Will we choose war or peace with China?

Oct 31, 2022
War or Peace Concept with Gradient Background. 3d Rendering

Surely we know from daily life that a bit of friendly dialogue with prospective “enemies” really can help defuse conflict?

In times of looming conflict, we all know one thing: that even the briefest of friendly grins can do a bit to calm things down. Which tactic is more likely to help soothe rage and resentment––a snarl and a clenched fist, or an amiable “G’day”?

Geraldine Doogue is famously as warm and companionable as she is well-informed and good at her job. It was with some consternation, therefore, that I listened to her Saturday Extra interview on ABC Radio National on 15 October. For more than half an hour, three of Australia’s top international strategic defence experts spoke on the topic “Can Australia afford the big spend defence commitments from AUKUS?”

The guests were the defence analyst Dr Alan Dupont, retired Major-General Gus McLachlan, and the director of the Lowy Institute’s International Security Program, Sam Roggeveen.

Now obviously their job was not to debate the deep philosophical nuances of war and peace. Not even the twisting, snarky politics of it all. It was simply to examine how best to spend government money on defence. This sub or that one? New heavier tanks, or keep the old ones? Capability: to simply defend our isolated continent, or to attack places far from home?

All this is heavily influenced, of course, by our glued-to-the-gunnels arrangement with the US, and the need for our army, navy and airforce to “plug seamlessly” into America’s Pacific forces. Which planes are the best match? Which missiles would be best to attack Chi… ahem! To attack…umm…some enemy…

“Our army is something of a hybrid force,” said Gus McLaughlan. “Bits and pieces of technology from a number of different countries. But it’s been useful to go off and do these foreign wars –– Iraq and Afghanistan.” No surprises there.

But something strange happened during the interview. Something vaguely disturbing.

I waited in vain for even the hint of a suggestion that, armaments and finances aside, maybe… just maybe… it might be worth at least mentioning something more subtle before wheeling out the big guns?

How about hinting that the government might take a few delicate, tentative steps towards diplomacy? Towards trade normalisation? Maybe even some wise (or cannily shrewd!) human-to-human contact? Many a threatening crisis has been soothed over a cuppa or a beer…

As I’ve said, nuance was definitely not the guests’ defined job on Saturday Extra. The nuts and bolts of Australia’s preparation for battle was their area of expertise. But not even in the most casual, offhand way was there a nod to any alternative to outright skilling-up for war.

Of course war is the most horrific of threats. But Australians live with other looming dangers as well. Floods. Pandemics. The bushfires that threaten our home among the gumtrees…

So how would three top bushfire experts discuss their work in a half-hour interview? Would the entire time be taken up with comparisons of fire-engines? Of hoses; ladders; boots; helmets; the advantages of this brand of ee-aw-ee-aw siren over that one? With not the briefest offhand reference to fire prevention?

The wisdom of stubbing out your cigarette butt before tossing it out the car window, perhaps. Or a suggestion to stamp out that campfire properly before you head back home.

Such a long, one-sided discussion would be very strange indeed. Everyone would notice the oddity of it.

But where war and peace are concerned, most of us seem to have handed responsibility over to government so completely that we question little. Not even the vast fortunes being made by weapons manufacturers under cover of our “security” blanket. Increasing Public Private Partnerships in defence are quietly all the go, though the Minister for Defence, Richard Marles, has said that defence procurement is “a complete mess.”

Daily the media may hiss that China is lurking there, just waiting to pounce: but––well, we do have a wise elder brother out there to protect us, don’t we? Some of our fellow citizens––perhaps politicians; perhaps big media wheels––even clench their fists and grimace fiercely at thought of the thrills to come. There are votes to be raked in, remember!

But surely we know from daily life that a bit of friendly dialogue with prospective “enemies” really can help…

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