Media in the Asian Century.

Apr 9, 2021

If Defence is going to be Peter Dutton’s springboard to greater power, he has a like mind in the United States in Mike Pompeo who is hoping to rally the defeated Republicans towards victory in 2024.

Stopping the boats II

There’s been surprisingly little media analysis of what Peter Dutton’s shift from Home Affairs to Defence Minister in Scott Morrison’s latest cabinet reshuffle will mean for foreign policy. His new portfolio is externally oriented, when it’s not about creating defence industry jobs in Australia or helping with floods and fires, and it gives Dutton a slot in Two-plus-Two meetings of defence and foreign ministers and other strategic gatherings.

Perhaps it won’t make much difference. The Department of Home Affairs constructed by him and its secretary Mike Pezzullo became a third theatre of foreign relations thanks to the issues of foreign interference, cyber hacking, and intellectual property control. Dutton moved into Five Eyes consultations, previously a Defence domain.

His domestic role didn’t always restrain him from wading into foreign relationships. Take his blast in October 2019 that Australia needed a “frank conversation” over China’s global influence, its infrastructure Belt and Road Initiative, expansionism in the South China Sea and growing military and aid presence in the Indo-Pacific. “Our issue, as I’ve said before, is not with the Chinese people, not with the amazing Chinese diaspora community that we have here in Australia,” he said, “My issue is with the Communist Party of China and their policies to the extent that they’re inconsistent with our own values.” And this was all before Covid.

Still, it will be interesting to see if Dutton tries to expand the Defence role, and whether he brings Pezzullo over to the departmental secretary role he once craved (While in Defence, Pezzullo authored the 2009 Defence White Paper that first urged doubling the submarine fleet).

Salvatore Babones, the University of Sydney academic and writer of hawkish op-eds, is one who thinks Dutton will stick it to China, and that this former Queensland police constable will naturally play the “bad cop” in the China relationship. “His move to the defence ministry is perhaps a signal that the Australian government intends to start pushing back harder against China—not just at home but overseas as well,” Babones wrote in Foreign Policy.

“Australia’s real threat from China is more likely to come in the form of a maritime militia disguised as fishing boats than an invasion strike force targeting Darwin, Australia, with advanced weaponry,” Babones concluded. “Given his experience ‘stopping the boats’ of people smugglers (to use the government’s preferred rhetoric for immigration enforcement), Dutton has the right background for figuring out how to thwart China’s irregular gray zone tactics for expanding its hold over the region’s seas.

“As China’s illegal fishing fleets creep closer to Australia’s home waters, Australia should be prepared to tackle China’s “short-of-war” methods with a proportionate response of its own. Australia’s Darwin-based patrol boat squadron is likely to play a bigger role here than hypersonic missiles or stealth fighters.”

Beijing’s Global Times didn’t wait to find out, declaring Dutton was a “hawkish” warmonger who would “stir up” and “further meddle” in tensions over the South China Sea.

Perhaps disappointingly for both, Dutton’s first remarks were quite mild. He said Australia wanted to work “collaboratively” with China to ensure peace in the Indo-Pacific.

Like Minds

If Defence is going to be Dutton’s springboard to greater power, he has a like mind in the United States hoping to rally the defeated Republicans towards victory in 2024.

Mike Pompeo was Donald Trump’s secretary of state, the one who Australian foreign minister Maryse Payne stiffly and publicly refused to join in a campaign to rid China of the CCP at last year’s Two-plus-Two. He’s not yesterday’s man to The Australian’s Greg Sheridan, who gained a Zoom interview with Pompeo for last Saturday’s paper.

“Now he looks to be running, if as yet unofficially, for president in 2024,” Sheridan wrote. “Although an ebullient and engaging personality, he sees a pretty dark world with one enormous problem at the centre of everything — the Communist Party of China.”

The CCP was out to undermine democracy everywhere, and brooked no criticism of anything it did internally or in claimed territory like Taiwan, Pompeo said.  The “weight of evidence” was that Covid-19 came from biological weapons work in the Wuhan laboratory.

All this got a ringing endorsement in a long editorial in Monday’s Australian, linking it to Dutton’s appointment. “Mr Dutton should bring strength and gravitas to the portfolio at a crucial time,” the newspaper pronounced, adding: “After a long trail of unimpressive defence ministers, Mr Dutton has a vital opportunity to make his mark.”

Vax race

Rather than swarms of Chinese fishing boats, the same newspaper’s Ben Packham was raising alarm about Chinese vials. “Australia is in a race against time to secure millions of COVID jabs for the Pacific in the next four weeks or risk a Chinese vaccine diplomacy victory that would push regional partners closer to Beijing,” he reported on Monday.

“Papua New Guinea has accepted 200,000 Chinese Sinopharm jabs in recent days, and Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare says Chinese vaccines are the next step in his country’s COVID response. Fiji says it will also accept Chinese jabs when they are approved by the World Health Organisation, which is expected to occur by the end of the month. Australia has donated 8500 AstraZeneca jabs to PNG to vaccinate frontline health workers amid a worsening COVID crisis, but has been unable to secure a promised one million shots for the country from Europe.”

But if there’s a race on, Canberra is still in the changing shed. Packham quoted the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade: “We are working with PNG, the WHO and ­UNICEF to help prepare for the fast and safe large-scale rollout of vaccines. This includes working on supporting planning, logistics, training and public information.”

Working on supporting? Packham was letting Canberra off lightly. By now, surely, there should be a detailed assignment of aircraft, ships, portable generators and refrigerators, and personnel to work with PNG counterparts in getting vaccines out to highland, coastal and island communities.

Then there’s the question of getting vaccines to the populations of the smaller Pacific island nations that have largely avoided Covid-19, at the cost of economic damage from lost tourism: Solomon Islands (670,000), Vanuatu (300,000), Fiji (900,000), Tonga (105,000). Surely this is within our capabilities, and could be done in tandem with our domestic roll-out, once Australia’s vaccine production at CSL hits its target, as we are promised it will shortly?

Surely a test for Morrison to show the Pacific vuvale (family) he proclaimed in October 2019 a bit more urgency? And to set aside rivalry with China as well. As Packham quoted the Burnet Institute’s Brendan Crabb, PNG probably had more than a million Covid cases already and needed to source vaccines wherever it could.

Once the Chinese vaccines received WHO approval, “I see no reason why they shouldn’t be used in PNG as well,” Crabb said. “It’s an ‘all hands on deck’ situation.” Supplying the shots was only half the battle”, he said. Transporting them across the country and “getting them into people’s arms” was the other half.

Honi Soit (qui mal y pense)

With obscenity and subversion laws greatly relaxed in recent decades, it’s been rare for student newspapers like Honi Soit (Sydney) or Tharunka (UNSW) to outrage the middle classes and provoke tabloid outrage as they used to do in the 1960s.

But Honi Soit had a go anyway on 31 March with a report that two professors in the engineering faculty were “associated with controversial Chinese government recruitment schemes and have collaborated with sanctioned Chinese universities on research with potential military end-use applications.”

Within hours of publication, editors took down the online version and posted an apology on the paper’s Facebook page:

“We unreservedly apologise to the academics mentioned in the article and for the harm caused to them, the Chinese community, and to our readers. Honi acknowledges that directly naming those academics was negligent, particularly in the face of escalating Sinophobia and racism at the University of Sydney and in wider society. Moving forward, we will ensure that we are always critical of the sources on which we rely, and we recognise our duty as student journalists to actively combat Western imperialist and xenophobic biases presented in mainstream media.”

That was waving a red flag, and The Sydney Morning Herald went to some of the usual suspects for predictable reaction.

Liberal senator James Paterson, chair of federal parliament’s intelligence and security committee: The editors were giving into the CCP’s favoured tactic of “weaponising claims of racism to shut down legitimate scrutiny”.

Labor senator Kimberley Kitching, chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs Defence and Trade References Committee: “Talent recruitment plans have been uncovered at most of our top educational institutions. In order to combat this effectively, we need to shine a light on this issue, not cover it up.”

Liberal MP Dave Sharma: “Such self-censorship from a student publication, and one with a reputation for free-thinking and straight-talking, is deeply concerning. I don’t wish to see irresponsible fear-mongering or a new McCarthyism on our campuses, but Honi’s reporting on this issue appears balanced and objective and well-sourced.”

Liberal MP Tim Wilson: “The progressive left would rather side with authoritarians by pandering to the CCP’s line than stand up for free discussion”.

Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge: “Left activists have forgotten what freedom of speech means in an era of woke culture. Certainly, any claims that it was taken down to appease the Chinese Communist Party are deeply concerning.”

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