NICK DEANE. Taking the Fight to China?

The call for Australia to ‘take the fight to China in the South China Sea’ by a retired, senior bureaucrat is surprising. It fails to take account of China’s expressed defence strategy.

In a recent edition of the glossy on-line publication ‘Defence Connect’, it has been reported that a former head of the Defense Department, Mr Dennis Richardson, has called on the Navy to “take the fight to China in the South China Sea”.

Leaving aside the irresponsibility of a senior ex-bureaucrat promoting such aggressive and provocative action, it is instructive to look at some of the thinking that might lie beneath it.

According to the article, Richardson argues that China is ‘determined to dominate and control access to the South China Sea’. He is not alone in holding suspicions about every military move that China makes, but that betrays a level of fear and, possibly, a failure in analysis.

There is no denying that the fortification of islands in the South China Sea was an assertive, military move – one that would have been calculated to challenge the dominance of the USA. But to regard this is an act of aggression, as opposed to an act of assertive defence, carries with it the assumption that China behaves in an imperialistic manner, trying to extend its ‘empire’ wherever it can, through the use of military power. In other words, it rests on the assumption that China will behave in much the same way as the colonial powers of the West have behaved over the last couple of centuries. It rests on projecting onto China strategies that the West (and the USA in particular) have long used, to material advantage.

In this connection, it is instructive to contrast the USA’s ‘National Defense Strategy’ (2018) with China’s ‘National Defense in the New Era’ (2019). As official, government documents, both are intended to outline their respective nation’s defence strategy. Both have a similar appraisal of the global situation, highlighting the growing complexity and military competition in the world at large, and in our region in particular. Their responses to the situation do not, however, run parallel.

The USA’s document is extrordinarily open and honest about its military strategy. It makes no pretense about the fact that military power works to ensure the USA’s prosperity.

“…the Department of Defense will be prepared to defend the homeland; remain the pre-eminent military power in the world; ensure the balances of power remain in our favor, and advance an international order that is most coducive to our security and prosperity.”

And “A dominant Joint Force will protect the security of our nation; increase US influence; preserve access to markets that will improve our standard of living…”

What could be clearer?

On the other hand, China’s document announces that China will pursue a defence policy that is defensive in nature. It states:-

“Though a country may become strong, bellicosity will lead to its ruin. The Chinese nation has always loved peace.”…

“History proves and will continue to prove that China will never follow the beaten track of big powers in seeking hegemony. No matter how it might develop, China will never threaten any other country or seek any sphere of influence.”

And “China advocates partnerships rather than alliances and does not join any military bloc.”

The cynic’s view would be to say that neither document can be taken at face value and that actions speak louder than words. However, each document can be relied upon, by senior officials in their respective governments, to justify any action taken.

The USA’s stated position of ‘maintaining military pre-eminence’ results in it feeling itself obliged to challenge any nation that approaches it in military capacity. The USA has a tendency to project its own image onto other nations – viewing all to be in pursuit of entirely self-interested ends, by any and all means, including military. When viewed in this manner, of course China’s establisment of fortifications in the South China Sea becomes a ‘threat’.

There are, however, other ways of looking at the matter. A small but significant error (or falsification?) serves to emphasis this point. The article in Defence Connect, where Dennis Richardson’s call has been made public, states that the USA announced its ‘pivot’ to the Asia Pacific in 2013. By doing this, it implies that the pivot announcement was a response to China’s annexation of the SCS islands. The sequence of events actually took place in the reverse order. The pivot was announced in 2011, and the fortification of the islands began in 2013. In light of that, and applying her stated doctrine, China’s action can be interpreted as a legitimate and purely defensive response to the USA’s stated intentions. If so, Australia should have no role to play.

Whatever the case, there can be no doubt that it remains in China’s interests to keep sea lanes in the South China Sea open. Their fortifications may be intended to do no more than that.

In a comment on the DC article, ‘Nautilus’ writes, “China is not necessarily motivated primarily to emulate the USA as an alternative hegemonic power. The differing motivations that we should consider might make us better prepared to deal effectively with a rising China to the benefit of regional stability.”

A past chief of the Department of Defence should have known more about China’s stated strategy and better than to advocate overtly aggressive action. In view of Mr Richardson’s past record, one wonders whether ‘Defence Connect’ has reported him accurately.

Nick Deane has a degree in Sociology. He is now retired, after a varied career, culminating in 17 years in the Australian Public Service. He is a convenor of the Marrickville Peace Group and one of two NSW members of the national committee of the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network.


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4 Responses to NICK DEANE. Taking the Fight to China?

  1. David Maxwell Gray says:

    As an ordinary citizen, with no inside information, one can nevertheless come to a perhaps surprisingly accurate assessment of international strategic matters, if one is interested and prepared to take the long view.

    There is no doubt in my mind that people in leadership roles in the Defense Department develop a public narrative over their careers which helps them advance – show they have the “right stuff”. This is more likely to be an intuitive rather than a conscious process. Over time such people come to believe their own narrative. Who doesn’t? They often get positions in Australia’s equivalent of the military/industrial complex (remember Eisenhower’s retiring statement about this?) So I would interpret hawkish statements by Dennis Richardson or whomever in that light. And discount the sense of what they had said.

    But the trouble is people like Dennis Richardson have influence on the thinking and actions of others.

    The answer is not to muzzle past public servants of this ilk, but rather to encourage and engage in wider debate, informed by real information about, in this case, the Chinese culture and history of actions.

    Sure there are things about Chinese actions and statements about which one should be critical. But one should also understand the context.

  2. Rex Williams says:

    But rather than ridicule his comments let me add one or two small but relevant points.

    By the time we receive even the first of our today’s price of $79 billion French made Diesel submarines, (not a spelling mistake) for use sometime in the in 2030’s, China with its 1.4 billion citizens will have effectively closed down our export industries, having made other friendly, supportive and commercial arrangements, have total, friendly control of Asia and its surrounds, (they are of a similar ilk) and be seen in that area as a country that is supportive with a very large population that needs feeding and educating and which now will be capitalising on the many and varied skills developed at Australian Universities in “the good old days”, such as 2019, BM (before Morrison).

    All the efforts that have shored up our economy for decades will have vanished into the night, impacted of late through the childish governmental responses to China, at the request (dictates) of the one country that will use us up bit-by-bit to their advantage (while they last, that is), the once well regarded USA, by then a dwindling rightwing empire, a la Britain in years past.

    In the meantime, the USA will be fighting for all the oil reserves in the world, still in Afghanistan, buying up the lithium, the precious metals with the heroine already under control by the CIA and in all the countries that are engaged in governmental overthrows and destabilisation activities by the CIA at this present moment, while fascistic Israel will be running around threatening every man and his dog with a dose of their 400+ nuclear weapons with the permission of the USA , a country they control totally, even as I write.

    Morrison by this time will have long passed into well earned obscurity but others of equal quality will have corruptly come to power. The days of quality governments having long since passed in this country.

    Cynical? Perhaps. But when the world’s #1 power, to whom we act as a tame toothless poodle, can only offer a Trump or a Clinton, a small taste of both we have seen to our disgust and amazement, it is hard to be an optimist any more.

    Must go. I’m busy studying Mandarin.

  3. Kien Choong says:

    If I recall the chronology correctly, I think China only started fortifying the SCS islets after the Japanese government bought land in the Roky/Senkaku island. Japan’s action made clear the importance of having actual possession in any contest over territory. I often thought that China fortified the SCS islets as a way to assert actual possession. Also, as I understand it, many other countries already had their own presence in other SCS islets, and China did not (as far as I know) expel other countries from the SCS islets within China’s territorial claim.

    Anyway, what is Australia going to do about Israel’s expansions into the West Bank. Is Australia going to take the “fight to Israel”?

  4. As the roadblocks to open dialogue with China gather this article is important to get the facts right eg the dates mentioned in the DC article on the pivot announcement. This too was the time the announcement was made that Australia would host a foreign countries military personnel and their hardware on our territory. This too would consolidate the perceived need by the Chinese to have stronger defence of their country.

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