MICHAEL McKINLEY. The “China threat” has moved beyond the frantic into the realm of the explicitly dangerous. 

Dec 13, 2019

One of the most disturbing features of Australian Foreign and Defence policies over the last two years has been the obvious encroachment into actual policy-making by not only the intelligence agencies – which is outrageous enough in itself – but also by the Chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS), Andrew Hastie. 

Both, acting sometimes in a coordinated way, and on the basis of a dilated imagination of Chinese evil, have infused the bilateral relationship with an abundance of toxins, not the least being an approach to war by stealth.

Previous posts on this site by, among others, John MenadueGeoff RabyBrian Toohey, and myself have established the genesis and contours of this situation. In doing so they have also acknowledged that, as an emerging great power (and likely superpower) China will behave typically and assertively, though not necessarily aggressively, and will do so contrary to Australia’s interests. Domestically at least, this prospect should not be misconstrued as a presaging a Chinese takeover, or anything resembling it.

If anything, the arguments along these lines have only encouraged an intensification of the claims, especially by Hastie (sometimes in concert with current and former senior members of the intelligence services) that we – the Western Alliance in general and Australia in particular – are headed inevitably for a “decisive battle” with China, a near certainty which, foolishly, has not entered into the general strategic consciousness of the West.

What Hastie proposes in response is the rediscovery of the Prussian strategist of war, Carl von Clausewitz, from whose magnum opus, On War, he claims to take his inspiration.  Thus, he proposes a strategy of seven initiatives which include both political and hybrid warfare against China.  Since both of these variants include what is known as “conventional war,” he is advocating a clash of arms between the West / Australia and China in order that the latter submit to the will of the former.  That is, to abide by terms and conditions laid down by the West, to its advantage, and prior to China’s ascendancy.

This is more than troubling. And on several grounds. First, what we are witnessing is the Chair of a parliamentary committee charged mainly with administrative oversight and expenditure review of Australia’s primary intelligence agencies being selectively briefed for the purposes of pursuing an agenda which cuts across the bows of the Australia-China bilateral relationship (which has enough fissures without adding more).  The question, then, is why have the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and the Defence Minister indulged such destructiveness.

Second, the superficial intellectualism and plausibility of Hastie’s proposals are based on having a receptive audience that is unfamiliar with Clausewitz, or knows less about Clausewitz that he does. While this is not the place for an extended critique, suffice to say that the understanding of Clausewitz on display is within the genre “dinner party sophistry.”

It might appeal because it bends to the ideological objectives in mind but is lamentable nevertheless.  Worse, there are better strategic sources for understanding China if only he wanted to do so.  Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is one; so, too, is the ancient board game originating in China over 2,500 years ago, known popularly as Go. Both, notably, are generous in their consideration of measures not emphasised in Clausewitz – namely alternatives to battle.

Thirdly and of the greatest significance is the style of analysis that Hastie is committed to: a conspiratorial mind-set, paranoid-neurotic, within the conceptual boundaries formulated by Richard Hofstadter some six decades ago.  In and of itself this style is to be found well distributed in contemporary political analysis and is tolerated in much the same way as inconvenient rain.  In the personage of the Chair of the PJCIS it is sufficient cause to require his removal from office.  Put simply, Australia’s Foreign and Defence policies should not be the sphere of psychotic gratification.

A survey of Hastie’s production over recent times indicates that he sees the world as the realm of persecution by China. Additionally, it is not beggaring the imagination to conclude that he has confused his position as Chair of the PJCIS with a senior, self-designated role in counter-intelligence with special reference to China.  Given the frequency of him adopting this role the evidence appears to support a conclusion of systematised delusion.

To hand is the attribution of gigantic and demonic powers to the Chinese adversary; the refusal to accept the ineluctable limitations and imperfections of world and regional politics and Australia’s imperatives within them, and a constellation of systematised misinterpretations of China. Intense, suspicious attention is devoted to whichever “clue,” in a world only of “clues,” is being investigated for its “real,” as opposed to its apparent meaning.

This disposition, unfortunately, is common among those practicing counter-intelligence and is commonly remarked upon in the relevant biographical literature.  To summarise from it, not only is counterintelligence is a very specialised and sophisticated activity but it comes with an in-built paranoia which sooner or later overwhelms every counter-intelligence officer. In this process counter-intelligence degenerates into a dangerous and deadly farce.  The fact that Hastie remains authorised in his current position and continues to receive the government’s dispensation indicates only a surrendering of the mind.

He should never have been appointed to the PJCIS in the first place, let alone to its Chair.  Whatever his qualities as a soldier were, and in fairness they appear to be formidable, he was not  qualified to for the position.  The result was that he introduced himself to the world of national intelligence in which certainty is rare and all conclusions are contestable under the worst possible conditions and possibly the worst possible time – namely without an adequate intellectual background to understand the dialogue between present apprehensions  and the knowledge of what has gone before (not just in the West but in China as well) – which is to say opportunistically. It is fundamentally irresponsible of the government to allow this to continue.

From 1982 to 1988, Michael McKinley taught diplomacy, international relations and strategy in the Department of Politics at UWA. From 1988 to 2014 he taught diplomacy, international relations and strategy at the ANU. He is currently a member of the Emeritus Faculty at the ANU.

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