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Malcolm Fraser's baffling China speech

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27 July 2011 16:06

Geopolitics wasn't meant to be easy. But former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser does himself, China and sensible strategic analysis a triple disservice in this recent Asia policy speech at the Australian National University. The short version — an equally ill-structured blog post — can be found here

I am broadly in accord with the argument that China's military modernisation is, in substantial part, the understandable behaviour of a great power with a fast-expanding economy and wide international interests. I would also agree that the diplomatic and media signaling surrounding Australia's 2009 Defence White Paper was poorly handled.

But Mr Fraser chooses some decidedly weak and self-defeating examples to allay worries about China's martial path.

For the US, Australia, Taiwan, Japan, India, Vietnam, the Philippines and others, the most troubling aspects of China's military rise include its acquisition of asymmetric missile, cyber, and submarine capabilities. And the destabilising impact of its assertive behaviour at sea in recent years is widely recognised, even if the causes and the solution remain subject to debate. Yet Mr Fraser ignores these maritime and high-tech dimensions.

Instead, he focuses on land, and weirdly identifies Iraq, Pakistan, North Korea and Indo-Pakistani tensions as somehow major and understandable drivers of Chinese martial might. This is a truly novel approach. Let's briefly look at each example.

'The outcome in Iraq is problematic': well, yes. But it is hard to see the logic of including this point in relation to China. Instead, it seems something of a dog-whistle for Australia's minority anti-American sentiment.

'North Korea is unpredictable': again, yes. But Chinese tolerance of Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program and lethal maritime adventures in 2010 has hardly helped. 

'Then there is Pakistan': indeed there is. I'm not sure exactly what military forces Beijing needs to deal with its self-destructive South Asian ally, except serious counter-terrorism capabilities as jihadist splinters continue to spread and fester. On the other hand, it would have been only fair for Mr Fraser to mention the vast military assistance Beijing has provided to Islamabad over the years, helping to create a Pakistani military complex that has stifled democracy, fostered terrorism and distorted India's strategic priorities.

'India and Pakistan, dangerous rivals capable of starting a nuclear war, are right on China's borders '. Apart from reducing the world's largest democracy to the status of 'dangerous rival', this point neglects to mention the China connection in South Asia's nuclear problem: Beijing has played a major role in contributing to Pakistan's nuclear and missile arsenal, and New Delhi's gradual turn to the bomb was in part a response to China's acquiring nuclear weapons status not long after its border war with India.

There is a case to be made that China's maritime military advances are partly intended to safeguard its legitimate interests as a major seaborne trading and energy-importing nation. I am baffled as to why, in defending a Chinese viewpoint, Mr Fraser neglected such arguments in favour of examples where Beijing's record is cause for concern, not sympathy.

It makes Ross Babbage's latest foray into the Australia-China strategic debate look positively sound.

Photo by Flickr user Anderson Mancini.

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