Morrison turns China ‘threat’ into an election wedge

Nov 24, 2021
Scott Morrison
(Image: AAP/Joel Carrett)

Borrowing from the Vietnam War-era Coalition playbook, the prime minister is putting domestic politics ahead of long-term policy for dealing with Beijing.

Scott Morrison has taken a provocative approach to China that first appeared under Malcolm Turnbull, sharpened its edge and has now grabbed the loudspeaker.

His government makes foreign policy a critical wedge against Labor as the election approaches: tactics drawn from the Coalition playbook of Robert Menzies and Harold Holt during the Vietnam War. Opinion polls appear to confirm support for this recycling of the China “threat”, despite the prime m inister’s adverse polling on a two-party preferred basis.

Disapprove as one may of this approach, it is unarguably consequential, and Australia may pay the cost for some time.

Some commentators, though, bestow on his foreign policy a framework which, affixed to events since 2019, discerns a pattern: braving Chinese coercion, the prime minister has taken the US alliance to new levels of intimacy, driven the Quad’s revitalisation and, via AUKUS, delivered the strategic coup de grace.

This reading largely corresponds to Morrison’s propensity to oversell. A reciprocal access agreement with Japan he elevated as a “pact”. AUKUS he called the “single greatest initiative … since the ANZUS alliance itself”.

The consequences belie Morrison’s rhetoric. A long-term policy for dealing with China does not exist. This as President Joe Biden avoids the stampede towards a “new Cold War”, looks to limited co-operation with Beijing and tries to avoid military conflict.

Yet the Morrison government now has an investment in continuing bad relations between the US and China, and with it the risk of an inadvertent or deliberate outbreak of war. It willingly dials itself into Washington’s martial calculations against the Chinese state. Canberra tumbles once more into an overexposed, lonely prominence.

A day after US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan stressed that competition with China need not lead to conflict, Defence Minister Peter Dutton basically committed Australia if there is a war over Taiwan. Whatever restraint there was in the government’s language on China is abandoned. No consideration is given to the catastrophic effects of any conflict on the region.

All prime ministers consider how their foreign policy dovetails with domestic politics. But few have allowed the political to drive policy in so one-dimensional a way as Morrison. He opts for confected grandeur over the grainy detail of how, for example, AUKUS will work.

Everything is now seen through a “China threat” prism. Relations with the Pacific, South-East Asian countries and Japan cannot be viewed on their own terms. All are submerged beneath the politicking on “pushing back” against Beijing, on the apparent gratification of Australia being the model for “standing up” to China.

Morrison initially rejected Cold War frameworks being applied to China. He indicated that the Howard tradition of pragmatic realism would be his lodestar. Even late last year the prime minister sought “happy coexistence” with Beijing.

Lately, however, Morrison echoes the ideological strains of former Republican administrations in Washington, hailing a “world order that favours freedom”. Then last week, he attacked Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese for “backing in the Chinese government”. In fact, Albanese largely supports the government’s policies on China. Bizarrely, Morrison conflated the opinions of Albanese with those of Paul Keating, even though Keating’s recent remarks to the National Press Club were as critical of Labor as they were of the government.

Morrison fails to understand that what appears tough on the home front can look in regional capitals to be a lack of sophisticated diplomacy. Look no further than when, before heading for Cornwall, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reminded his Australian visitor that China is always “going to be there”, that countries will have to deal with Beijing.

The use of China by the Coalition in domestic politics, already dangerous, now verges on the toxic in its disregard for the effect on Australians of Asian background. It exists too in growing intolerance of alternative views on how the China relationship might be handled, and in the absolute judgments imposed on a fluid strategic environment.

Indeed, the China debate here, for all its claims to novelty, echoes more and more the rhetoric of the late 19th century and the 1960s, especially its obsession with “invasion”, “threat”, “subversion” and “containment”. Much of this flows from the continued emphasis that Australia now straddles the front line of a “new Cold War”. Well may we rightly express unease at how China uses its power, but Australia must find the courage to look into the mirror too.

Morrison claims the mantle of John Curtin and Robert Menzies. But in his recent fracas with President Macron, his response carried a whiff of Billy McMahon’s reaction to being hamstrung when America’s China policy changed abruptly in mid-1971. The same testy dissembling and blustery vacuity.

A closer comparison for Morrison may be Billy Hughes during the First World War. Australia then, just as now, had every right to be prudently concerned about the menace it saw in the rise of an Asian great power. And the strategic nightmares about Japan ultimately eventuated.

The strategic situation then, however, was hardly helped by Australian bellicosity arising largely from British race patriot pride. Prime Minister Hughes fractured national unity in a debilitating domestic debate over “loyalty”: the result was an Australia almost totally unprepared for the Second World War. Reflect, then, on the unforeseen consequences that can occur when a ruthless politician opts for headlines exploiting hostility to an Asian power, rather than crafting a longer-term strategy for Australia’s place, and peace, in the region.

This article was first published by The Australian Financial Review and is reproduced with permission.

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