MICHAEL PASCOE. The reality of our ‘scary’ China confrontation.

Fresh on the heels of the Chinese invasion of Vanuatu that wasn’t, febrile minds have been seized by the headline-grabbing story of a Chinese navy “confrontation” with the Royal Australian Navy. The Prime Minister was quickly ready in London to assert Australia’s right to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Well, I suppose that’s more fun for Mr Turnbull than talking about his role in the battle against the banking royal commission. But before the usual Sinophobe chorus orders all hands on deck and an issue of rum, it might be worth keeping the “confrontation” in perspective. 

Warships being challenged by China – as in being asked “who the hell are you and what do you think you’re doing here?” – is now expected.  The Royal Australian Navy has its response learned off by heart. And it’s more about Beijing’s longer-term legal strategy than imminent cannon fire. They reply with words to the effect of: “Hello. We’re HMAS Howsyafather exercising our right of innocent passage”.

I know this because I’ve asked a couple of people who’ve actually done it, not relied on an anonymous defence individual talking a little vaguely about a “robust but polite” challenge and not fully explaining it, either by omission or commission. That can lead to further debatable language along the lines of our ships being “confronted”.

The RAAF has the same answer down pat when it plays its part in the South China Sea game. It’s unfortunate indeed that the boundary testing in the region has come to this, but it’s nowhere near time to start digging bomb shelters.

Deeply cynical types might wonder about the timing. The robust politeness happened “earlier this month” but now comes to light a week after the Vanuatu shock-horror wharf has faded away and when the government would love to be talking about something as dependable (for it) as national security and such.

China is behaving boorishly in the South China Sea, unnecessarily pressuring its neighbours as it copies the behaviour of history’s other ascendant powers instead of being smarter. Through the ritual of challenging foreign ships, China hopes to assert a degree of jurisdiction over what are now international waters. That’s why foreign navies carefully reply with legal language indicating otherwise. China won’t be able to turn up in an international court in a decade’s time with a log showing HMAS Howsyafather acknowledged entering Chinese territory or any such construct.

It’s poor form by Beijing. It could achieve so much more by playing nicely, but there’s no historical template for that. Pick a major power, any major power, and they’ve thrown their weight around with their neighbours, sometimes disastrously. It’s easy to point out the hypocrisy of the forces who would contain China. Anyone for the illegal American invasion of Iraq that we supported? Or, in the realm of seizing or building islands, don’t forget the US still occupies part of Cuba.

While it’s reasonable to try to hold China to the international rules as they stand, whipped up China Peril headlines do Australia and Australian businesses no favours. It was bemusing to watch the Fairfax Media CHINA INVADING VANUATU story wither over the course of a week to sources “confirmed high-level concern in Canberra” that China has “the ambition” of a military presence in Vanuatu. Concern about a possible ambition. And I have an ambition to win Oz Lotto.

And you know the thing about the vast South Pacific? There’s nothing much there. You’d have to have an overblown idea of Australia’s importance to think anyone desperately wants to control the Pacific approaches to this middle power.

Our relationship with China is too important to be the plaything of alarmists and barrow-pushers. To a hammer, everything is a nail. To a certain breed of defence sources, China is always a military threat. And when our de facto commander-in-chief is a lunatic increasingly surrounding himself with Sinophobes and warmongers, it would pay to play a carefully nuanced long-term game ourselves.

Michael Pascoe, a veteran of more than four decades in print, broadcast and online journalism, is a business and economics contributing editor  for Fairfax Media.

First published in The New Daily, 20 April 2018.


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2 Responses to MICHAEL PASCOE. The reality of our ‘scary’ China confrontation.

  1. Nic Stuart says:

    Absolutely. Perhaps the saddest thing is that we in the media can only view these events through a domestic political paradigm, instead of attempting to place them into some broader context (although to be fair, that’s exactly what the person who originally ‘dropped’ this story intended).

  2. Tony Kevin says:

    I agree thoroughly with all of Michael’s analysis here . As evidence of how close to the wind Australia is sailing in the South China Sea ( no prize for seeing the pun) , consider this recent Chinese media article , which would be close to government views:

    China warns Australia over hostile sentiment
    Source:’Global Times’, Published: 2018/4/19 22:58:40

    If Australia considers exchanges between countries as interference, it should lock itself up in the dark room, the Chinese foreign ministry said in response to Australia’s anti-China allegations on Thursday.

    People who have such a mindset need to reflect, foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told a daily briefing on Thursday.

    If there is no mutual trust, there’s no room for cooperation. China hopes Australia takes practical action and corrects its prejudice against China, Hua said.

    China’s Ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye also expressed his worries in an interview with The Australian on Thursday.

    He warned that the relationship between the two countries has been marred by “systematic, irresponsible and negative remarks” about China, and that trade ties could be damaged if the situation is not repaired.

    Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull also said Australia won’t step back over the issue of preventing overseas political interference, the Australian Financial Review reported on Thursday.

    Australia’s high-profile anti-China tone is the result of geopolitical concerns, not economic ones, Gao Cheng, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS)’ National Institute of International Strategy, told the Global Times.

    Australia closely follows US’ steps, which is escalating trade tensions with China and spearheading the Indo-Pacific strategy aimed at containing China, Gao said.

    According to the 2018 Westpac Australia-China Business Survey, almost 80 percent of more than 160 Australian businesses are optimistic about their operations in China for the next year, Bloomberg reported.

    Their confidence comes from a promising Chinese economy. Australian companies cannot be immune to political tensions, Han Feng, professor and deputy director-general at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ National Institute of International Strategy, told the Global Times Thursday.

    If Australia continues to stir up anti-China sentiments, it will suffer the consequences. Less Chinese investment in Australia would also make the Australian economy suffer, Gao said. Ends.


    Under-reported in Australian mainstream media, these are officially sourced Chinese warnings on the damage Aust Govt anti- China statements are doing to Australian-Chinese rels. Turnbull and Bishop, throwing diplomacy away, are more and more identifying themselves with US anti-Chinese views in vain efforts to strengthen the US alliance . Not good for the Australian economy , or for our international security. Tony Kevin.

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