By Leo D’Angelo Fisher
Even as Australia licks its wounds from the ignominy of the fruitless war in Afghanistan, arguably Australia’s most pointless war, the Morrison government is paving the way for a costlier, deadlier and even more contentious conflagration. This time the trumped up military foe is China.
And the unexpected flashpoint is Taiwan.
If Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan was problematic the prospect of war in Taiwan – a conflict unlikely to be contained within the island’s borders – is utterly terrifying. Which is precisely the effect desired by warmonger-in-chief Scott Morrison and his hawkish acolyte, Defence Minister Peter Dutton.
Antagonising China – never a difficult task – has been a hallmark of the Morrison government. At first blush this might easily be attributed to the government’s diplomatic and foreign policy ineptitude. And there is that. Morrison is not a deep thinker on most fronts and especially when it comes to foreign affairs. This is a government that has wantonly sidelined diplomats and policy experts within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade – how else to explain the AUKUS debacle? – in the belief that every decision by a government is political and in the moment.
There is none so one-dimensionally political as Scott Morrison. Morrison is not a prime minister troubled by the “vision thing”. His vision rarely extends beyond the next set of headlines. For Morrison, each day is a stepping stone to the next election.
That is the only prism through which the Morrison government’s incessant goading of China can be viewed. Australia’s historical bogeyman of choice, the “yellow peril”, has been reprised with unblushing enthusiasm by this government.
The Morrison government has deliberately and relentlessly fanned tensions with China: the more it riles China, the angrier China becomes, the more tangible the threat of war becomes.
Dutton used his recent National Press Club address to raise the prospect of war with China over the future of Taiwan.
Under Dutton’s Doomsday scenario, an “aggressive” China is poised to invade Taiwan, which it considers a renegade territory. Left unchallenged, an emboldened China would inevitably seek to wrest control of the disputed Senkaku Islands, currently administered by Japan, in the East China Sea.
“If Taiwan is taken, surely the Senkakus are next,” Dutton gratuitously speculated with overtones of the discredited “domino theory” of the 1950s and 60s, which mired the West, including Australia, in futile conflicts in Indochina.
Such was the ominous tenor of Dutton’s address as he mounted the case against China.
Hobart’s in the firing line
“As the regional environment deteriorates, and as dark clouds form…we face the most significant change in our strategic environment since the Second World War,” Dutton warned.
While insisting that “conflict must be avoided”, Dutton also observed that China has “rapidly expanded the size and capabilities of its military” while throwing in the fun fact that, “Every major city in Australia, including Hobart, is within range of China’s missiles”.
Insisting that he is simply stating facts, Dutton sought to place his concerns in an historical context.
“Both the Prime Minister and I have spoken about how the times in which we live have echoes of the 1930s. The world would be foolish to repeat the mistakes of the 1930s,” Dutton warned.
Australia would be better served if Morrison and Dutton concentrated on not repeating the mistakes leading up to the first world war when a rush of foolhardy alliances paved the way for the cataclysmic “war to end all wars”.
“In the face of aggressive behaviour and great uncertainty, nations will quite obviously and naturally seek to buttress their own defences and strategic alliances,” Dutton told the National Press Club audience in reference to the superfluous, hastily conceived and deliberately provocative AUKUS security partnership between Australia, the UK and the US.
Ostensibly a pact aimed at “promoting sovereignty, security and stability in the Indo-Pacific” and “strengthen[ing] Australia’s defence posture”, AUKUS in reality serves the Morrison government’s politically expedient narrative of imminent war with China.
A fortnight before his National Press Club address, Australia’s bellicose defence minister took the extraordinary step of committing Australia to a military conflict in Taiwan not yet declared.
“It would be inconceivable that we wouldn’t support the US in an action [in Taiwan] if the US chose to take that action,” he told Troy Bramston. “[M]aybe there are circumstances where we wouldn’t take up that option, [but] I can’t conceive of those circumstances.”
At his own National Press Club address former prime minister Paul Keating denounced the Morrison government’s stance on Taiwan.
“Taiwan is not a vital Australian interest,” Keating declared. “We have no alliance with Taipei. There is no piece of paper sitting in Canberra which has an alliance with Taipei. We do not recognise it as a sovereign state; we’ve always seen it as a part of China.”
It was a harsh but fair judgement. Australia, along with other Western nations, has chosen to give Taiwan the diplomatic cold shoulder, giving tacit sanction to China’s territorial claim. Dutton is quick to attack his critics for “appeasing” China, but the Morrison government, the self-appointed champion of sovereignty in the region, has not seen fit to recognise Taiwan as a nation state. If China wishes to assert its claim on Taiwan by what moral authority or thread of consistency is the Morrison government readying Australia for war with China?
The Coalition’s bravado has nothing to do with foreign policy. It is naked brinksmanship with only one objective: the 2022 election.
Voters traditionally believe that matters of defence and national security are best handled by conservative governments. It’s a myth, of course, but one Liberal governments keenly exploit, although never as shamelessly as this government.
In 2020 there was much poking of the giant Panda, from premature and provocative calls for an “independent” inquiry into the origins of Covid-19 – with accusing finger pointed squarely at China – to recycled “revelations” of China’s cyber-spying posing a threat to Australian sovereignty.
Lest there was any doubt that China posed a mortal threat to Australia, in July 2020 Scott Morrison released the Government’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update.
In full Churchill mode, Morrison declared that the strategy would “guide our nation through one of the most challenging times we have known since the 1930s and the early 1940s”.
Morrison warned that Australia’s immediate region was “the focus of the dominant global contest of our age”.
“Tensions over territorial claims are rising across the Indo-Pacific region,” said Morrison as he did his best to stoke those tensions.
Declaring that “state sovereignty is under pressure”, Morrison’s intention was to sow fear in the community and galvanise support for his government’s stand against China.
“As one of the world's oldest liberal democracies, we know who we are, we know what we believe, we know what we're about, we know what we stand for, and we know what we'll defend. We're about having the freedom to live our lives as we choose in an open and democratic liberal society without coercion, without fear. We're about the rule of law,” Morrison thundered.
One would reasonably expect that if Australia was genuinely in mortal danger the Morrison government would seek a bipartisan front in response to the looming peril.
Instead, in placing Australia on a war footing with China Morrison is concocting an existential threat designed to wedge Labor – cast as pro-China and anti-Australia – and position the Morrison government as Australia’s saviour.
We have seen this played out with abundant and self-serving frequency.
‘Most dangerous election tactic in history’
Shadow foreign affairs minister Penny Wong had the Morrison government’s measure told the Australian National University’s National Security College recently: “Amping up the prospect of war against a superpower is the most dangerous election tactic in Australian history.”
Such observations are manna from heaven for the Morrison government which uses these warnings as political ammunition. Dutton has no interest in constructive engagement with Labor on China. He used Wong’s speech – including her calls for a “careful and sober approach to cross-Strait relations” – as evidence that Labor is “weak at the knees” on China and “crab-walking away from AUKUS”.
At Dutton’s National Press Club address, the wedging of Labor was on unabashed display.
“Australians expect their government to deliver on national security,” Dutton said. “In a time of great uncertainty, Australians can be certain that the [Morrison] government will act to keep them safe.”
China is not an innocent party. Its aggression and bullying posture in the region give rise to genuine concern. But the Morrison government’s goading of China, with no behind the scenes diplomacy in place to keep the wheels of dialogue turning, have boxed Australia into a dangerous corner.
If China has become a runaway menace to Australia’s interests and values it is only because Australia, enriched by its trade with China, has in the past preferred to look the other way. Much of China’s military expansionism and increased influence in the region has occurred during the Coalition’s term of office. It is a bit rich for the Morrison government to claim that only it can hold China to account, particularly given that ownership of the Port of Darwin was handed to Chinese interests on its watch.
To now argue that Australia must place itself on a war footing with China is pure fantasy from which no good will come.
As is the way of Coalition prime ministers, soldiers and wars are props for winning elections. That Scott Morrison should seek to do so on the back of an enraged China is breathtaking in its disregard for Australians’ safety and wellbeing.
Scott Morrison has cynically and opportunistically opened the way for yet another pointless conflict in which Australian troops will be needlessly sacrificed. When it comes to pointless wars into which Australia has been roped there are many to choose from – Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan…take your pick. And now Taiwan beckons.
It is no wonder that many Australians are coming to the view that parliament, not the government, should be responsible for committing Australia to overseas conflicts. The Morrison government’s blatant warmongering is precisely the abuse of power that organisations like Australians for War Powers Reform warn against.
Scott Morrison cites Australian values as the driver of his campaign against China, but there’s only one value that matters to Morrison and that’s winning the next election. And he’s prepared to put Australia in harm’s way to do it.
Morrison’s reckless sabre-rattling has immediate political horizons in mind but in the process he is stoking tensions in the region that will last for generations. But that will be for future governments to contend with.
Leo D'Angelo Fisher is a regular columnist and Editor-at-Large at Australian Veteran News. Connect with him on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher.