takeover of Australia’s foreign policy”.  Although little public attention has been paid to this change, it’s reflected in the ready access that  military  chiefs  now have to prime ministers.  A few decades ago, they would be lucky to get in the door more than a couple of times a year.

The Whitlam,  Fraser and Hawke/Keating  governments did not take it for granted that Australia would participate in  every war involving the US. Back then, if China invaded a country in the Middle East on spurious grounds,  Australia’s defence and foreign policy settings  could  could have accommodated  a decision to help a coalition of  countries reject it.  Those governments would have been far more reluctant to join a war in which China did not invade another country, but clashed with the US,  for example, in the South China Sea.

Since then, Paul Keating’s prudent doctrine that Australia should seek its security “in, not from”   Asia has been ditched in favour of a dangerous reversion to 1950’s doctrine of automatically backing an ally that has repeatedly engaged in  “wars of choice” since its inception.  The likely next US president,  the hawkish Hilary Clinton,  will almost certainly be more aggressive than Obama.

Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull inherited the Julia Gillard/Rudd legacy of inviting the US to establish a more extensive military presence in Australia  than any time since World War II.    Neither Gillard nor Rudd insisted Australia had to consent to the hostile use of these military assets.  In agreeing to let the US  base marines at Darwin, Gillard didn’t even stipulate what costs the US would bear or whether soldiers arrested for rape or murder,  for example, will be tried in an Australian court rather than be sent back to America in accordance with US “exceptionalism”.  Turnbull is still trying to sort this mess out.

Gillard and Rudd also agreed to let the US base a phased array space radar in WA to detect Chinese satellites that could be destroyed in a war.  They  also gave the US  upgraded access to the North West Cape communication station whose primary role is to transmit firing orders to US nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines.  Labor also approved an improved defence satellite communication system that further facilitates the  “interoperability” of US and Australian forces. Gillard even embedded a frigate in a US Carrier Battle Group in Japan, abandoning any Australian say in whether it took part in a battle with China over some disputed rocks.

Despite the growing dominance  of the Defence and national security apparatus over international policy-making,  there are no signs the quality of the advice has improved.  When the Treasurer Scott Morrison recently banned Chinese and Hong Kong firms leasing Ausgrid’s  wholesale electricity distribution business in NSW, he said the distributor provided “critical”  power and communications services to businesses and governments that raised [unacceptable] national security issues. Contrary to the facts, most journalists continued to comment on the basis that this must be true because it relied on  national security advice.  But one of Morrison’s core claims was false.  Ausgrid confirmed it does not supply any communication services to business or government.   Morrison’s astonishing   display of ignorance got almost no media coverage. Yet we are expected to have unquestioning confidence in the rest of the national security advice.

The media reaction to the crash of the census  website was no better.  Although almost no one knew the cause initially,  journalists  promptly quoted supposed “experts”,  such as the director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute Peter Jennings, who had no better clue then the average lamp post.  Jennings confidently nominated the Chinese government as the source of the cyber attacks that allegedly crashed the site.  This was far  from the only example of journalists asking people for their “expert” opinion on something they  clearly know nothing about.

Turnbull subsequently announced that the site crashed because too many Australians were trying to submit their form at the same time.  He said any cyber attacks would have been minor;  nor was it known whether governments or a couple of  individual hackers were responsible.

Monday night’s Media Watch program gave a well-justified caning to the media coverage,   particularly by the ABC.   Media Watch presented apparently authoritative information showing that there had been no cyber attacks on the census.  ABC management’s disturbing reply was that the speculative nonsense it broadcast was entirely acceptable.

The mundane explanation that the site crashed due to inadequate capacity was not as exciting as the chance to once more  raise a false alarm  about the China “threat”.  Yet several days after  evidence was clear, journalists still reported a foreign attack had “crippled” the  census.

After the media swallowed  rubbish masquerading as intelligence about Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction, more scepticism might have been expected about the past weeks two big “security” issues. Not so.  The chances that the media or the national security establishment might show some restraint in the march to war against China now appear to be zero.

Brian Toohey is a columnist with the Australian Financial Review specialising in policy, politics and the economy. 


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