When faced with potential conflict, why are we abandoning the strategy that’s worked in the past for one that will definitely fail?
My late, beloved grandfather served in the Australian forces in World War II and it was the making of him, in that he returned with a leg injury, which never healed, and post-traumatic stress disorder that saw him spend the last three decades of his life rarely leaving his bed.
He was proud of his contribution, but also deeply grieved those mates who never came back, and he railed against the sheer waste of it all. And that horror was all from what was the only armed conflict in which Australia was unambiguously on the winning side.
Our more recent efforts in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq aren’t exactly a litany of triumphs – the troops packing up in Afghanistan right now aren’t exactly coming home because everything’s gone brilliantly and it would be impolite to outstay their welcome.
Even without well-supported reports of war crimes committed by Australian forces against civilians, you’d think that our leaders would be hesitant to send our citizens to expensively die in another foreign conflict. And yet certain members of our federal government are beating the drums of war with such wild enthusiasm that Motley Crue’s Tommy Lee would tell them to stop being so unnecessarily flamboyant.
Australia’s war-mongerers in dangerously powerful positions
Peter Dutton declared we are ‘already under attack’ from China in the cybersphere, while his former departmental head, Michael Pezzullo, ominously talked up the imminent threat of conflict in his ANZAC Day address.
And it shouldn’t need to be said, but; despite Dutton and Pezzulo’s breathless rhetoric, if Australia did actually go to war with China we’d come a distant second.
It doesn’t help that successive Coalition governments have committed us to multi-billion dollar spends on flashy new toys, such as the unflyable series of design flaws that is the Joint Strike Fighter, and the submarine program that promises to eventually produce largely obsolete machines, assuming that they’re completed at all.
It’s especially concerning when, after military fetishist Tony Abbott became PM he didn’t just valorise the military, but also began the budget cuts in our diplomatic corps and foreign aid programs that represented Australia’s actual regional clout.
Diplomacy used to be our superpower, the smart move for a small country far from the big decision-making centres of the northern hemisphere. However, along with a new hawkishness over our military activity came cuts to foreign aid. Last year saw us slump close to the bottom of the aid tables among OECD countries, ranking alongside the likes of Portugal.
And leaving aside the moral dimension of a rich country plonked amid lot of very poor ones not pulling its weight, there’s also the cold, hard, security calculation; because if things kicked off with China we’d need all the friends we could get.
you get the neighbours you deserve
The much-demonised Belt and Road Initiative can very reasonably be seen as a way for China to exert influence on every country in our region. But before you sneer about China bribing its way to popularity it’s worth making clear that we’ve not exactly been endearing ourselves to the neighbourhood of late.
If push should ever come to live-fire shove, which way would any Pacific nation choose to jump right now? Would they support the country who flew in health workers and built a highway system, or the one whose leadership made jokes about how stuffed they are when rising sea levels come ‘lapping at your door’?
Australia can’t possibly win a war with China, not merely because they could nuke us without raising a sweat but also because we’ve been taking a hard line with international aid at the same time that China have been approaching all our neighbours and saying things like ‘Hey, fancy a hospital system? How about a new port? How about a nice fat loan in exchange for which we’d like your mineral wealth to act as collateral?’
And the war needn’t get hot to devastate us. Sure, China’s military might dwarfs that of most of the planet (except the US), but now they’re also the biggest economy on Earth. They don’t have to waste expensive missiles on us: they simply have to pick off our markets and wait.
Morrison can talk up the unbreakable bond that unites Australia and our traditional allies (when not accidentally endorsing China’s position on Taiwan…), but does he honestly think that if Indonesia, or India, or even the US were told they had the choice between trading with China or Australia, but not both, that they’d bravely stand up for us on something as flimsy as principle? Yeah, me neither.
wanted: cool heads and diplomatic guns
For all sorts of reasons, from COVID-19 to climate change, from a global recession to regional geopolitics, the world is looking set for a lot of volatility. The winners in the times-to-come are not going to be the countries that provoke entirely avoidable fights; they will be the ones that find smart ways to further their interests and their agendas, which is unlikely to involve starting battles they can’t possibly win.
What Australia needs is cool heads in leadership and absolute guns in DEFAT and our ambassadorial corps. We need exceptional foreign, trade and defence ministers to help regain the level of influence and amity we’ll need to survive and thrive in the coming decades.
Or, y’know, we trust in the cool-headed wisdom and boundless personal charisma of Peter Dutton to continue his public-threat-based diplomatic strategy and see how that shakes out.