Please, no war with China

May 4, 2021

In an unprecedented speech, a senior public servant has floated the possibility, and even necessity, of Australia’s taking part in a war against China. This is profoundly shocking and worrying and is symptomatic of a new low in our relations with China.

On 21 April Foreign Minister Marise Payne delivered the first attack under the new foreign influence laws adopted in 2018. She informed the Victorian government that its two memoranda of understanding with China over the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), signed in 2019, would be cancelled. She said the memoranda were not in Australia’s interests.

Over the last few years, Australia has become obsessed with China as a security threat. She didn’t say why the BRI agreements were not in Australia’s interests, but the foreign interference laws, which are aimed primarily and almost exclusively against China, are coming to mean that that BRI is not permitted to be part of our relationship. The Victorian government thought it had the potential for infrastructure investment and increased employment and economic growth in the state. But apparently, that does not count as being in Australia’s interests.

Actually, the memoranda did not amount to much and could have been left to lapse. Payne’s action against the Andrews ALP government of Victoria was in most ways totally unnecessary and irrelevant. The reason it matters is that it represents yet another attempt by the national government to insult China. Of course, China reacted, saying it was provocative and unreasonable. The Chinese regarded it as a breach of contract, irresponsible and discriminatory against China and I believe they were right on all counts.

New Zealand has signed a BRI deal with China (along with numerous other countries). Just before Anzac Day, Payne went to New Zealand to discuss things with the Ardern Government and its Foreign Minister, Nanaia Mahuta. They appeared to get on well. However, Mahuta made it clear that she believed good relations with China, including the BRI deal, were in New Zealand’s interests and would stay in place. New Zealand has, sensibly in my view, elected to maintain good, working relations with China.

Payne’s cancellation of the BRI agreement was not the end, and worse was to come. On Anzac Day the new Minister of Defence, Peter Dutton, said on the ABC’s Sunday morning Insiders programme that he would not discount a war with China over Taiwan.

We know that China regards Taiwan as a province of China, an internal matter and one of its core interests. The view that Taiwan is a province of China has gained recognition from the international community, including Australia and the United States. In his last days as the Trump Administration’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo increasingly cast doubt on the proposition, appearing to provoke China to an extent not seen at least since 1996, and his successor Antony Blinken has not withdrawn from that line. I regard it as highly unlikely that China would actually start a war over Taiwan, but the possibility of hostilities starting almost inadvertently and then spiralling out of control cannot be ruled out.

In an Anzac Day message to staff, Home Affairs Department Secretary Mike Pezzullo spoke of the beating of “the drums of war” in our region. War, he said, was undesirable, “but not at the cost of our precious liberty”. He lauded the ANZUS Treaty of 1951 as signalling “protection afforded to Australia” by the United States. Mike Pezzullo’s minister until very recently was Peter Dutton, and there is widespread speculation that he will follow Dutton into Defence.

Former ALP leader Bill Shorten criticized Pezzullo for using “inflammatory language”. He added: “I think that is pretty hyper-excited language and I am not sure our senior public servants should be using that language”. Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong also called for more sober language.

I agree with both Shorten and Wong but would put the matter much more strongly than they have done. I believe it is both frightening and appalling that a public servant should be, in effect, fanning the flames of war against China. He seems to be saying that, if war broke out over Taiwan, Australia should be sending in troops against China. He seems to be assuming that the United States would be leading the way.

In the unlikely event war breaks out over Taiwan, it is quite possible but not at all certain that the United States would intervene. After all, for all its recent bluster and provocations, it does still acknowledge China’s position that Taiwan is part of China. If the United States were unwisely to intervene, it would be total folly for Australia to follow.

The idea that China would follow up taking over Taiwan, which it regards as Chinese territory, with trying to invade Australia militarily seems completely ludicrous to me. The notion that refusing to take part in war would be “at the cost of our precious liberty” seems even more ridiculous. We’ve followed the United States into wars that don’t concern us often enough. It is irresponsible to stir up war feelings, and especially for a public servant.

Amid this controversy, we find the ANU China academic Jane Golley being hounded by Senator James Paterson, among others, and receiving hate mail because she dared to suggest at the National Press Club that the situation in Xinjiang was a bit more complicated than he and the mainstream press liked to think. This is one of many worrying signs of curbs on freedom of speech in Australia. Louise Edwards’s article in Pearls and Irritations on 26 April and John Keane’s the following day are further warnings that neo-McCarthyism is on the march. Even a couple of years ago, such a situation was unimaginable. And China is at the centre of this neo-McCarthyism, as it was last time round in the 1950s.

Australia’s relations with China have reached a new low, and the way out is becoming more and more difficult to find. The new round of McCarthyism that goes together with the deliberate attempts to insult China is very dangerous indeed. Freedom of speech is very much under threat in this country.

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