Last week Defence Minister Peter Dutton announced that, what he called a Chinese spy ship, had been discovered off the Western Australian coast farther south than any similar vessel had ever previously been seen. He didn’t inform his public that it had been observed 250 kilometres offshore and therefore 50 kilometres outside Australia’s Exclusive Economic Zone and in international waters.
But the minister described it as an ‘aggressive act’. It was just one example of ‘acts of aggression from the Chinese leadership and from the Chinese government.’ The ANU’s Professor John Blaxland observed that ‘it was right for the Defence Minister to call out the presence of the Chinese ship.’ The timing of the calling out in the middle of an election campaign did not seem to trouble the professor.
What we see here is an example of the almost universal Australian description of China as an aggressor and to drop that casually into any discussion of the dramatic deterioration in Sino-Australian relations. The thought that if we used the same yardstick we too could be judged as an aggressive nation seems to beyond the self-satisfied solipsism of our political leaders and commentators. But if the voyage of a single vessel far down but well off the Western Australian coast is an act of aggression how should we describe the constant transit or our warships through the South China Sea.
It is likely that few Australians know just how many voyages the navy has embarked on. There were 23 between 2017 and 2019. In both April and October 2020 our ships joined exercises with the American fleet. In July 2020 five of our ships transited through the South China Sea on the way to Hawaii to participate in exercises with the American navy. More surprising was our participation in military exercises with the British and French navies. In June 2021, two frigates joined the British strike group which accompanied the new carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth. The exercise was described as ‘a show of force to China.’ And then the French navy joined the procession. The Anzac and the Sirius joined two French warships for exercises in the South China Sea.
Australia has officially described the constant presence of our warships in proximity to the Chinese coast as ’a regional presence deployment.’ Whatever would we do if the Chinese decided, as of right, to have similar deployments of battle groups around the north of Australia? But then there is the tired old furphy that we are engaged in the utterly worthy task of asserting the freedom of navigation. Does this require warships? And why would China want to stop the free flow of exports and imports? Has it ever even once threatened to do so? And why is Australia so concerned when it has virtually no merchant fleet of its own? We have only 0.23% of global shipping.
Our lack of maritime engagement is not just a matter of size. Norway with only 5 Million people has over 1700 ocean going vessels and has the fourth largest fleet in the world. Greece with only 40% of our population owns even more with 18% of the world’s ships. It is not clear why we have taken on the self- appointed, and indeed self-important task, of spending millions of dollars to assure free navigation for the ships of other maritime nations who it seems do not think there is a problem. Has it ever been suggested that Greece and Norway would like to join Australia in its patrols in the South China Sea? It is surely not unreasonable for the Chinese to see Australia’s obsession with freedom of navigation as a cover for both general harassment and clandestine spying at the behest of the United States. They might even see our constant patrolling as what Peter Dutton would call ‘acts of aggression.’
And then there is the regular surveillance from the air which Australians are scarcely aware of. Our sophisticated maritime planes are based at the Butterworth air base in the north of Malaysia and fly out on regular patrols over the South China Sea. They could not unfairly be called spy planes. Butterworth is almost the same distance from the strategically critical Hainan Island as the Solomon Islands are from eastern Australia. We would be profoundly troubled by regular Chinese flights close to Australia of the kind we have conducted for many years. And Butterworth has been used for Australia’s military adventures in South-East Asia since the 1950’s. Our bombers were heavily involved in what the British called the Malayan emergency and the base was an important asset during both the confrontation with Indonesia and the Vietnam War. Australia’s deep concern about the recently signed agreement with the Solomon Islands is understandable but it appears manifestly hypocritical when set beside Australia’s historic use of Butterworth to further our aggression in support of our great and powerful friends.
And the country has form. We have a distinctive history of bellicosity. We were at war for 22 years between 1950and 1972. This was followed by a peaceful interregnum which lasted until 1990. But it was war again for twenty years after the turn of the century until the final withdrawal from Afghanistan last year. But before anyone could draw breath senior members of the government were participating in a chorus of ‘voices prophesying war.’ The song sheet contained three themes. Choirmaster Dutton declared that if we wanted peace we must prepare for war. It wasn’t an original refrain of course, having been the favourite tune of Europe’s leaders in the years before 1914. The second proposition was that we had both permanent or ‘forever’ friends and a permanent enemy. To confront our enemy we needed to engage in forward defence that is to fight as far away from the homeland as possible hence AUKUS and nuclear powered submarines. But the overall effect is a set of policies that taken together are indistinguishable from the aggression we constantly accuse China of practising.