Commentary |
30 April 2021

China strategy: Get a bigger stick with which to protect ourselves

Originally published in The Australian Financial Review.

Alan Dupont
Alan Dupont

In one of the more eventful weeks in Australian defence and foreign policy, the Morrison government terminated Victoria’s controversial Belt and Road Initiative deal with China; Defence Minister Peter Dutton declared that a war with China over Taiwan “should not be discounted”; Homeland Security Secretary Mike Pezzullo delivered a resonating speech about the “beating drums” of war; and Scott Morrison announced an upgrade of the Northern Territory’s training ranges in a move widely viewed as a response to China’s military build-up.

Feigned indignation, authoritarian self-righteousness and threatened retribution were China’s all-too-familiar res­ponses, underlining the depths to which the relationship has sunk and the difficulty of engaging a regime that relentlessly asserts its secular infallibility. From China’s perspective, our defence contingency planning is motivated by “white supremacy” rather than prudent risk management. And the decision to terminate Victoria’s BRI agreement is apparently “political manipulation and bullying” rather than being a long-overdue correction to a premier’s hubris and overreach.

The views of Dutton and Pezzullo drew domestic criticism that they were intemperate and risked inflaming relations with China. Business leaders decried the lack of a coherent China strategy. Hard-nosed security hawks urged the government to spend much more on defence, worrying that the defence force had become a boutique, toothless military.

None of these assertions is persuasive. Dutton merely stated the obvious. Taiwan is the most likely trigger for a major regional conflict, an assessment shared by virtually all serious Western defence analysts — and by their Chinese counterparts for that matter. It is Dutton’s responsibility as Defence Minister to alert Australians to this reality, spell out the consequences and ensure that the country is prepared for a conflict should it occur.

Pezzullo’s speech needs to be read in its entirety and not dismissed as a gratuitous provocation. While his headline-guaranteeing reference to the drums of war was ill-advised, his core message was not.

Quoting Dwight D. Eisenhower, the widely respected supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe during World War II and a compassionate US president who understood better than most the horrors of war, Pezzullo made the obvious point that the “curse of war” was best avoided by being prepared and strong.

The broader issue is that we have the right to know, and to debate freely, the most pressing security challenge confronting the country. China’s rise demonstrably has destabilised the region. Its professed willingness to forcibly reunify democratic Taiwan should be a matter of concern to Australia and every other country that believes in the right of people to elect their representatives freely and abide by international law.

Yes, words matter. But if either country can be accused of intemperate language and actions, it is China, not Australia. Australian officials have never directly accused China of racism or bullying. Neither have our diplomats leaked a list of Australian griev­ances to the Chinese media or tweeted confected images of Chinese soldiers carrying out atrocities against children. And we certainly have not attempted to coerce China by weaponising trade.

Although not always effectively articulated, the government does have a strategy. This is best described as speak softly, get a bigger stick, assert our sovereignty, seek allies and reduce dependence on China trade.

The Prime Minister’s response to China’s trade punishment is instructive. He refused to engage in tit-for-tat rhetorical exchanges, to limit the political and trade damage. He asserted Australia’s right to make sovereign decisions on issues considered fundamental to our interests and security. He contested China’s justifications for its trade actions in the court of public opinion. He accelerated trade diversification. He enlisted the support of friends and allies. He took China to the appellate court of the World Trade Organisation. But he also left the door open for eventual reconciliation.

The strategy goes beyond trade to encompass defence, foreign policy, development assistance, protection of critical infra­structure and foreign investment. It is increasingly joined up and whole of government, matching China’s approach to statecraft.

A measure of the strategy’s effectiveness is that it has been emulated in some shape or form by an increasing number of other governments around the world. This has angered Beijing and partly accounts for the heavy punishment meted out to our farmers and primary producers.

The point of a bigger stick is not to provoke a conflict with China. Nor is it reflexive subserv­ience to the US. It is a long overdue hardening of the Australian Defence Force for the complex regional threats we confront after 20 years of peace enforcement, nation building, counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism operations around the globe.

These challenges remain, so the ADF’s hard-won knowledge and experience in all these domains must be preserved. But new skills and capabilities are required in hybrid and high-end conventional warfare. The ADF is not toothless. It is arguably the best small defence force in the world. But it still lacks lethality and long-range strike power, an acknowledged deficiency the government is starting to address.

Equally important is the need to build up our defence presence and infrastructure in northern Australia. Morrison’s announcement of a $747m upgrade of training ranges in the Territory is a good start. Even though $520m of this was foreshadowed in last year’s defence force structure plan, it is one thing to promise and another to deliver.

But we lack the ability to deploy quickly and sustain significant numbers of frontline ships and aircraft to contested areas of the Pacific and Indian oceans, or to conduct advanced virtual training and exercises with allies.

This will require substantial investment in everything from training facilities to ports, airfields, digital infrastructure and the capacity to launch our own defence and intelligence satellites into space.

The last time we pivoted to the north was after the 1987 defence white paper when Labor’s Kim Beazley was defence minister. Although our security environment was relatively benign at the time, Beazley’s justification for the ADF’s reorientation remains true today: “Australia must have the military capability to prevent an enemy from attacking us successfully … or extracting political concessions from us through the use of military force.”

Alan Dupont is chief executive of geopolitical risk consultancy the Cognoscenti Group and a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute.