For many familiar with the excesses of Cold War rhetoric and the hyped-up fears used to justify our ill-fated interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the current China bashing is a case of déjà-vu. But the latest bout of politically contrived anti-China hysteria is especially troubling.
Over the last few weeks, we have seen the extraordinary spectacle of Australian ministers and senior bureaucrats beating the drums of war, blissfully unaware of the consequences of their words and actions.
How can we best characterise such conduct? The proverbial bull in a China shop readily comes to mind, though the comparison may well do a disservice to the bull’s judgment and sense of decorum.
In a keynote address delivered on 15 April to India’s premier geopolitical conference Prime Minister Morrison stated that Australia was seeking to build “a strategic balance that favours freedom”, leaving his audience in no doubt that freedom was codeword for the West generally and the United States in particular.
A strategic competition, he went on to say, was under way between authoritarian regimes (read Russia and China) and liberal democracies (read the United States and its allies and friends).
These prime ministerial utterances reflect the thinking of the newly invigorated Quad which brings together the United States, Japan, India and Australia.
At their first ever summit held in March, the four Quad governments made it clear that their objective was to contain China’s rise. They pointedly agreed to collaborate in maritime security “to meet challenges to the rules based maritime order in the East and South China Sea”. Which order, one may ask? The order which a dominant America had created in the aftermath of World War II, and which has sustained its dominance ever since.
Another clear signal of what was to follow was given by the Pentagon in early March with its submission to Congress requesting more than $27 billion over the next six years to bolster capabilities across the Pacific region.
This expansion of what is now known as the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, or PDI, uses the language of deterrence to mask an increasingly antagonistic containment policy based on forward-deployed long-range weapon systems. These will include armed ground-based cruise, ballistic and hypersonic missiles, more advanced missile defence systems, new space-based and terrestrial sensors, and enhanced access to airfields, ports and other facilities needed to support these deployments.
The undisguised aim is to acquire highly survivable, precision-strike networks along the First Island Chain”, a wide area across China’s immediate maritime periphery that includes the disputed South China Sea and the increasingly tense Taiwan Strait.
It is now known that Australia and the United States have been consulting closely about contingency plans in relation to Taiwan. Against this backdrop of heightened tensions, former defence minister Christopher Pyne made a surprising public intervention, describing Taiwan as the most likely next flashpoint.
Leaving little to the imagination, he spoke of the prospect of a “kinetic war”, offering the following graphic description:
“Not a cyber war, but a real one involving loss of life, destruction of military platforms, with aggressors and defenders on different sides.”
“This isn’t rhetoric, this is something that you and I may well have to confront in the next 5 to 10 years.”
On reflection this was not an altogether surprising foray into the public arena. Having occupied the defence industry and then defence portfolios between 2016 and 2019, Christopher Pyne was well versed in the mindset of the security establishment. Upon retiring from Parliament, he has reinforced these connections by establishing a lobbying firm that advises several defence industry clients, as well as by serving as a director or advisory board member of multiple defence related companies.
Within days of Pyne’s carefully timed intervention senior government figures issued a series of broadsides with China as the implicit and often explicit target.
Following Morrison’s intervention noted above, Assistant Defence Minister Andrew Hastie told military personnel their “core business” was “the application of lethal violence”, a position closely aligned with the directives which newly appointed Defence Minister Peter Dutton had issued to the ADF’s top brass.
Interviewed on ANZAC Day on the ABC program Insiders, Dutton spoke of the possibility of conflict erupting between China and Taiwan. He based that assessment on “the rhetoric that is coming out of China, from spokesmen particularly in recent weeks and months” and the “significant amount of [military] activity”, which one must assume was a reference to China’s military exercises near Taiwan.
On the same day came the intervention by Home Affairs Secretary, Mike Pezzullo. Reminding his audience that this was the 70th year of Australia’s principal military alliance, he left little doubt that China, though not mentioned by name, was the target of his comments:
“In a world of perpetual tension and dread, the drums of war beat – sometimes faintly and distantly, and at other times more loudly and ever closer. . . We must search always for the chance for peace until we are faced with the only prudent, if sorrowful, course – to send off, yet again, our warriors to fight the nation’s wars.”
Two days later during a visit to Darwin the Prime Minister unveiled the $747 million spending package on four key training bases in the Northern Territory. This, we were told, was not a signal to China. But since its primary purpose was to enable more joint exercises with US forces in the region, how else could it be interpreted?
Adding further grist to the mill in his latest comments to The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Dutton has now declared that Australia is “already at war” in the Cyber world. From this hypercharged premise he went on to argue that Australia “needed to be in a position to defend its waters in the north and west as a clear priority.” For added dramatic impact we were told the ADF was prepared for action. .
This is but the latest in a long series of highly publicised and suitably choreographed denunciations of China’s conduct at home and abroad. What is perhaps most revealing about what Australian ministers, senior civil servants and security agencies have had to say on the subject is how little new hard evidence of Chinese misdeeds they have added to what is already on the public record.
In any case, China’s alleged efforts to wield political influence in Australia and elsewhere are but a pale imitation of what the United States has been doing for decades. The reach of its defence establishment, security agencies and other institutions within Australia is hardly denied and seldom questioned
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that what drives Australia’s megaphone antipathy to the Chinese Government is not so much its commitment to so called liberal values, as it is to America’s continued predominance in the Asia-Pacific region. And this helps explain why Australian criticism of China’s Taiwan policies has become increasingly vitriolic.
Yet, little in China’s stance on Taiwan has changed over the years. Ever since October 1949, Beijing has steadfastly proclaimed that there is but one China, and that Taiwan is part of China. The projection of US military power right across the Pacific rim has been the principal obstacle to the achievement of that goal.
Not surprisingly, US-China tensions over Taiwan have simmered for the best part of seven decades, reaching crisis point on three occasions – in 1955-56, 1958, and 1995-96.
What makes the present situation especially dangerous is the rising level of US military and diplomatic support for Taiwan, which may in turn incline a Taiwanese government to miscalculate and take a more assertive step towards a declaration of independence. Such a step would almost certainly invite Chinese military intervention.
What can the United States and its allies do to resist the “curse of war”? The prevailing orthodoxy in US defence circles is that the flexing of military muscle and expansion of the US military presence is the only path to peace.
A safer and more effective response would be to honour the spirit and letter of the Shanghai communiqué agreed to by China and the United States during Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing In February 1972. The United States acknowledged that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. It undertook to abide by this position and reaffirmed its support for a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves.
Translated into the present context, this would mean that the US and its allies, including Australia, would restate their support for the one-China policy and strongly discourage Taiwan from taking any unilateral moves towards independence. For its part, China would be expected to reaffirm its commitment to the peaceful resolution of the Taiwan question.
In addition, Australia, together with ASEAN or particular middle powers in the region, notably Indonesia and Malaysia, could convene regional discussions that include China to explore confidence-building measures, including active collaboration on climate change, the Covid pandemic, and other transnational challenges to security. Over time, these efforts could pave the way for concrete steps towards regional demilitarisation.
This is the only sane response to our current predicament. Sadly, it is not the path that those who presently navigate the ship of state will wish to follow. If there is to be movement in this direction, it will not come from political parties, at least not in the first instance.
It can come only from a reinvigorated civic engagement. This means a wide-ranging, well organised and sustained intervention into the national conversation by thoughtful, well informed citizens, using all the personal and collective channels at their disposal.