Obsessing over confrontation with China leads to arid policy grounds

Sep 17, 2021
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Shaping Australia’s China policy is complex enough without chasing impractical outcomes. Peter Hartcher and Geoffrey Barker are concerned about the threat from China but  pursuing a confrontational strategy has shortcomings.

Barker believes “threats posed by Chinese aggression and by America’s domestic difficulties” are the “gravest” threats facing Australia. Similarly, Hartcher believes China’s objective is “to have [Australia] in a subservient position” and that “while the US may be indispensable, it’s also unreliable and prone to incompetence”.

For Barker, China’s power has to be balanced “by creating an alliance so formidable that Beijing will realise that its interests will be better served by moderating its attacks on the rules-based global order, the liberal trading system and freedom of navigation through the Indo-Pacific region”. Hartcher, on the other hand, argues a nation’s defence power lies in “its economic size, its industrial base, its educational standards, its technological and scientific prowess, its organisational skill, its military competence, the effectiveness of its governance, the quality of its alliances”.

Barker‘s “formidable” alliance against China would be based on an “enlargement of the Quad”, which he considers an “entirely reasonable response to China’s predatory and threatening attitude towards powers including the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam”. The “time for appeasement and ambivalence is past” and “the democracies are well placed to push back if they can muster the will to expand embryonic institutions that are already in place”.

The Quad itself is not a formal alliance. Transforming it into something like NATO is practically impossible. Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, which declares that an attack on one is regarded as an attack on all, is the product of the Cold War in Europe. The Warsaw Pact geopolitical threat is absent from east Asia and the US Congress is unlikely to ever again commit the US to such firm mutual assurances. Barker seems to contemplate a diverse and geographically spread alliance that, in addition to current Quad members, might include South Korea, the ASEANs, Canada, New Zealand and a number of major European states.

To deliver the deterrence that Barker envisages would require the members to develop political and military institutions for combined planning and decision-making, an integrated command arrangement, agreement on funding and force structure, and the sharing of intelligence and assessments. In order to challenge China’s advantages from unity of command, shared doctrine, and common equipment, the putative allies would need to develop mechanisms for coordination and maintain a combined exercise program founded in shared scenarios. The NATO alliance was built around a battle on the Great Plain of Europe, while the variety of potential theatres involved in the proposed alliance arrangements would severely limit effective planning.

Barker’s “formidable” alliance is impractical and unworkable. The states lying adjacent to China and/or reliant on Chinese trade and investment would be extremely reluctant to provoke China by joining a formal alliance, even if they garnered domestic support. Those further away, and with competing strategic threats, would hesitate to guarantee the security of distant states.

Hartcher’s view on alliances is more cynical noting the complacency of Australia putting “simple-minded trust in its great and powerful friend” when confronted with Trump’s “unreliability” and Biden’s “incompetence”; and the historical experience of the British surrender of Singapore. Referencing strategic surprises like the Pearl Harbor and 9/11 attacks, Hartcher argues the key issue for Australia is complacency in the face of an obvious threat.

The successful building all the elements of national power must be “driven by a sense of purpose”, according to Hartcher. He believes that “[C]omplacency is Australia’s traditional enemy” and quotes the defence minister as indicating “that Australia has been far too nonchalant about the threat posed by China”.

Australia’s complacency is evident, in Hartcher’s mind, in its failure to act on its overreliance on China to buy iron ore and coal. It is unprepared for “when China brings on stream the massive iron ore deposits of Guinea or Afghanistan, [or] when appetites for coal cool or collapse”. Hartcher berates Australia for letting educational standards “slide inexorably down the global rankings year after year”. Australia is “a global weakling in science and innovation policy”.

Hartcher is right to argue that “a nation’s defence capability is generated by all its other abilities”, and especially its economic strength, human capital, and industrial base. A nation’s general ability to provide for the wellbeing, welfare, prosperity and human security of its citizens also relies on these things.

“Where is Australia’s national resilience plan?” asks Hartcher. This demand begs the question of what it would be. While he doubts the governance and organisation skills in Australian political elite are up to implementing such a plan, he doesn’t go to the nature of such a policy. He infers the central objective is to direct national resources into the competition with China. Directing the national enterprise towards national security goals, replacing the market mechanism with government decision-making, seems to be not only the antithesis of the liberty and other values Australia presumes to champion. Much of the criticism of China is based exactly on this system.

It remains unclear how workable Hartcher believes central planning of the economy would be; or how politically it would be implemented, or in what timeframe. In a democracy, as we see in America over Biden’s big plans, the survival of any policy is subject to politics and the electoral cycle. Even were there an unlikely consensus on a national resilience plan, who would drive it — the military, the Treasury, private enterprise — and what new institutions and laws would be necessary to ensure compliance with it? And why wouldn’t it privilege climate change?

Barker and Hartcher demonstrate how an obsessively a confrontational approach to China leads to policy dead ends. Barker’s alliance is a fantasy that would be seen as aggression by China. Hartcher’s national resilience plan would be unimplementable and regressive. They are both on arid policy grounds.

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