The Defence Strategic Review: Is China the real enemy?

Sep 12, 2022
Australia and Chinese flags being waved by Australia and Chinese people
Image: Flickr / Michael Lieu

China is not Australia’s enemy. If it is an enemy, and Australia continues to trade with China as it does, it reflects a schizophrenic attitude that we have to sort out first before spending vast amounts of money preparing to fight China. In preparing our Defence Force, there is no room for complacency. Neither is there room for wild imaginings of the type constantly being trotted out by hawks and the mainstream media.

The Australian government has initiated a review of our defence under the title Defence Strategic Review. The purpose of the review gleaned from a number of defence documents indicates that it is to ensure the Australian Defence Force is “well positioned to meet the nation’s security challenges over the period 2023-24 to 2032-33 and beyond”; and to understand where to prioritise investment. It is to be led by two defence experts Professor Stephen Smith, former Minister for Defence and retired Air Chief Marshal Sir Angus Houston. Submissions are also invited from interested parties.

Like all members of the public, I have no expertise on defence to contribute. However, I believe that it is the responsibility of every citizen of this country to ask whether the “enemy” identified to form the basis of our building of elaborate defence structures are real or correctly identified. By the same token, questions must be asked of the “friends” with which we form alliances so that we are not used as a “cat’s paw”, obligated to fight wars overseas to advance other countries’ real agendas. Our own national interest must take priority.

All the related Defence documents available to the public do not mention specifically who the enemies are. However, there are nonetheless a number of indicators. These include the mention of “growing regional military capabilities” (Frequently Asked Questions); “the Indo-Pacific region” (an American term used to describe the regions threatened by the Chinese military presence); the AUKUS partnership and the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines. Obviously the unstated bogeyman is China. The idea of China as the enemy has been built up over at least two terms of conservative governments with the complicity of a willing and eager press. Once the public is convinced that a particular country is the enemy with nefarious intentions towards Australia, spending huge amounts of public funds on military hardware and other preparations becomes much easier to justify against other compelling needs for funds.

All along, I have never felt that China was an enemy to Australia. In fact, I have always sensed that the idea of China as an enemy is a manufactured idea, and a convenient tool, to serve a range of needs ranging from Australia’s own domestic politics; insecurity as a Western nation adrift in an Asian region; an attempt to help maintain US hegemony in Asia in order to serve our security needs; a psychological need to be Deputy Sheriff to the US in Asia; fear that an authoritarian state will grow to dominate the region against the accepted status quo of Western domination; perhaps even the spectre of a Yellow Peril. Seemingly unable to deal with all these challenges alone, we put our trust in the US to stand alongside us in a show of strength. In doing so, we have effectively put our welfare, present and future, in the hands of the US. To please the Americans, we have taken their enemies as our enemies and often put ourselves forward in anticipation of their needs. Phillip Adam’s portrayal of erstwhile PM John Howard asking “How high?” even before the US said “Jump!” describes such a pathetic attachment very well.

The problem for China is that it grew too fast, too successfully, and too independently for the liking of a hitherto Western dominated world. Deng Xiaoping’s innovative idea of embracing Western style capitalism, Western technology and opening up the huge Chinese market to the world unleashed the pent-up Chinese energy and entrepreneurship, enabling it to make unprecedented economic leaps that lifted 800 million Chinese out of poverty within a mere 40 years. In the beginning, this was looked upon with benign tolerance and even admiration by the Western world. The hope among them was that with affluence, the Chinese would become “more like us” and embrace Western liberal democratic values. When it became obvious that it was becoming so economically successful that it could eclipse even the US; and that it had little intention of becoming more like the West; or even live within the rules set by them to advantage Western domination of the world, tolerance turned to apprehension and fear; and fear sparked a propaganda war. The Western countries missed the point when Deng iterated “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. It would be fair to say that even the Marxist-Leninist communism that she adopted was subject to “Chinese characteristics” – a fact when noticed by the Western world became known as Maoism. It became “recalcitrant” and recalcitrance means an abnormality that has to be fought against and controlled, much in the same manner that Michel Foucault portrayed Western cultural response to people who do not fit the norm. Control was manifested in the form of “containment”.

US containment strategies have taken on many forms ranging from increased tariffs on Chinese goods, blacklisting of Chinese technology, to accusations of oppression of its own people and the legitimacy of its ownership of its own territories. We witness layer upon layer of accusations heaped upon China based on unproven charges of human rights violations in Xinjiang, forced labour, Road and Belt Initiative debt traps, deprivation of personal freedom in Hong Kong, genocide against minorities, Huawei, Wuhan virus, spying through students, scientists and overseas Chinese, cyber security transgressions, theft of intellectual property and even making prominent Chinese citizen “disappear” when they displease the government; a list so long that it would make Lucifer blush.

Barack Obama’s “pivot East” geopolitics is a reflection that China is a more difficult and graver problem than the Soviet Union ever was. What they could previously control and resolve with a Cold War they no longer find workable on a country that has become even more dynamic economically than themselves. The US has taken on the mantle of Sheriff to put the Chinese in their place. Unfortunately, Australia under its conservative governments and on account of its long history of being allied to the US, has taken on the same mantle but with a lesser role as “Deputy”. China became Australia’s “enemy” by default.

In place of a justifiable reason for making an enemy of China, Australian Sinophobes took to accusing it of expansionism, implicating Australia as a target. Perhaps one of the ways to gauge whether China has covetous intent vis-a-vis Australia is to list what she finds attractive about Australia:

  • In the resources sector, China has an insatiable appetite for high quality Australian iron ore and coal.
  • In the service sector, tourism features very highly on their list. They visit Australia for its Western culture and unique fauna i.e. Kangaroos and Koalas; Scott Morrison’s legendary marketing strategies notwithstanding.
  • Australian education is very sought after by the Chinese because it provides good Western style education, at an affordable cost in a country closer to home. It is an English speaking country. Chinese students can also offset some of the cost of their education through part-time work.

None of the above justifies a war to acquire. China can well afford to pay for them.

As to claims that China is expansionist because she took the Spratlys, Scarborough Shoal and the Paracels, the arguments become difficult because of history and greed. These are disputed areas primarily because they are known to have valuable oil and gas resources and because China has a long and complicated relationship with countries in the region. Nevertheless, it seems obvious that China took them to defend her most important maritime arterial link to the region; and further beyond to the Middle East and the West. It also constitutes China’s maritime Silk Road to the West. Estimates have it that about 40% of China’s total trade passes through the South China Sea. Strategically, it appears to be the remaining part of the Indo-Pacific free from the chain of encirclement of US military bases in the Pacific. It would be fair to mention that since their takeover by China, no ships plying the region has ever been prevented from doing so for trading purposes and that the US and its allies have been carrying out innumerable FONOPs to test them for negative responses.

The next flashpoint in the US/China relationship is likely to come from Taiwan because it is potentially the most promising place for the US to start a war of proxy against an enemy of comparable strength in order to weaken it. The first was in Afghanistan in the Soviet-Afghan War (1979 – 1989) when the US armed and taught the Mujahideen how to resist and overthrow the Soviet occupation. According to analysts, Afghanistan contributed in no small way to the breaking up of a weakened Soviet Union soon after. Now we have the US and NATO fighting a proxy war in Ukraine against Russia. The US has lately been busy attempting to provoke China into a war with Taiwan beginning with a visit by Nancy Pelosi, followed by a US Congressional delegation and now by the Republican Governor of Indiana, Eric Holcomb. Does Australia want to be part of such a ploy?

If Australia wishes to review its defence strategies realistically, it should free itself from wild imaginings about China, learn to think more independently and not toe the American line. Fabrications of enmity about China are made worse by blind trust in the US’ political judgements about other countries it does not understand. Against perceived enemies, it has a tendency to launch propaganda wars and end up believing in its own propaganda. At least twice in recent history, it has been shown to fall victim to its own propaganda. The first time was the Vietnam war when it became obsessed with the Domino Theory and came to grieve for it at the cost of more than three million Vietnamese lives (civilian and military). More recently, it sold the idea that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction to the “Coalition of the Willing” and went to war with Iraq (with faithful Australia at its side) resulting in the death of about 400,000 (estimated) Iraqis. The democracy that the US foisted on them is gradually giving way to a state of theocracy (the influence of Muqtada al-Sadr is a case in point).

One of the problems about Australia’s geopolitical strategies in the past that most alarmed me were reports of Malcom Turnbull and Scott Morrison turning to the late Shinzo Abe for advice about China. They portrayed him as repository of wisdom about China despite the fact that he came from a line of ultra-rightwing hawks of the Japanese political elite. Part of his China phobia and belligerence came from the unfinished business of Japan’s atrocities in China during World War II for which it has not properly apologised and which it attempts to sanitise in its school history curriculum. The Koreas also have ongoing problems of this nature with Japan. Australia should have closer consultations with Singapore which has a good relationship with China although geopolitically it is more closely aligned with the US. It has a relatively strong military in the region purely for self-defence. It assiduously refrains from interfering in others’ internal affairs and has developed very good economic relationships with its neighbours. It is not quick to criticise but will stand up for its principles when it is necessary to do so.

Just to illustrate its attitude, in his recent National Day Rally (NDR), PM Lee Hsien Loong said that Singapore consistently opposes the approach of “might is right” indicating that Singapore voted against the US at the United Nations when the US invaded Grenada in 1983 and strongly opposed the Vietnam invasion of Cambodia in 1978. On Ukraine, he said, “If we do not stand firm and take a clear stand on the Ukraine crisis, should Singapore be invaded one day, no one will speak up for us.” (CNA 22/08/2022). For a tiny country (an island that seems to be dropping off the bottom end of the Malay Peninsula), Singapore packs a powerful punch. In 2022, Singapore is ranked 42 of 142 out of the countries considered for the annual GFP review (GlobalFirepower.com).

China is not Australia’s enemy. At least from the Chinese perspective, Australia is not an enemy. The new Chinese Ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian, even offered to reset the strained relationship on a more positive footing in his recent address to the Press Club of Australia. If it is an enemy and Australia continues to trade with China as it does, it reflects a schizophrenic attitude that we have to sort out first before spending vast amounts of money preparing to fight an enemy that is of our own making. To say the least, in our own defence there is no room for complacency. Neither is there room for wild imaginings of the type constantly being trotted out by hawks and the mainstream media.

Read more in our Defence Strategic Review series of articles.

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