Standing up to China

| May 16, 2020

A major disruptive crisis can force countries to adapt in ways that are deeply uncomfortable to the authors of the old order. That is what is happening with the Covid-19 pandemic.

The world is being pushed into a deep economic depression. Political systems everywhere are struggling to cope with a medical emergency but have yet to grapple with the second-order and third-order effects of the pandemic that could reshape the global strategic balance.

For Australia, it’s a wonderful outcome that we have—so far—‘flattened the curve’ and can start to plan for a slow return to normality, but that’s unlikely to be the story in our region. Who knows what Covid-19 will do to Papua New Guinea or Indonesia?

So, to say that national security is ‘not a first-order priority’ for government, as Dennis Richardson told Paul Kelly in the Weekend Australian last Saturday, is a failure of strategic imagination. There will be no snapback to the previous, more comfortable order.

A brief historical detour will help explain my point. As the head of the Department of Defence’s strategic policy branch in 1998, I was given the job of writing a classified assessment of regional security. This was in the aftermath of a murderous civil war on Bougainville Island, the Sandline crisis, which came close to triggering a coup in Port Moresby, and rising violence in East Timor.

I wrote in the assessment that Australia was facing the consequences of a deterioration in regional security. That judgement was set upon by others. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade took it as a criticism of its diplomatic skills, and the intelligence agencies saw it as a negative judgement about their predictive abilities.

As 1998 turned into 1999, it became clear that the assessment would never see the light of day. The Canberra bureaucracy could not conceive that the world was changing faster than its pragmatic incrementalism could handle. The report was shelved. Soon after, I was helping to run a new group called the East Timor policy unit in the weeks before Australia’s biggest military operation since the Vietnam War. Some deterioration!

The Timor crisis looks like a mosquito bite compared with the strategic changes now underway. Richardson dismisses as far-fetched the idea that ‘Australia’s circumstances are so dire, almost at the point of war, that we need a national security focus dominating the totality of what the government does’.

The risk of conflict is not far-fetched. The Chinese Communist Party is pushing the boundaries of acceptable international behaviour in the skies and seas around Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, and in the South China Sea. This is not a state secret. It’s readily observable by reading Chinese newspapers that the party is stoking nationalist sentiment, diverting attention away from its mismanagement of the virus, and setting the groundwork for a crisis over Taiwan.

I hope a military crisis doesn’t happen, but it is the responsibility of national security agencies in Australia to think through the consequences of high-risk scenarios.

This is why Australia needs a national security strategy. Even if it were possible for Australia to avoid direct military involvement in a Taiwan crisis (a big if), we would certainly feel the impact of fuel supply chains from north Asia shutting down. Would China be supplying us with medical equipment as normal? If China is locked in a hostile standoff with the US over Taiwan, will we still be welcoming the PRC’s purchasing of our critical infrastructure?

These questions point to the inadequacies of current policy approaches that were designed for a more benign era, when more people bought the fiction that a wealthier China was going to become a more open country to deal with. We do indeed have ‘a muddle of policies that don’t align with one another’, as Richardson puts it. But don’t expect many in Canberra to acknowledge that, because they own the muddle.

In calling for a national security strategy, I am not saying that we should put a ‘national security umbrella over the totality of government’—whatever that means. Australia still will trade, take foreign investment, train overseas students and establish research links with other countries, but we need to understand what these actions mean from a national security perspective.

I agree with Richardson when he says the national security community lacks the skill set to handle these wider tasks. The deficit comes about because we have failed to take these broader challenges seriously.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in our failure to manage foreign investment with greater attention to national security. When I was in Defence, the line was ‘Treasury never says no’ to foreign investment.

The Foreign Investment Review Board has toughened its stance somewhat, meaning appalling stuff-ups such as leasing the Port of Darwin to a Chinese company for 99 years hopefully will never happen again. But it persists in claiming that investment from communist China is no different to investment from democracies. After Covid, does anyone still believe that?

I will happily accept Richardson’s mantle of being a ‘national security cowboy’. Right now, Australia needs more cowboy and less kowtow, more principle and less of the ‘pragmatism’ that has brought us to this sorry point.

This article was published by The Strategist.

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