Marles pushes ‘China threat’, advocates ability to attack Chinese territory

Nov 19, 2022
Defence Minister Richard Marles in UK August 2021. Image: Alamy

Defence minister Richard Marles has a dangerous habit of relying on unfounded assertions to decide that Australia must not only increase military spending on a vast scale but have the ability to attack China from close to its home land.

This approach was on full display in a speech he gave to the Sydney Institute on November 14. In justifying a huge military build-up by Australia, he said, “The world around us has become more uncertain and more precarious than at any time since the end of the Second World War”.

To give two counter examples, there is good reason to consider the Cuban missile crisis was more dangerous until resolved by secret negotiations between the US and the USSR. Likewise, the possession of over 30,000 nuclear warheads by the US and the USSR posed a serious danger of a calamitous accidental launch that was only reduced by crucial arms-control agreements. In contrast to distinguished Labor politicians such as Paul Keating, Bill Hayden, Gareth Evans and Gough Whitlam, Marles sees no place for arms control measures and peace initiatives. He prefers a continued arms build-up, even though the Peterson Foundation in May released new figures showing that US military spending is higher than for the next nine countries combined, including China.

Marles not only supports an arms build-up by Australia but a shift in policy to enable it to use military power far from Australia. He told the Sydney Institute, “I believe the cornerstone of future Australian strategic thought will be ‘impactful projection’. We must invest in targeted capabilities that enable us to hold potential adversaries’ forces at risk at a distance . . . Our approach must strengthen the lethality, resilience and readiness of the Australian Defence Force. The ADF must augment its self-reliance to deploy and deliver combat power through impactful materiel and enhanced strike capability – including over longer distances.” The latter will be delivered by nuclear submarines firing cruise missiles into China and sinking Chinese submarines. The prospect of Chinese retaliation is not mentioned. Although Marles refers to the need for increased lethality, he doesn’t explain what he means. The ADF’s existing weapons are as lethal as most in the US inventory, with the exception of nuclear weapons.

In Marles’ view, the threat apparently comes from China. The former Coalition defence minister Peter Dutton told the National Press Club he did not believe China wanted “to occupy Australia”. So what does Marles consider the likely China threat? He hasn’t said.

China’s defence forces are structured to deny access by hostile forces to the approaches to its territory. This is similar to the former Defence of Australia doctrine which Marles has scrapped. In contrast to its earlier policy of trying to live in “Confucian harmony” with its neighbours, China has been more assertive in the East and South China seas, particularly when adopting claims first made by the Nationalist Party rulers of the mainland. China has not killed anyone in either sea.

The eminent scholar Sam Bateman said, “It is simply not true to say Beijing claims almost all the South China Sea and the islands within it. It may claim all the ‘features’ (uninhabited rocks, shoal, reefs etc) but only claim sovereign rights over resources of the sea. These are not to be confused with the sovereignty of land territory and territorial sea”. Unlike the US which deploys its forces close to China, China does not do the same to the US.

Marles has a habit of making questionable points on this subject. He said in June last year the South China Sea matters to Australia “because most of our trade traverses” it. Sam Bateman has pointed out that our most lucrative exports to China such as iron ore and liquified natural gas go outside that sea. Nevertheless, Marles said trade makes us “deeply invested in the rights of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.” China is also deeply committed to freedom of commercial navigation in the South China Sea because many of its exports and imports go through it. But China objects to foreign military forces passing within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-claimed reefs and rocks in the South China Sea.

Marles told the Sydney Institute the war in Ukraine tells us, “Conflict is threatening the very fabric of the rules-based order that is so essential to our prosperity and security. Conflict is no longer a hypothetical risk. It is happening now.” He said Vladimir Putin’s “unprovoked and illegal invasion completely subverts the principle and reality of sovereignty enshrined in the UN Charter”. That’s true.

However, as shown below, Marles seems oblivious to how Australia helped rip up the rules-based international order by repeatedly supporting wars of aggression, some worse than Vladimir’s Putin’s appalling attack on Ukraine.

Marles said, “At the heart of our nation having impactful projection will be the ability to operate a nuclear powered submarine capability”. Marles said nuclear powered submarines will revolutionise the potency of the Australian defence force and provide “an unmatched strategic advantage in terms of surveillance and protection of our maritime approaches”. There are many cheaper and better ways to provide more surveillance and protection of our maritime approaches, including space-based sensors, improved over-the-horizon radars, planes and aerial and subsurface drones. Conventional submarines are also much better suited to operating in the shallow waters in our maritime approaches, as well as much cheaper.

Nuclear submarines have the severe disadvantage that they are much easier to detect than modern conventional submarines The latter’s stealth greatly enhances the chances of its crew surviving in war time. They are also a lot cheaper. Twelve advanced conventional subs could be acquired for about $15 billion compared to a plausible estimate of $200 billion for eight nuclear ones which have more maintenance problems. On current indications, the majority of the nuclear submarines will not arrive until after 2050. The latest Japanese submarines with powerful new batteries can go as fast as nuclear submarines although not for as long. South Korea is also offering impressive new submarines. Germany is also in the race.

Marles shows no sign of subjecting the purchase of nuclear submarines to strict cost effectiveness studies compared to cheaper, but better, alternatives before the decision is announced in March. This is despite his acknowledgement that increased defence spending means more discipline should be applied by the Treasury and Finance departments.

He also fails to acknowledge Australia’s role in a succession of wars of aggression while helping the US and the UK invade several countries since 1950. He seems oblivious to Labor’s leader Simon Crean’s opposition to the Howard government’s participation in the devastating 2003 invasion of Iraq based on intelligence concocted by the US to provide the rationale for the invasion. This was known at highest levels of the US and British government.

Likewise, Marles ignores the Labor leader Arthur Calwell’s powerful opposition to Australia’s participation in the US invasion of Vietnam in 1965. The US and Australia were defeated in a protracted war in which as many as three million Vietnamese lost their lives. Some who survived continue to suffer terribly from the effects of the US use of chemical warfare. The invading forces did not lack lethality, or nuclear submarines, but lost.

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