There are much greater threats to Australian security than the Chinese military

Sep 19, 2021
chinese military
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

As a middle power, Australia should be strengthening international organisations and a global community, rather than treating our alliance with the US as the foundation of our foreign policy.

There is something oddly outdated in the images of Joe Biden, Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison beaming together over the inauguration of the AUKUS partnership. To many people in the region this must look like a return to the colonial era, a reprisal of the “white man’s burden” in face of a rapidly shifting balance of power.

Generals, it is said, always prepare to fight the last war. It is ironic that in the midst of global climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic there is little interest in understanding these as major threats to our security, arguably more real and immediate than the build-up of Chinese military.

Much current discussion of security echoes not only the experience of Japanese aggression in World War II but also the rhetoric of the Vietnam War, justified by Menzies to stop “the downward thrust of China”. The world today is very different and the primary threats to our security are not of military invasion.

That China is an authoritarian state bent on regional dominance is evident, and it clearly poses a real threat to the continued independence of Taiwan. That the current Chinese government wishes to diminish the influence of the United States in the western Pacific is also probably true.

But this does not mean that China is bent on military expansion beyond what it sees as its historical borders; its primary expansion is through trade and investment, and if it flouts what our government likes to call accepted international rules it is worth remembering that these are rules developed to protect the rich industrialised west. (They are also rules the United States is happy to flout when it suits it.)

That the alliance with the United States is the foundation of our foreign policy seems to be an unchallenged shibboleth of both major parties. Not even the inconsistencies of Trump’s presidency could shake this belief, even though it is evident that, whatever the rhetoric of eternal friendship, the United States will act according to its own interests.

The emphasis on the US alliance reflects more than a hard-headed assessment of Australia’s place in the world, it expresses itself through a deep identification with the countries Menzies called “our great and powerful friends”. Despite Paul Keating’s attempt to reorient Australian emphasis towards Asia, the past nine years have seen a revival of what Tony Abbott liked to refer to as “the Anglosphere”, namely a belief that the English-speaking democracies occupy a special place in the world of which Australia is intrinsically part.

Too much of what passes for foreign policy debate in Australia is focused on Sino-American rivalry with remarkably little attention to the major countries to our northwest which would presumably be objects of Chinese aggression before any conceivable attack on Australia.

Even a hawk like Senator Jim Molan has acknowledged that: “I do not believe that Chinese forces will invade Australia in the first instance, outside of a wider war.” One would think that the implication is to use all our powers of diplomacy to reduce the risk of “a wider war”.

As a middle power in a complex and rapidly changing part of the world Australia has particular reasons to support international norms and institutions. Even if there are legitimate criticisms to be made of international organisations, strengthening them should be an important part of our foreign policy. Yet when Trump assailed these institutions, most strikingly leaving the World Health Organization in the midst of a global pandemic, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s response was to echo his criticisms.

Our position in the world means, as Kevin Rudd understood, becoming a generous supplier of overseas development assistance, which is a crucial part of building global community, as well as providing alternatives to dependence on China. Yet despite a slight recent increase, Australian governments since Rudd have slashed our foreign aid budget, while our diplomatic presence is one of the smallest among OECD countries.

The pressure to constantly beef up military expenditure in Australia is at the expense of developing a comprehensive and sophisticated understanding of the larger world, especially the ASEAN region.

Yes, Morrison has made a point of visiting Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, but they have seemed less significant in his view of the world than his trips to the North Atlantic. [He does appear to have a genuine interest in the South Pacific, perhaps because of religious ties.]

His instinct to please Washington even at the expense of building close relationships with neighbouring countries was most evident in his thought bubble during the Wentworth by-election of moving the embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, following Trump’s decision. It seems the impact this move would have on opinion in Indonesia and Malaysia didn’t occur to him, leaving DFAT to sort out the mess.

Morrison was motivated both by domestic politics and the influence of Trump, but it suggests a wider pattern of neglect of the world beyond potential defence alliances.

There is little evidence that the government is interested in building widespread understanding of Asia within the broader community. Universities have cut back on the study of Asian languages and cultures, often as a direct consequence of federal government funding; while the government constantly speaks of the need for more STEM-based research it seems quite uninterested in maintaining the study of our closest neighbours.

Our increasing interdependence with the United States should be moderated by the need to work with the ASEAN nations to find ways of containing China rather than assuming conflict is inevitable.

Given the deeply undemocratic nature of much of ASEAN this is not necessarily simple, but their interests will sometimes converge with ours more than do those of the United States.

It is a cliché of news reports to balance our strategic alliance with the United States with our trade dependence on China, but we also share some of the same threats to our security as does China: climate change, new epidemic diseases, terrorist attacks. [While DFAT and defence officials are aware of the security implications of climate change, the obstinacy of the government means it has low priority.] In an imperfect world it might be sensible to emphasise these issues rather than those which divide us.

Many years ago I sat on the advisory board of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, which has become a very sleek defender of increasing ties between the two countries.

When I suggested that the centrality of the alliance was itself an object of study this was met with polite silence.

Yet it is hardly a radical proposition to suggest that Australia should regard the United States as it does every other country, namely one that will ultimately act according to its own perception of national interest, which will not necessarily be ours.

That was the lesson Australia learnt from Britain, first in World War II and then after Britain’s accession to the European common market. It should be born in mind before we tie ourselves yet more firmly to the United States’ skirt skins, as Emma Shortis argues in her recent book Our Exceptional Friend.

In what was presumably a senior’s moment, Biden referred to Morrison as “that fellow from down under”. It’s a nice reminder that we should not assume our sense of Australia’s importance is always shared in Washington.

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