SMH: Ill-disciplined chest thumping puts us at risk

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 8 May 2021

The Morrison government’s indisciplined commentary on the possibility of Australian military engagement in a future US-China war over Taiwan is politically juvenile and potentially damaging to our core national security interests.

For 50 years Australian governments have not speculated publicly on what they would do in the event of a military crisis or conflict over Taiwan. Scott Morrison, Defence Minister Peter Dutton and aspiring defence secretary Michael Pezzullo have now breached that convention. Classified military briefings have also been leaked. These three have sought to deflect criticism over the parsing of their language but the net effect has been to elevate the idea of a looming war – and our probable involvement – as the focus of the already dysfunctional Australia-China relationship.

Previous governments have been tight-lipped about potential military scenarios for good reason. Such a conflict would involve the world’s two biggest militaries and likely become the most violent and destructive war in Asia since 1945. Given the horrendous choices that would present, Australia should not at this stage compromise the independence and flexibility of our national decision-making.

In Canberra, Washington, Beijing and Taipei, our officials have done everything possible to prevent any such war from occurring while also forestalling any change to the status quo through the application of Chinese coercion. With Washington, our aim has been to ensure the US has sufficient military deterrence in the region to cause China to defer its longheld ambition to take Taiwan. In Beijing, we have encouraged China to conclude Washington is determined to defend Taiwan – not least because, if the US failed to act, it would destroy American credibility among its other allies. As for Taipei, we have sought to discourage successive Taiwanese governments from any unilateral declarations of independence that would cross Beijing’s fundamental red lines.

The government’s adolescent chest-thumping has perplexed the Americans, infuriated the Chinese, puzzled the Taiwaneseand bamboozled most of the region. Only seven weeks ago, Joe Biden’s Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, met his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, and reportedly intervened on behalf of US allies like Australia, which had been on the receiving end of Chinese economic thuggery. China’s anti-Australian rhetoric had begun to moderate in the weeks following that – at least until Morrison decided to unleash on Victoria over its nebulous and nonbinding MOUs on the Belt and Road initiative, followed by this most recent rhetorical fusillade over Taiwan. Taiwan’sforeign minister, Joseph Wu, on Wednesday discounted the idea of imminent war. And most of the region sees Australia’s extravagant language as spoiling for a political fight with China whereas countries like Japan have consolidated their position with the Biden administration while keeping relations with Beijing on as even public keel as possible.

So why have Morrison, Dutton and associates publicly signalled ‘‘Code Red’’ over Taiwan? It’s inconceivable that national security agencies recommended this. Developing detailed, classified diplomatic and military plans for various Taiwancontingencies is prudent strategic planning. Shooting your mouth off about war in the Taiwan Straits is not. In fact, it’s strategically counterproductive.

The only conceivable motive is the government is determined to fight a khaki election, given the vaccine and quarantine programs are a mess, its credentials with women lie in tatters and old faithful ‘‘debt and deficit’’ is now rendered toothless given that debt and deficit figures are seven-times bigger than when Labor left office.

For the Liberals, China is the best camouflage to wedge Labor as a bunch of pro-commie, peacenik appeasers. Never mind that Morrison can’t even speak to Neil Mitchell without confusing Taiwan and Hong Kong; never mind that Morrison as treasurer allowed the sale of the Port of Darwin to the Chinese; and never mind how the Liberals led the charge into war in Iraq to eliminate weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist.

Then there’s the worst-kept secret in Canberra: the undeclared leadership battle between Dutton and Morrison, where the former views China as the best vehicle to outflank the latter within the Liberal party room. It’s obscene: playing roulette with our core national economic and security interests for pure political gain.

The truth is China’s power, its increasing assertiveness and the failures of the Trump administration have made the Australia-China relationship difficult for any Australian government. While Taiwan may not face the direct threat of invasion, the risk of force being used will become greater by the end of this decade if the regional military gap between the US and China continues to widen in Beijing’s favour – unless the Americans and Taiwanese can close the gap.

National security is not a political game. It’s serious. The lives of our men and women in uniform are at stake. However, the Dutton-Morrison performance puts beyond doubt that this government lacks the temperament to manage profoundly complex national security challenges.

Kevin Rudd is a former prime minister and foreign affairs minister.