Coalition’s game of chicken with China for political advantage

Sep 14, 2021
Peter Dutton
(Image: AP/Rod McGuirk)

Does Australia continue to provoke and insult China not so much to hurt our biggest trading partner as to motivate our most important ally – the United States – to maintain a strong economic and military presence in the area?

Australian and American soldiers, fresh from their latest military triumphs in Afghanistan, will hardly have a chance to rest before they are being eagerly re-organised for potential conflict with China – a rather different adversary from the Taliban, even if the latter was more than enough for the combined forces of the United States, NATO and Australia.

This time about the partnership arrangements are partly concealed by worthy words about a grouping of democratic nations with benevolent intentions towards, engaged in some common worthy tasks such as the distribution of vaccines against COVID-19 in the Indo-Pacific again. The word “China’ scarcely appears in the communiques issued by members of the Quad – the grouping of the US, Japan, India and Australia. Each of the four players has its own reasons, which differ from time to time, or occasion to occasion to deny that the Quad is a military alliance, even if, for other purposes, both Japan and Australia have formal military alliances with the United States. India is particularly shy about the word, even if the most common practical expression of all of the understandings involves joint exercises by all of the partners with the Indian navy.

But the reason it gets all of the attention, not least from President Joe Biden, is in its potential as a strategic alliance in the economic and military containment of a China increasingly seen as unfriendly, and, particularly as a maritime arrangements capable, probably with help from France, Canada and Britain of maintaining freedom of navigation in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and, of course, the China Sea. No need to guess what that’s all about.

Its high-level supporters see it as a useful vehicle for general competition with China, including the development of western alternatives to the Chinese belt and road initiatives with its neighbours. Likewise with vaccine initiatives, and in soft diplomacy herding, or attempting to herd, ASEAN and Pacific nations away from strong economic relations with China. But the strategists see it primarily for its impression of an encirclement by rival nations, as well as the base of enormous military power should the trade and propaganda conflict come to armed conflict.

Formally, the hope is that such a formidable gathering might persuade China that any attempts to “break out” by aggression towards its neighbours is doomed to failure, encouraging it instead to return to seeking peace with all of its neighbours. The more realistic prospect is that a proud and bristly nation, already with the biggest gross domestic product on earth, will redouble its efforts to dominate its near environment, making relationships more unpredictable and more dangerous. It sometimes seems as if Australia knows this very well, and that its program of provocation and insult is designed not so much to hurt our biggest trading partner as to motivate our most important ally – the United States – to maintain a strong economic and military presence in the area. If that is so, it is all of a one with Australia’s primary diplomatic policies since the 1960s, when we went with the US in Vietnam primarily for the purpose of keeping America enmeshed and enmired in Asia. The fear was that America, given the drubbing it was receiving, might get discouraged and quit Asia altogether.

Does Australia needle China to keep the US engaged when otherwise it might lose heart or resolve?

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is off to Washington soon for a meeting with other Quad leaders. Also in Washington will be Defence Minister Peter Dutton and Foreign Minister Marise Payne, the politician who more or less consciously brought on Australia’s war of words with China last year, which led to Chinese trade sanctions. She took an international lead in demanding an independent inquiry into how the coronavirus had got loose into the human population. Dutton, never to be outdone in bellicosity towards foreigners, had his additional two-bob’s worth recently when he compared China, under the communist regime, with Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s. Calming words like this are guaranteed (and calculated) to keep the temperature of relations with China high, whether at the political, economic or cultural level. Expect some counter-provocations, including some wounding words about Australians – perhaps the triumph of our diggers in Afghanistan, which will cause outrage and indignation among our politicians, as well as in that part of the Australian intelligence and defence establishment which constantly seems to be slavering for a war we could not possibly win.

Perhaps the game of chicken is harmless enough, given the unlikelihood of China’s lobbing a nuclear missile in our direction, or of its creating an expeditionary force, with supporting navy and logistical arrangements to sail to Western Australian to seize our, or rather Gina Rinehart’s or Twiggy Forrest’s, iron ore. In this sense China may well see Australia as some child hurling insults from behind mother’s skirts. But on the other hand, China, and not a few of Australia’s neighbours, see Australia as playing an American game, doing and saying things that a major power would find beneath them. In this sense disproportionate reactions, not least in trade sanctions serve a double purpose: punishing Australia to a point that it must wonder whether being a surrogate for American hostility is worth the trouble, and enabling retaliations on a bit player that would be unworthy, or far too dangerous, if practised on America itself. Australians have already learnt for example that our glorious allies, who have promised to stand with us in dressing down China, have not scrupled to capture trade markets from which we are now shut out.

Strictly, the Dutton and Payne agenda is more focused on the annual ministerial dialogue on defence and foreign affairs between Australia and the US, and on the desire of Dutton to get hold of more sophisticated American missiles and missile targeting gear. But one can be also be sure that both, like Morrison at the Quad talks, will be as much focused on the Coalition’s domestic political interests, as they will be in having the best possible military equipment for our own needs, including the service of our place, whatever it may come to be, in the alliance.

Could we have something like a 1963 election based on defence issues in prospect? Robert Menzies almost lost the 1961 election to Labor because of a credit squeeze. Famously, he got back with a majority of one, though not as his last man in, Jim Killen claimed, because of communist party preferences. Over the next couple of years, tensions rose with Indonesia – over its takeover of Irian Jaya from the Dutch, and its bitter opposition to the establishment of Malaysia, which saw Australian and British troops fight Indonesian soldiers in the jungles along the Malaysia-Indonesian border in Borneo. Labor, under Arthur Calwell, was almost as bellicose on the issue as the Coalition. In 1963 Menzies took advantage of rising tensions with Indonesia to call an early election.

About that time Australia was re-equipping its air force, and there were two enthusiastic sellers, Britain and the US, with Britain pulling very strongly on its apron strings. The British were hoping for a substantial sale of its fighter bomber – called during the campaign the TSR2 – to revive their aircraft industry and to create economies of scale with its own rearmament project. Its big advantage was that it would be quickly available, unlike the rival still very much on the drawing board. It was called the TFX, but later the F1-11. A political selling point was that an F1-11, on its specifications, could fly to Djakarta, drop a cartload of bombs on the presidential palace and return. Menzies ultimately went for the TFX, in the process doing rather more damage to the British aircraft industry than Hitler’s Luftwaffe, and won a khaki election.

Morrison, no doubt, figures that he will be politically advantaged if he can confect a defence issue. One can be sure that the Coalition will suggest that Labor is unsound on defence issues, and a threat to national security. Labor, by contrast, is always reluctant to fight on defence and national security issues, taking great care to minimise points of difference, and sometimes looking as if it has a guilty conscience on the matter. Indeed its unwillingness to enter into national security debates while in opposition is the greatest single threat to Australia’s national security.

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