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The ‘yellow peril’ makes an unwelcome return as Scott Morrison declares war on China

By Leo D’Angelo Fisher

It’s grating enough – because we instinctively know it’s wrong – when an Australian prime minister takes the pretext of some inconsequential or overblown announcement about national security to surround himself with menacing, heavily armed soldiers for a photo opp.

But now Scott Morrison has taken that political faithful much further by as good as invoking Australia’s historical bogeyman of choice, the “yellow peril”, and performing the diplomatic equivalent of throwing sand in China’s face.

On 1 July, in a typically pedestrian speech, with the occasional patriotic flourish that only a second-rate marketing man would find uplifting, Morrison launched the Government’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update and 2024 Structure Plan at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra.

Amid the cloying verbiage, tortured syntax and hawkish bravado history was being made: the Morrison Government was setting a path that “will guide our nation through one of the most challenging times we have known since the 1930s and the early 1940s”.

After much preamble Morrison declared “a pivotal day for Australia and for our defence forces”.

The Government’s updated 10-year defence funding model committed expenditure of $270 billion over the next decade, an increase from the $195 billion committed in the 2016 Defence White Paper.

But the dollars are neither here nor there; governments can reset budgets up or down as they please. It’s the rhetoric accompanying the defence reset that should alarm Australians as it places Australia on a war footing with China. The damage this blueprint will cause, for Australia and regionally, will not so easily be set aside.

Lowy Institute analyst Sam Roggeveen described the defence update as “dark and foreboding” while the ABC’s national affairs correspondent Greg Jennett noted a “bleaker, bolder and more bellicose outlook on security in our region”.

Morrison did his best to sound Churchillian as he outlined the “enduring” and “timeless” responsibility of government “to protect Australia's national interest, our sovereignty, our values and the security of the Australian people” in a post-COVID world that is “poorer…more dangerous and…more disorderly”.

At this point violins would have been a nice touch.

“We have been a favoured isle, with many natural advantages for many decades, but we have not seen the conflation of global, economic and strategic uncertainty now being experienced here in Australia [and] in our region since the existential threat we faced when the global and regional order collapsed in the 1930s and 1940s,” the Prime Minister intoned.

Not our brightest PM

“That is a sobering thought, and it's something I have reflected on quite a lot lately as we've considered the dire economic circumstances we face. That period of the 1930s has been something I have been revisiting on a very regular basis and when you connect both the economic challenges and the global uncertainty, it can be very haunting.”

It is not being unkind to observe that Morrison is not our brightest prime minister, but he is wily, a born scrapper and unburdened by scruples when it comes to realpolitik. He does not strike one as a reflective student of history – which makes his allusions to the “haunting” 1930s and 40s interesting if a touch laboured. Morrison is more of a here-and-now kind of politician who looks to immediate political advantage where he can find it, or contrive it.

What is particularly striking about Morrison’s defence gambit is the willingness to goad and enrage China in order to create a setting for his new defence order.

Describing the Indo-Pacific as “the epicentre of rising strategic competition” the Prime Minister warned that Australia’s immediate region is “the focus of the dominant global contest of our age”.

“Tensions over territorial claims are rising across the Indo-Pacific region, as we have seen recently on the disputed border between India and China, and the South China Sea, and the East China Sea,” Morrison said.

“State sovereignty is under pressure, as are rules and norms and the stability that these provide.”

Accordingly, Morrison has set three new strategic objectives to guide Defence planning: shape Australia’s strategic environment, deter actions against Australia’s interests and respond with “credible military force” when required.

“We must be alert to the full range of current and future threats, including ones in which Australia's sovereignty and security may be tested,” Morrison said.

“This includes developing capabilities in areas such as longer-range strike weapons, cyber-capabilities, area-denial systems, and at the same time our actions must be true to who we are as a nation [and] a people.

“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.”

Two immediate observations can be made about the Morrison government’s gung-ho defence blueprint.

“We will never surrender!” (Churchill? No, Morrison)

The first is that it is so overwrought that it might easily be mistaken for satire. For example (brace yourself): “Sovereignty means self-respect, freedom to be who we are, ourselves, independence, free-thinking. We will never surrender this. Never. Ever.”

The second is that it is a disingenuous document of breathtaking proportions. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Morrison’s pointed and deliberately provocative call for an “independent” inquiry into China’s handling of the coronavirus, the contrived trade disputes, the “revelations” of China’s cyber-spying and local political interference were designed to set China up as Australia’s implacable foe.

China has form on all these fronts, but 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 over decades preferred to look the other way except for the occasional token rebuke. The breakdown in relations with China is a failure of Australian diplomacy and a failure of consistency in what Australia has expected of China as a global citizen.

To now argue that Australia must place itself on a war footing with China is preposterous fantasy from which no good will come. The idea that China will be cowed by Australia’s more aggressive military posture is absurd. Morrison has locked Australia into future conflict with China, whether military, trade or both.

“From its perspective, Beijing can now be assured the rhetorical battlelines in its multi-faceted feud with Australia are sharply drawn,” Greg Jennett observes.

“The rhetoric is so forcefully militant, and deliberately so, that friction can only rise from here.”

Morrison’s chest-thumping places future Australian generations at risk, but as far as Morrison is concerned, that’s a problem for future governments to deal with. The Prime Minister’s only concern is the next election.

The Morrison government’s defence blueprint is a blatantly political document. 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 Australia’s safety and wellbeing.

Morrison has infused the launch of the 2020 Defence Strategic Update with equal measures of military and political posturing.

The speech included a promise not to run down Commonwealth spending on defence as occurred under Labor (1.56% of GDP prior to the election of the Coalition in 2013, “the lowest level since 1938”. Defence spending is now at 2% of GDP); a promise of “strong economic management” to support the necessary investment in defence; and a commitment to supporting a “robust, resilient and innovative defence industrial base” that will create “thousands of jobs”.

Morrison’s saccharine jingoism – as historically has been the role of such jingoism – is designed to galvanise support for his government in its prosecution of a common enemy.

“The defence of Australia is a big team effort and it goes well beyond those who wear uniforms,” Morrison said.

“It really reaches into every aspect of our community and Australian life. [W]e all have a stake in it. We all have a part to play to hold dear what we value most.”

Scott Morrison has opened the way for yet another pointless conflict in which Australian troops will be needlessly sacrificed, but let’s not have any illusions about what the Prime Minister values most. It’s winning the next election and he’s prepared to put Australia in harm’s way to do it.


Leo D'Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne-based journalist and commentator.

Connect with him on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher

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