There is another new player which could mean another cold war; andhuman rights going out the window, liberal democracy suspended. Journalists asking difficult questions face significant risks.
The China factor
One difficult question that needs asking is what is the nature of the existential threat from China that would warrant a cold war. Unlike the Soviets, who had a nuclear arsenal nearly equal to the US, China today has an estimated 290 warheads compared to over 6,000 for the US and a similar 6,000-plus for Russia. Given the imbalance in strategic weaponry, why would China want to provoke a military conflict that could wipe out all its new gleaming cities in a moment?
Another question: Is China behaving defensively or offensively? It is true that China has been building its regional military capability over decades. This would have been watched carefully in Washington. In 2010, the Department of Defense publicly and unusually issued an Air-Sea Battle Plan for “area denial” in the South China Sea.
Those words could have had only one meaning in China: “Blockade”, another “Opium War” humiliation, “containment”. Three years later, in 2013, China started reclamation of disputed islands. Also in 2013, China announced its Belt and Road Initiative which is westward looking and would link by rail to Europe and the rest of Asia. That rail network would allow access to ports in other Asian countries, reducing China’s reliance on its own Pacific-facing ports.
Could it also be that the existential threat to the US is in fact in the economic arena? China is still evolving a hybrid economic model, a state-private blend of enterprise which is quite common in various forms in Asia. It is a complete rebuttal of neoliberalism, which the world was told for decades was the only way. Could it be that the China model might emerge as a more successful alternative? If that were to happen, the neoliberal narrative and project would be debunked, surely an existential threat to neoliberalism in America.
Security laws; Raids; Journalism
China as enemy is relatively recent. Security laws have accumulated over a longer time. Academic Nicola McGarrity, in the Conversation, wrote that the number of anti-terror laws in Australia, 82 since 2001 by one count, is “a staggering number of laws that far exceeds the volume in the UK, Canada and even the US in response to Sept 11”. This represents a new law every 6.7 weeks, she wrote.
UNSW Law professor George Williams wrote: “Our laws also differ because they go further in heightening government secrecy. They represent an assault on freedom of the press unique to Australia. Australia has a statute book littered with laws that enable sources to be identified, whistleblowers to be shut down and journalists to be jailed. Time after time when politicians were questioned about these laws, they said that they would not be used against the media.”
Former ABC foreign correspondent Graeme Dobell commented last year (2019) that “Canberra’s habitual obsession with secrecy has fed on security fears in the age of terrorism, the age of cybercrime, and now the new age of great-power competition. No matter the security problem, more secrecy is the answer.”
Secrecy and security are different things, Dobell said, but “Canberra’s obsession means secrecy is the all-purpose tool. Make it secret to make it safe. The public service makes secrecy a default setting. Politicians and minders constantly trade and exchange information. If you do it yourself, it’s background or briefing. When done to you, it’s a dangerous leak and breach of security and should be met with the full force of the law.
“The hypocrisy of Canberra’s great secrets apparatus is that the majority of ‘breaches’ come from politicians. Journalists trade in leaks, so they seldom talk too loudly about the two-faced nature of ministers who habitually trade in cabinet documents and secret papers; nobody is above the law, but the lawmakers give themselves a lot of leave-passes.”
We have witnessed revelations from Snowden for which he had to flee; more such revelations from Wikileaks for which Australian Assange will probably have his life greatly shortened while in prison. The prosecution of Collaery is a reminder that the legal profession is not protected, even when it is protecting those who reveal illegal government behavior.
More recently, raids a day apart on the ABC and Newscorp’s Annika Smethurst add to the picture that government has many smelly skeletons in the cupboard and it will not let human rights get in the way of keeping them secret.
The message for journalists is unmistakeable: Be very very careful, times have changed. Echoes perhaps of attitudes from another cold war.
On police raids, Dobell: “I was struck at the supine response from politicians when the AFP raided Parliament House in 2016. The great issue of national security at stake? The plods raided the font of Oz democracy because of a leak about the cost of the national broadband network! In the pre-9/11 era, such an assault on parliamentary privilege would have been an outrage. Careers would have crashed and ministers would have been assailed. No more. The culture of secrecy and the need for security combine to eat at much, even the independence of parliament.
“We are the only democratic nation without strong national protection for freedom of speech and of the press.”
Interesting times ahead
A US international trade official last year quipped in Sydney that the Commerce and State departments were practically neighbours in Washington, but they may as well have been as far apart as Mars from Venus. While one is focused on negotiating treaties, the other is dismantling them.
The point was that not everyone within the Beltway are Martians. There are some indications that the Democrats for example will be more considered in international trade decoupling and in their approach to international organisations and treaties. So, as is the nature of democracies, there could be a mood swing in Washington come November with consequent changes required in Australia, bound as it is to the US.
But the neoliberal project, which one US commentator called “organised greed”, remains deeply embedded in both parties. And China’s president has told his military to be prepared for war. Truly, interesting times lie ahead.
(John Tan was a deputy editor in the Straits Times newspaper in Singapore. He has been foreign editor, business editor and economics correspondent.)