The conversation about China

Aug 22, 2019

Senator Wong’s call for a mature conversation aboutf the issue of China is more than welcome. A serious discussions of the implications for Australia flowing from the rise of China was sadly missing from the recent election. However, there is an unexpected naivety in her suggestion that MPs and Senators receive ‘foreign affairs and national intelligence briefings about China’ to remedy the government’s failure to discuss Australia’s relationship with the emerging superpower.

Naïve because as far as can be discerned from the outside such a briefing would follow the US line that China is a strategic adversary, a revisionist power trying to subvert the rules-based global order, a malign disrupter of the sovereignty of smaller nations, and an artful practitioner of political warfare. And because the Australian national security establishment has a vested interest in having an ’enemy’ and China is the most convenient option.

That is not to say that the security and intelligence services don’t have considerable factual information on China and its activities. They do. Nor is it to suggest these agencies would deliberately set out to mislead MPs and Senators. I don’t believe they would. But they see the world through a paradigm that emphasises risk and tends towards interpretations of their data that lacks nuance or the perspective of the other.

It is also not to suggest that China is a benevolent and altruistic power that seeks good in the world at the cost of its own interests. Like any great power China will, to the extent its resources, circumstances, and opportunities permit, seek to maximise the benefits to itself from its actions beyond its borders and minimise the threats to its interests. It seems to be evident that China seeks to exercise its influence in Australia through many avenues and that it is engaged in overt opinion shaping campaigns as well as covert and deniable operations.

But the intelligence, security, and defence agencies tend to have only two colours on their analytical palette; black and white. The activities of China will almost always be painted as aggressive and not defensive. The national security arguments of defence of the homeland and national interests that are employed in justifying the US’s massive military presence in East Asia do not seem to be available to the Chinese. Their intentions are never just consistent with a major power protecting its own security and national interests. A nefarious motive is generally assumed.

MPs and Senators will most likely hear something similar to the US National Security Strategy’s accusation that ‘China gathers and exploits data on an unrivalled scale and spreads features of its authoritarian system, including corruption and the use of surveillance’. Putting aside the pot-calling-the-kettle-black element in this, it is a view common to ASPI, for example, which is close to the defence and intelligence organisations. If commentators like Paul Dibb, Ross Babbage, Peter Jennings and Michael Shoebridge and public comments by officials like General Campbell and Nick Warner, Director General of the Office of National Intelligence, are indicative, MPs are sure to hear a version of the NSS’s view that China wants ‘to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests’.

The institutional commitment to the US alliance is in the DNA of the national security community and is a bipartisan article of faith in parliament. The benefits to the defence and intelligence agencies from this tight relationship are palpable and significant. The access to advanced military equipment and exercising, the five eyes intelligence, and the professional relationships resulting are known generally by the public and supported, as is the reassurance of being allied to the greatest military power in the world. The bulk of the parliamentarians won’t want to hear that Australia might not be able to depend on the US in the future and they almost certainly wouldn’t from the security community. Although they should.

What the MPs and Senators need to get is a balanced and objective view of China’s policies and actions, of the challenges and options confronting the Chinese government domestically and internationally, its influence with other states and why those states might welcome Chinese investment and cooperation, and a realistic assessment of the state of relations between the US and China and China’s actual view of those relations. They will undoubtedly get, as they should, a briefing on the very real Chinese inference and penetration into Australian society, academia, and business as well as an update on Chinese cyber activities.

Hopefully they will be presented with the risks inherent in the current strategic confrontation between the US and China. And that they will be briefed on the economic costs of adopting a hostile stance towards China at the behest of the US, and of the costs of taking the dangerous step of undertaking obvious preparations in readiness to take sides with the US in a conflict in East Asia. It’s not clear they would. The tendency to parrot US views is ingrained in Canberra.

The China problem should have had a high profile at the last election. Other than global warming, it’s hard to think of anything that has more important implications for Australia. That Senator Wong is pushing for a discussion now is an important step. But it must be a discussion that is full and frank and allows for all voices to speak. A briefing of MPs by foreign affairs, security, and intelligence officials would be a start, but a very small one.

Mike Scrafton was a Deputy Secretary in the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, senior Defence executive, CEO of a state statutory body, and chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.

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