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

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

  1. Lorraine Osborn says:

    Once again an excellent, informed piece about China on P&I. Tasty Hastie is a zealot and fundamentalist and behaves accordingly. The Defence and Foreign Affairs ministers we are lumbered with are at best,.shallow and utterly pedestrian. Not surprising as they are part of the worst federal government in my long life time. They and the cheer squad they represent are the biggest danger this country has faced since 1788.

  2. Charles Lowe says:

    I quote:

    “We must take assertive diplomatic, economic and covert measures to push back against authoritarian states that undermine the global order at the very edge of peace. This is for both moral and practical reasons. If we want to preserve peace and avoid war, we must understand our adversaries and become practitioners of hybrid and political warfare ourselves.”

    Michael – that is hardly an endorsement of what you label as Carl von Clausewitz’s dictum of the necessity for a “decisive battle”.

    I think Hastie is using a degree of political intelligence which some wrongly presumed would attend Angus Taylor’s performances. I think he’s using Clausewitz’s dictum as a flag (Kath’s “Look at me, look at me!”) and then subsumes that all-too-visible flag into something much more subtle – a shroud around the mysteries of how China actually operates – anything but a “decisive battle” but one which needs its own equally subtle countering techniques.

    If so, Hastie is all that Taylor is not. Wait for him to become at least Defence Minister.

  3. Bruce Elisha George says:

    The small problem with intelligence is that it tends to confirm fears, but it is a process of selecting information that feeds those fears and ignoring everything that may alleviate such fears. Just how even talking about any sort of war with our biggest trading partner by a big margin, is in any way useful is beyond comprehension. Any such war, nuclear if we blindly follow the USA into it, or otherwise, will be a lose, lose, lose for Australia even if, and based on present and past performance of the USA, that is quite a big if, “our side wins” it will still be a loss for Australia economically. Do these people believe that China is going to continue it’s trade deficeit with Australa after being humilitaed in war? Just what are these people smoking? If China “wins” a more likely scenario, especially if as is most likely, such a war escalates into WWIII with Russia, China, Iran etc. then the Western alliance will be finished, as will be most of the planet. So please can we srop using spies to base policy on and start making some rational decisions on the National Interests of Australia, rather than blindly propping up a failing USA.

  4. Mike Scrafton says:

    Putting the relevance to contemporay great power rivalry in East Asia of the half finished work of a Prussian officer trying to explain Napoloen’s success, I just don’t get the objectives of people like Hastie or the ASPI anti-Chinese brigade.
    A real shooting war with China is likely to be not only a total economic catastrophe for Australia, and see the ADF take casualties not seen since WW2, it would almost certainly see serious civilian casualties in Australia and significant physical damage to infrastructure and ubran areas. They are a damned big power!
    Moreover, the strageic environment in East Asia woild be hostile towards Australia for generations. The US, if involved, would take serious damage and probably retreat from this side of the Pacific. If they’re not involved Australia will take an exponentially greater amount of damage.
    The only worse outcome would be the descent in to chaos and warlordism if the CCP fell precipitously from power and China fractured. Such a calamity would destabilise Eurasia and have deleterious impacts on all other continents.
    Just what do these people want? What’s the strategy?

  5. Michael McKinley says:

    Thank you, Frank. Your comments are thoughtful, timely and very much appreciated. And I am particularly grateful for your accurate and appropriately pungent conclusion.

  6. Anthony Pun says:

    Michael McKinley’s article follows the same logical and sensible analysis of a rising China as that presented by James Curran. Both authors point to the “delusional”: approach that would equate to the clinical symptoms of Paranoid Schizophrenia.
    McKinley has justifiably commented that Andrew Hastie is underqualified for the “security jobs” and is analogous to giving a child a real gun for Christmas.
    A recent SMH comments (10Dec2019) showed the extent of Andrew Hastie’s folly: (see https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/hastie-urges-democracies-to-engage-in-political-warfare-to-preserve-peace-20191203-p53g7u.html
    Andrew Hastie is doing the wrong way if he wants global peace. By ratcheting up the anti-China and anti-Russia rhetoric, increases the determination of these countries to counter the propaganda. Peace can never be achieved by being “nasty” in the first place but through diplomatic means. Unfortunately, the diplomatic assets of Hastie is “zilch” and he cannot take part in anything constructive for peace because the other side would not have a conversation with him.
    In Australia, we want to protect our democracy and our way of life; foreign students who came to study here can learn our ways and perhaps would be likely to introduce our ways when they return home and become leaders.
    Hastie’s mission for peace is flawed; as the Bible says, “Blessed are the peace makers”, and Hastie does not belong to this category, and he is more likely to start a war for us.

  7. Frank Alley says:

    I lived and worked in China for 8 years from the late 90’s to the mid 2000’s. Most of the people I dealt with were university graduates and in a number of cases more qualified than necessary for the job they were doing. In one company I did some work for, the receptionist had a masters degree in engineering. Although careful in what they said in public, most had contempt for the communist party even though some were members. Becoming a member was advantageous in terms of career. Most were admirers of Japanese technology whilst harbouring a genuine hatred of Japan for what had happened before and during WWII. They also had confused feelings about America, whilst admiring much of American culture and technology, there was a festering suspicion of the USA and its intentions. I read in the blogs here in Oz lots of western propaganda and projection of philosophy. Australians like to suggest that the Chinese are yearning for ‘freedom’. The Chinese would not know what these Australians mean by ‘freedom’ that the Chinese apparently don’t have. Yes, it is true that you cannot safely criticise the CCP publicly, but the Chinese are about as interested in politics as the average Australian is, that is, not at all interested. They like Australians want a good life, which in the cities I in which I worked is the case. I recently returned to China for a holiday and was staggered by the progress there. The Chinese I knew just want to be left alone to have a good life and don’t need do-gooder Westerners telling them that they are suffering, when they are not. Some are of course, often due to corruption in local CCP branches, but occasionally a corrupt party official gets an official bullet to the head and a message is sent to others. It seems that Hastie and his like long for an end-of-days battle of ‘good’ versus ‘evil’. Ratbags.

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