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Australia’s war posturing against China is out of tune with the region – and dangerous

(From the left) Australian Defence Secretary Greg Moriarty, Chief of the Australian Defence Force General Angus Campbell and Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, on September 16. Photo: AAP

Tugged by the strings of traditional alliance on the one hand and the prospect of economic growth on the other, Australia found itself in the 21st century between the proverbial rock and hard place.

Yet, rather than smashing into one side of the binary, Australia, until 2014, managed to maintain its alliance with the United States and build a productive relationship with its largest trading partner, China.

Flash forward to last week’s announcement of the “Aukus” pact, and a multibillion-dollar procurement of nuclear-powered submarines, and it’s clear the “drums of war” with China are beginning to beat in Australian discourse. But is the drummer off-key and out of touch with the rest of the band?

Even to the most indifferent observer, the decline in Australia-China relations has been spectacular.

Perhaps we can trace this to 2017 when former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, in championing legislation against foreign interference, claimed that Australia would “stand up” against foreign interference, in a poorly disguised provocation against China – part of the statement was, after all, delivered in Mandarin.

But it was Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s call last year for an investigation into the origins of Covid-19 that tipped the scales. While the origins need to be investigated, it is curious that Canberra went out of its way to lead the charge against China.

It did not take long for Beijing to start exacting its displeasure through targeted import tariffs and a near-complete diplomatic freeze.

Although China has been heavy-handed with Australia, our domestic problems go deeper than a few foreign policy blunders. It also lies with the rapid militarisation of Australian discourse and foreign policy.

Rather than engaging in nuanced discussions, politicians and public officials find it easier to engage in inflammatory rhetoric that guarantees their faces in the morning tabloids.

Wild accusations, comparing China’s rise with that of Nazi Germany, flippant calls to “prepare for war” from senior officials – all these have sucked the oxygen from rational debate.

Key public servants in Australia’s national security establishment such as Peter Dutton, Mike Pezzullo and Andrew Hastie have made names for themselves by driving relations with China into what former prime minister Kevin Rudd calls a “rhetorical overdrive”, shrouding the diplomatic voices calling for subtlety.

Amid much discussion about China’s new generation of Wolf Warriors, are we not, ironically, seeing the same dynamics in our own backyard? Even in academic discourse, ideas of a “silent invasion” by China, thought to be fringe and provocative five years ago, are becoming the norm.

The stepping down of Professor Jane Golley as head of the Australian Centre on China in the World, after raising possible discrepancies on the reporting of Xinjiang detention centres, is a sad reminder that debate is not being stifled by foreign interlopers – as some in Australia’s security establishment may claim – but by a frenzied atmosphere of anti-Chinese sentiment.

That is not to say that China’s actions should not be called out; it is to say that well-thought-out policy can only be achieved by subtle and multifaceted debate.

Meanwhile, we are witnessing the rapid decline in funding for Asian languages and Asian studies departments in universities across Australia. La Trobe University and the University of Western Australia are the latest to announce drastic cuts and changes. Australian National University Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt noted that Asian studies is being “wiped out across the sector”.

This all suggests an Australia that is becoming less engaged in and informed about Asia, a dangerous dynamic that will only feed the decline in positive regional engagement.

Yet while the funding of Asian studies is in rapid decline, the role of arms manufacturers in funding academic institutions and think tanks has grown at an alarming pace. Today, leading think tanks that provide “independent” analysis on defence policy are unashamedly funded by the likes of Thales, Lockheed Martin and BAE Systems.

At least 32 Australian universities have formed multimillion-dollar partnerships with arms manufacturers. Australian universities are expected not only to produce research on “designated topics” by arms manufacturers but also ensure that their work has military value.

Australia’s defence spending and policymaking decisions are thus increasingly influenced by organisations that seek to profit from the expansion of the defence establishment. Arms manufacturing in Australia has become one of the most profitable industries, worth nearly A$5.5 billion (US$4 billion) last year – a fivefold increase from 2017-18.

But is Australia right in moving towards a militaristic posture? The awkward aversion of South Korean officials to follow Australia in calling out China in a recent ministerial visit may prove that many in the region have no appetite for heightened hostility.

Indeed, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and even Taiwan, have managed to maintain a fruitful relationship with Beijing while also having deep territorial or political disagreements.

Australia’s hawkish posturing against China, while having backers in faraway Washington and London, may leave it out of tune with the very region its future is tied to. Indeed, its most geographically significant neighbours – New Zealand and Indonesia – have already voiced their deep concerns about Australia’s military expansion.

English economist John Maynard Keynes, as he witnessed an arms race among European powers in the build-up to the first world war, noted that what lies between war and peace is a “thin and precarious crust”.

Today, militaristic chest-thumping from the Australian political class, a growing military-industry complex, and the decline of Asian literacy is creating a dangerous cocktail – if we are not careful, it might just break the crust between peace and dangerous militarism within the Indo-Pacific region.


Chris Khatouki is an associate at Asia Society Australia and a PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales.