A new concept continues to clamour for acceptance in Australia’s strategic debate: ‘political warfare’.
The phrase has been mobilised and sent into battle by two Liberal backbenchers, Andrew Hastie and Dave Sharma, and by some advocates of the view that we are witnessing the emergence of a new Cold War with Beijing.
In essence, the term captures how repressive, authoritarian regimes in Russia and China have ‘weaponised’ diplomacy, the media, investment flows, infrastructure, the purchase of foreign assets and university campuses in order to prosecute their respective ‘revolutionary’ struggles. In short: this is war by other means.
The use of the term likewise holds that in response Australia needs to up the ante in beating such regimes at their own game. Sharma, taking his cue from a history of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, contends that what is required is nothing short of a ‘doctrinal shift’ in the practice of Australian statecraft. We need, he wrote recently, to ‘take the fight to them … even if only to create effective deterrence’.
Where, pray, has Australia been politically compliant to Beijing?
But it’s not always clear what is being proposed. The assumption behind the use of the term is Australian passivity in the face of an existential threat to national survival. Yet Sharma concedes that the government has already adopted important and significant steps to counter unwanted foreign interference in national life.
Hastie too welcomes legislative moves taken by the Australian government in this sphere. Others propose a series of ‘hard-headed’ but ‘moderate’ measures towards China – again, most of which the government is already doing.
It is, of course, beyond doubt that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping are employing asymmetric tactics; that the nature of international conflict now is being manifest in ways very different from those which split last century asunder. Australia must therefore continue to be proactive about the challenge posed to its values and institutions by Xi’s embrace of a more aggressive brand of Chinese exceptionalism.
Old wine in new bottles
For what we are seeing, as many have already pointed out, is the continued shelving of China’s post-1950 revolutionary myth and its replacement with a narrative of a ‘century of humiliation’ by Western and Japanese ‘imperialists’. The trend for some time now in China has been clearly towards the creation of an authoritarian nationalist state, most visibly revealed in the repression of non-Han ethnic communities in its northwest and in its militarisation of the South China Sea. As East Asia continues to go through the modernisation process, policymakers will need to keep uppermost in mind the role of nationalism in geo-politics.
The use of ‘political warfare’ then, far from being a grand, new strategic doctrine is instead the muscular application of a simple theory to a complex world. This is old wine being poured into new bottles. Hastie and Sharma are reheating a talking point that has been doing the rounds in security agencies for some time now: namely that Australia should seek to ‘shine a light’ on Beijing for doing to Canberra what it is doing to its own people: providing economic benefits in exchange for political compliance.
But what is the evidence for Australian sovereignty and its institutional integrity being seriously undermined? Where, pray, has Australia been politically compliant to Beijing? That Australia-China relations are currently in the deep freeze certainly suggests otherwise, and it could hardly be suggested that the media here have been reticent in reporting China’s human rights abuses or matters of actual or supposed potential interference in our national politics: since 2016, such stories have dominated the headlines. Aside from some scaremongering, the media has played its proper part in exposing some of the more troubling aspects of Chinese interference. It cannot also be gainsaid that Australia’s intelligence agencies lack sufficient funding.
Some proponents of ‘political warfare’ also have their heroes and founding documents. A favourite is American diplomat George Kennan and his famous long telegram sent from Moscow in 1946, an analysis of the sources of Soviet behaviour and a framework for how American policymakers might think about countering its influence. It was to form the intellectual wellspring for Washington’s Cold war doctrine of containment.
But Kennan himself became distinctly uncomfortable with successive administration’s application of his ideas, especially in Asia. And he was troubled by the hardening American attitude towards the Soviet Union in the 1970s.
Writing in his book The Nuclear Delusion (1982), Kennan lamented the advent of a ‘frame of mind in which the Soviet Union appeared in a far more menacing posture than had been the case for the past decade: the sweeping militarisation of the American view of East-West relations; the assumption of deadly and irreconcilable conflict … the contemptuous neglect of the more favourable possibilities’. No matter how inaccurate or improbable such scenarios were, he added, they were becoming so deeply embedded in the public mind that nothing he could do or say could eradicate them.
And Kennan concluded by facing up to the fact that ‘distortions of this nature, like all false prophecies and all false images of conflict and enmity, tend to be self-fulfilling’.
Striking the right balance in dealing with China’s rise is of course the fundamental foreign policy challenge of our time. Xi Jinping is not making it any easier. But Australia has little option, for the time being, to accept that a piecemeal and pragmatic diplomacy constitutes the best policy. Certainly it is preferable to blowing hard on the bugle of ‘political warfare’.
James Curran is a Nonresident Fellow at the Lowy Institute and Professor of History at the University of Sydney. His most recent book is Unholy Fury: Whitlam and Nixon at War (2015). A former analyst with the Office of National Assessments, Curran was a Fulbright Scholar at Georgetown University and in 2013 held the Chair of Australian History at University College Dublin.