Commentary |
20 January 2021

We can’t combat China’s ‘grey zone’ war while polarised

Originally published in The Australian.

Ben Scott
Ben Scott

China is gearing up for global competition with a Biden-led United States. That’s reducing Australia’s room to move. But it also makes it more important for us to get right the things we can control. To make smarter China choices, Australia should change the way it debates, formulates and implements China policy.

From China’s perspective, Australia is a frustrating anomaly in need of correction; a country that remains firmly allied with the US despite its apparent economic dependence on China. Not only has Canberra failed to toe Beijing’s line, it has actively questioned China on issues ranging from 5G telecommunications to COVID-19.

As Beijing’s economic pressure on Australia begins to bite, our national debate will intensify and could polarise. It’s not hard to imagine populist arguments and simplistic solutions gaining wider appeal.

That’s part of China’s goal; as DFAT Secretary Frances Adamson told a Senate estimates committee last year, “what … I think Beijing is looking for, is division”. The Chinese Communist Party has plenty to work with here. Our debate often crudely pits business interests against so-called security hawks. Different levels of government have pursued divergent China policies. Efforts to wedge Australians of Chinese ancestry from the rest of our society are especially ominous.

On the other hand, political divisions are an essential part of our liberal democracy. This is a strength that Australia should harness rather than suppress. Australia’s China policy should be the product of vigorous and well-informed democratic debate.

The challenge will be to keep it well-informed. Much of what Canberra knows about hostile Chinese government activities comes from classified intelligence. As last year’s Defence Strategic Update made clear, Australia’s security environment is increasingly characterised by “grey zone” competition; state behaviour that is aggressive but often covert, or at least deniable, and falls short of acts of war. It includes foreign interference, cyber intrusions and, in some definitions, economic coercion.

An even greater challenge will be ensuring efforts to counter this behaviour accord with Australian law and — more importantly — our national values. The best antidote to grey zone behaviour is often sunlight. But sometimes Australia itself will also have to enter the murky grey zone.

We’ve been there before. Although the war on terrorism has little to teach us about great power competition, it similarly required Australia’s national security organisations to adapt to a new and uncertain environment. They did so, but our oversight mechanisms did not keep pace — as the Brereton report on Australian special forces conduct in Afghanistan demonstrates. We need new mechanisms to better balance the requirements of secrecy with the need for accountability and a well-informed political debate.

Canberra has long been leery of granting the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security anything approaching the oversight authorities of its US counterparts. One of the few recommendations of the Dennis Richardson review rejected by the government last year was a modest proposal to allow the joint committee to request the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security to inquire into the legality and propriety of operational activities.

Australia’s reluctance to follow the US is based on confidence in our Westminster system of ministerial accountability and in our independent statutory bodies, such as the IGIS. That confidence has no doubt been reinforced by recent US politics, including alarming efforts to use classified intelligence for partisan political gain.

Australia needs to get ahead of political populism. Pride in our model is well founded but missing the point. Meeting the China challenge is not just a matter of ensuring the legality of Australian actions. We need to forestall Chinese efforts to stoke division within Australia, enhance our national debate and build a bipartisan foundation for Australian engagement in grey zone competition. This will require modifications to our Westminster system. A bipartisan cabinet-like body could provide the basis.

At the beginning of World War II, the Labor opposition rejected Robert Menzies’ offers to form a government of national unity, but it agreed to join an Advisory War Council. This body lacked executive powers but made recommendations accepted by cabinet. More recently, the government has formed a nominally “national cabinet”, including premiers and chief ministers from both parties, to improve our response to COVID-19.

Australia is not on the verge of war, but nor are we entirely at peace. A national security advisory council that included key ministers and their opposition counterparts could review classified information and operational proposals in a secure, apolitical environment and make discreet recommendations to cabinet. It could issue public statements that defined areas of bipartisan consensus and hence narrowed the terms of our national debate. A more informed and better focused debate should produce the smarter China policies we will need.

Ben Scott is director of the Rules-Based Order Project at the Lowy Institute.