The China threat: Dutton is dragging Australia into dangerous waters

Jan 13, 2022
Penny Wong Senate
Penny Wong has warned against the government's China strategy. (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

The Defence Minister is stoking anti-China sentiment in Australia – a foolhardy stance that is damaging our economy and putting us at risk of military conflict. 

On November 23, shadow foreign minister Penny Wong said that the Morrison government’s constant

“amping up the prospect of war against a super-power is the most dangerous election tactic in Australian history”.

She is right that it is extremely dangerous, but the ploy has been used before. The difference this time is, of course, that China is a nuclear superpower.

In the 1960s the Coalition government terrified the Australian public with the prospect of the ‘Yellow Peril’ of Chinese communism toppling all the ‘dominoes’ in South-East Asia and wiping out Australia’s democratic way of life, unless it was halted in its tracks in Vietnam. So we joined the US in its ‘war of aggression’ in Vietnam (Daniel Ellsberg 2002) .

Following the destruction of cities and rural environment by more bombs than were dropped by all sides in WWII, with the attendant slaughter of 3.8 million people (Robert McNamara 1999) and the maiming and deforming of countless more by Napalm and Agent Orange, we were finally defeated in 1975.

Unsurprisingly the ‘Yellow Peril’ did not come flooding down to Australia, because the Vietnamese national liberation movement which won the war, was as opposed to Chinese intervention as it was to American intervention. It is delusional to believe that Vietnam would support an American war against China.

Wong said that Defence Minister Peter Dutton was “wildly out of step with a strategy long adopted by Australia and our principal ally” which was the “bipartisan adoption of a One China Policy and advocacy to deter unilateral changes to the status quo”.

But is Dutton really out of step with US strategy? On the contrary, he appears to be implementing the “strategy of denial” detailed in the book of that name by Elbridge Colby, a book he keenly read (Troy Bramston, The Australian, December 15).

Colby served as the lead official in the development of the 2018 National Defence Strategy (NDS). He served with the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq in 2003 and the 2004-05 President’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, making him adept in campaigns of vilification through misinformation.

He is committed to the pursuit of the ‘Wolfowitz doctrine’ of maintaining US primacy in the world by military force. He believes a ‘limited war’ between China and Taiwan would serve the US objective of inhibiting China’s rise.

The 2018 NDS has not been significantly revised under President Joe Biden. In it Colby recommended that US allies Japan, India and Australia should be drawn into a coalition (like the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ against Iraq) to contain China. Two years later, under Biden, the QUAD
and AUKUS were formed.

Step 1: Vilification

In line with Colby’s strategy of demonisation, Dutton is generating fear of China by characterising its efforts to protect its national territorial integrity in Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan as ‘aggressive expansionism’. These are specious examples, since all four provinces have been part of the sovereign territory of China since well before Australia existed as a nation state.

He seems unaware that China has never invaded another country for territorial gain, whereas the US has attempted the overthrow of 60 countries since WWII, succeeding in the case of 25 elected democracies.

Dutton said he had to speak the truth about China’s military build-up, but failed to mention the US ‘pivot to Asia’, which ranged 60 per cent of American naval capability along the coast of China. To the Chinese, this must have looked like a potential blockade of its most  economically vital ports, and provoked the acceleration of military counter measures.

He cited China’s construction of military bases in the South China Sea as a further sign of ‘expansionism’, but failed to mention that Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines and even Taiwan had similar bases.

He did not acknowledge the possibility that China saw its bases as a counter to the constant  incursions by the US and its allies (especially Australia) into waters vital to its interests, through ‘freedom of navigation operations’. He made no mention of the fact that China has one base outside its own periphery, compared to over 800 US bases around the world, many of them encircling China.

To further stoke public fear, he pointed out that China’s navy was many times the tonnage of Australia’s and their missiles were capable of striking any target in Australia as far south as Hobart.

Step 2: Goad China to act

Colby argued that after a campaign to vilify it, China could be goaded into starting a military conflict over Taiwan and thus be portrayed as the aggressor. The US has already taken a number of steps in this direction, apart from stationing the bulk of its naval power off the coast of China. These include:

  • “Freedom of navigation” and combat exercises in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait;
  • Visits by senior US officials using US military aircraft;
  • Creation of a putative “air defence identification zone” extending well over mainland territory and then alleging Chinese violations of it;
  • Secretly providing military training personnel (while denying it);
  • Including Taiwan in the Summit for Democracy (December 8-10), implying it is a separate country.

Dutton is further goading China by reassuring Taiwan that Australia would “inevitably” come to its defence in the event of a military move against it from the mainland. He is increasing the possibility that Taiwan will feel emboldened to declare independence from China and thus upset the status quo and provoke the war that Colby recommends.

Daniel L. Davies, a retired lieutenant-colonel and senior fellow at Washington think tank Defence Priorities, has argued that “refusing to be drawn into a no-win war with China over Taiwan will see our comparative advantage over China increase dramatically. Their military would be seriously degraded … while ours … would be at full strength”.

The Taiwan Relations Act 1979 imposes a legal requirement on the US to “provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character”. There is no treaty obligation for the US to intervene to defend Taiwan. According to Davies, the US should not risk any of its own military assets, but should push Taiwan to invest more in its self-defence capabilities. Colby has suggested that the US should not provide air defence to Taiwan, since widespread civilian casualties would whip up world anger against China.

Under the strategies proposed by Colby and Davies, China would become bogged down in a  drawn-out conflict that would severely deplete its armed forces and deflect its resources away from economic development and international infrastructure co-operation. It would also
satisfy the insatiable appetite of the US military-Industrial complex for never-ending arms sales.

The ANZUS Treaty is a non-binding collective security agreement. It provides only that an armed attack on one of its members would  constitute a danger to the others and require consultations on measures to meet the threat. It does not bind the US to intervene to protect Australia should Australia attack a third party.

In the light of the Colby-Davies strategy for Taiwan, the US would be unlikely to risk its own military assets or any of its homeland territory in direct defence of Australia. It would increase arms sales to bolster Australia’s self-defence, at great cost to the budget and great profit to the military-industrial complex.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan promised that America would not leave Australia ‘alone in the field’ in its trade dispute with China. Instead of taking supportive action, however, the US leapt in to snatch up the markets lost by Australia’s ‘standing up to China’. This does not
encourage confidence that the US would actively intervene in support of Australia in a military clash with China.

Commitment under AUKUS to heavy expenditure on nuclear-powered submarines, to arrive in the next 20 years or so, offers little  reassurance if Dutton’s ‘war with China’ erupts in the next five years.

Dutton has disingenuously asserted that the ASEAN countries would support Australia. He has failed to acknowledge that such support is far from certain, since ASEAN on November 22 renewed its Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with China. Each of its members has ongoing
infrastructure projects under China’s BRI, which they would not wish to put at risk. They have all expressed varying degrees of disquiet at ‘increased power projection’ into the region through AUKUS.

The effectiveness of the QUAD in defence of Australia is also highly questionable, given that India has security obligations with China through its commitment to the Charter of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation. India is also dependent for its armament on Russia, which has a “better than treaty relationship” with China. Russia seems unlikely to equip India to fight China.

The Colby strategy has not been formally adopted by the Biden administration, but there are signs that it is gaining increasing traction in policy-making circles in Washington. There are also strong voices in Washington in favour of direct US military involvement in defense of Taiwan, arguing that if it failed to do so, the US would lose international credibility as the ‘protector of democracy’.

Fortunately, President Biden has opted, for the time being, for continuation of the policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’ (if somewhat weighted towards reassurances to Taiwan), eschewing the two competing, more aggressive scenarios.

In either scenario, the result for Australia would be the same: – If Australia were to join in the battle to “save democratic Taiwan”, as proposed by Dutton, then, judging from his own assessment of China’s capabilities, the Australian navy would be obliterated in short order and command-control centres in Australia destroyed (especially Pine Gap, in the unlikely event that US forces were involved).

The strident anti-China policy of the Morrison government has positioned Australia as the enemy of China, which is increasingly reluctant to trade with the enemy. Hence the China trade would not be available to buffer Australia from the worst effects of the next global financial crisis (which many economic analysts believe is imminent), as it did in the 2008 GFC. Australia would be considerably weakened economically and much less able to sustain a military engagement with China.

Dutton’s pronouncements, however, are edging Australia inexorably towards outright warfare with China. Australia needs instead to align itself more clearly to Biden’s public posture by unambiguously reaffirming (to both China and Taiwan) its adherence to the One China principle and its commitment to a peaceful, negotiated resolution of the ‘Taiwan problem’.

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