The announcement by Prime Minister Scott Morrison of a redirection of defence strategy towards an acquisition of long-range missiles plus a variety of other investments marks an aggressive turn in Australian foreign policy after the deep damage to economies and societies caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This is but one example of the falling out between powers worldwide that began well before the pandemic but has now entered a heightened phase of great danger. There can be no doubt that this aggression is especially directed at China, and it is one aspect of the tendency to blame China for the pandemic.
The announcement by Morrison has been greeted with a chorus of support from almost all quarters. But this redirection is actually a great threat to Australia over the medium term. It places the nation at risk and is a serious misjudgment by our mainstream politicians—further evidence that they have no capacity to seriously rethink our commitments realistically.
Two main aspects are inadequate in the Morrison approach. The first lies with his attempt to place Australia (and China) in the midst of the economic crisis that is now unfolding. In his view we are in a situation that compares with the 1930s, in the grip of an economic depression and on a path that could easily lead to war. While he does not directly equate China with the Nazi regime that culminated in the Second World War, the implication is strong and has been echoed in comments by other politicians and commentators.
It is easy to use history in this distorted way. While there is no doubt that we have an economic crisis of major proportions, in fact the rise of China is more like the rise of a new economic power, such as Germany in the late nineteenth century and leading up to the First World War. These are always dangerous situations. The old powers have to either resist the development—in the main through war—or find a way to adjust to and accommodate the rising power. The rise of Nazi Germany was one consequence of the foolish reparations imposed on Germany after the First World War by other Western powers, reparations that helped to fuel powerful resistance to the Weimar Republic, especially on the Right.
Big powers are never ‘pretty’. There are differences in degree, but they all engage in self-interested practice no matter what norms they advocate and claim to adhere to. There are no rational reasons to describe the present China as an incipient Nazi regime. That does not mean that it treats all of its peoples well, or that it should be free of strong criticism. There are multiple reasons that the British Empire and the United States were, and are, validly regarded with disgust for some of their institutional practices. But somehow we have to find a way to live with them without descending into subservience. The Nazi label for China can only be a recipe for war.
The second problematic aspect of the Morrison strategy is its assumptions about Australia. Morrison seems completely unaware that the rise of China represents a transformation of the Asia-Pacific and of regional power with basic implications for our place in the region. The Australian nation has always been an outlier of empire—what Clinton Fernandes calls a ‘sub-imperial state’. It is a secondary representative of the European Enlightenment that displaced, and continues to displace, the First Nations who had been here for many millennia. As such, Australia has always centred its defence strategy on its relations with empire: first the British Empire and, after its demise, the United States. The context of the emerging defence strategy is an attempt to hold the old assumptions in place. Putting aside questions of whether this was ever a basis for sustaining a good place to live with cooperative relations in the region, we have to face the fact that the United States is in serious decline. It is powerful militarily, in the technical sense, but socially it is falling apart. What future is there for an empire-dependent outlier community in this circumstance? This is not just a question of how we relate to China; our neighbours will rethink their attitudes towards us over time as this reality takes hold. This is not a philosophical point but an existential one for Australia as a nation.
Australia has to radically recreate itself if it is to survive. Of the two Enlightenment invaders in our region, New Zealand has done much better than Australia in settling and finding accommodation with the First Nations who were displaced. This is a necessary first step if a nation is to strengthen its right to exist in the region. It is never easy and never perfect when radically different cultures try to respect and cooperate with each other. It is a long road that would transform who we are and how we think of others. Australia, having hardly begun this process, will be easily picked off by other nations of the region as an interloper with no rights unless this can be reversed. No nation in our region is innocent of bad treatment of its internal cultures, but we have to come to terms with our special ‘place’ as a representative of empires that can no longer assert the claim to be ‘exceptional’. While in dangerous times some surveillance is necessary, we can no longer assume, for example, that it is our right to engage in surveillance and manipulation of neighbours, whether that be Indonesia or East Timor (as in the Bernard Collaery case). Our whole taken-for-granted superior attitude must change.
In this unfolding context defence policy should become quite different. It should no longer be seeking to join with other superpowers to contain China. Rather, attempts to engage in cooperation with China and other neighbours would be critical while we quietly accept the realities of their enhanced powers. This should be combined with a determination to pursue a vigorous but low-key form of armed neutrality.
In his recent book Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change, Jared Diamond outlined how armed neutrality when living beside giant powers can work. While in general the book is very uneven, the chapter on Finland is instructive. A very small, poor but determined nation with the right political leadership was able to prepare and largely hold at bay the enormous forces of the USSR as the Second World War unfolded and the USSR invaded. Against all odds and all advice Finland earned the respect of its giant neighbour by virtue of its fierce defence of itself. Australia, instead of engaging in armed interventions with its allies all around the world, could restructure its defence forces largely in order to make any invasion impossibly difficult. Instead of allowing US bases and surveillance on our mainland, which must draw us towards becoming a high-profile target of any nuclear exchange, we should combine pulling our heads in with a fierce and well-funded determination to protect a valued way of life, while developing cooperative relations in the region—and not just for economic reasons.