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Published: 12:37, March 19, 2023 | Updated: 09:38, March 21, 2023
Reckless war drums in Australia should end on peace notes
By Richard Cullen
Published:12:37, March 19, 2023 Updated:09:38, March 21, 2023 By Richard Cullen

Over three years ago, in November 2019, I wrote that Australia’s relationship with China was strikingly different from China’s relationship with the United States. The acute difficulty for Australia, however, was that Washington, building on its special relationship with Canberra, had become insistent that Australia join in the intense, American-led, Sino-containment project. 

The strategic position was apparent. First, Australia had a huge vested interest in seeing the rise of China maintained and enhanced. Next, China, as an extraordinary advancing power within the Asia-Pacific, plainly raised distinctive challenges for Australia’s foreign policy posture. China did not, though (viewed outside of hawkish think tanks), threaten Australia in any profound way. 

The US, on the other hand, did measurably and seriously threaten Australia. First, by hectoring diplomacy, encouraging intensified antipathy towards the major trading partner who has done more to remake Australia in the previous decades than any other; and secondly, due to the severe hazard of being drawn into yet another US military adventure – possibly involving a forceful confrontation with China. 

Despite this clarity, I concluded foolish decisions might still be made in Canberra. 

Perilously obtuse decisions soon came thick and fast under the previous Scott Morrison Government in Canberra. A prime early example of the extraordinary effort Canberra made to rile Beijing emerged during the early months of the COVID crisis in 2020. Australia, after scant consideration (and likely following contact with Washington), insisted, at that critical time, on a global source inquisition into COVID, excluding the WHO. America was well-pleased. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was pushing a similar line, where guilt was assumed until disproved, not least to try and distract attention from the dismal – and deadly – handling of the COVID pandemic by the Trump administration in the US. Australia was pushing this frightful initiative as China grappled with the unique health risks it faced from the first, highly infectious, and regularly lethal form of COVID long before any vaccines were available.

Similar ill-disposed communications followed, which, unsurprisingly, met with some sharp push-back from Beijing. Sino-Australian relations took a nose-dive, though this seemed to be increasingly regarded as an electoral plus by the Morrison Government. As it happened, this is not how things played out, and the new Australian Labor Party (ALP) government took office in Canberra after winning the federal election on May 21, 2022. 

The new government put away the megaphones and argued for a reset in the relationship with China. Beijing welcomed the change in tone, and communications usefully rose from the Morrison sub-basement level. 

However, the Albanese ALP government, in fact, firmly retained the China Threat perspective assiduously marketed by the Morrison government. It is now clear that, with only the most passing review, the ALP, when in opposition, signed on to the AUKUS deal to allow Australia: to dump the purchase of long-ordered, French conventional submarines; and (somehow) acquire nuclear-powered submarines from the US and the United Kingdom, according to a conspicuously vague Plan A, at the staggering cost of US$248 billion. 

Very recently, barefaced Australian China-bashing plumbed new depths, as the Nine newspapers (the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age) led with multi-page “Red Alert” war-mongering primary stories. 

Former ALP Prime Minister Paul Keating, with withering accuracy, described this as “the most egregious and provocative news presentation of any newspaper I have witnessed in over 50 years of active public life.” Keating also argued that Australian national security interests had been “laid limp on the altar of small target politics” by the new Labor government out of fear that the ALP could be labeled as weak in any way as the US-led China confrontation project continues to gain destructive velocity. 

The Guardian ran a comprehensive, critical review of this brazen press marketing of China as a monstrous, existential threat to Australia, about a week after publication, under the headline: “’ Pretentious’, ‘hyperbolic’ and ‘irresponsible’: what was behind the Nine newspapers’ Red Alert series?”. This article, which canvassed a range of experts, suggested that it could be an attempt to undermine the project to stabilize Australia’s relationship with China, led by Australia’s Foreign Minister, Penny Wong. 

Put more bluntly, this intimidating press campaign may be a severe warning to the new ALP government, emphasizing that it must not flinch in its support for the US line, whatever that may be, in targeting China. But would a long-term, primary geopolitical “partner” really want to push such a blunt message? 

John Pilger cogently delineated, in 2014, how the CIA was involved in the dismissal of the Whitlam ALP Government in Canberra in 1975 despite its reforms and innovations. Gough Whitlam, as he became prime minister, had raised the possibility of closing a large, primary US spy base in Australia at Pine Gap. Pilger quoted Victor Marchetti, a CIA officer who had helped set up that base, saying that this threat “caused apoplexy in the White House …a kind of Chile [coup] was set in motion.”

All this may help explain why Prime Minister Albanese effectively offered zero push-backs against the extreme China-baiting, war-threat provocation from the Nine newspapers; but, soon after, was aglow with martial enthusiasm in San Diego as he embraced what now looks like AUKUS-Plan D with President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of the UK. 

Meanwhile, the list of vexing AUKUS questions keeps growing. What will Australia get, and when? Who will build what, and where? How much will the newly promised, pre-loved, hand-me-down US nuclear submarines cost? Who will extract and store the hazardous and deadly waste from the weapons-grade power source in each vessel? What will happen to that cost estimate? What corrosive impact will this massive lift in military spending have on Australia’s already unsteady, post-COVID fiscal health? How credible, across the region, is the narrative that the AUKUS deal does not pose fresh nuclear and general arms proliferation dangers? And so on. 

One American commentator has labeled the AUKUS project as a looming “goat rodeo” – a slang term for something infused with a pulsating potential to go unbelievably wrong – at a huge cost. Paul Keating, cut from distinctly more robust cloth than the current ALP leadership, has said that the AUKUS arrangement is the “worst deal in history” and the “worst international decision” ever by an ALP government in Australia.

At the time I wrote that article in 2019, I had no idea just how perilously far Canberra and the China-thumping mainstream media would impel the foolishness I anticipated. Is the worst yet to come? Quite possibly. “God help us,” Paul Keating added, shortly after lucidly nailing the gist of what is afoot: “People should get this straight. The Sydney Morning Herald and the Age are editorializing in favor of a war between Australia and China.” 

The author is an adjunct professor in the Faculty of Law at Hong Kong University. 

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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