We Can Hear the Drums of War, But Who Is Beating Them?

The secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, Mike Pezzullo, was not wrong when he noted in his now notorious Anzac Day message to departmental staff that the drums of war could be heard sounding in the distance. The relationship between China and Australia is at its lowest point since formal diplomatic ties were established in 1972. Talk of war, and the framing of China as a pernicious, and even existential, threat to Australia and the world are now daily features in commentary from Australian media, think tanks and politicians.

The drums of war can be heard loud and clear, and they are being beaten in Australia.

This type of loose talk of war does not happen in those countries that have the most serious territorial disputes and military frictions with China. You will not hear Japanese or South Korean government officials pronouncing the need for their nations to prepare for war with China over Taiwan, as our defence ministers, past and present, have done in recent weeks. Not even in Taiwan itself are the prospects of war with China discussed so flippantly.

For anybody following the meltdown of Australia–China relations over the past several years the change in the tone of the discourse is incredibly jarring. Gone are the days when Australian politicians would wax lyrical over our relationship with our ‘most important economic partner’ and Australia’s desire to be a ‘true friend’ to China.

In the not-too distant past Tony Abbott was on the world stage praising China for accomplishing ‘the most spectacular advance in human welfare’ in world history. Now members of the current government openly compare China to Nazi Germany.

The explanation provided for all of this is simple: China, under Xi Jinping, has become externally aggressive, internally oppressive, and ambitiously expansionist in a new and unique way that fundamentally changes the calculus of how it must be dealt with as a rising power.

It is an appealing story, one in which Australia’s and the United States’ moral positions as unimpeachable forces for stability and peace in the region go unchallenged.

The much more complex reality is that China’s abrasive jostling with its neighbours for territory, resources and power, and its repression of domestic ethnic minorities, and regressive and inhumane collective punishment and ‘re-education’ in Xinjiang, are sins that are neither unique to China itself nor new. What is new is China’s assumption of a position of world power that presents an unavoidable structural challenge to US global leadership. This the real reason behind the radical shift in Australian, and US, foreign and security policy in recent years.

Since 1949, when the nationalist faction, fleeing from the Communists after their victory in the Chinese Civil War, claimed Taiwan as their own, China has been unflinchingly of the position that the island is a renegade province that will eventually be reunified with the mainland . As part of its rapprochement with China during the 1970s, a strategic masterstroke undertaken by Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon to win over the Chinese to the US side during the Cold War, the US government agreed to pull out all of its military forces from the island, including its forward-deployed nuclear weapons, and to withdraw diplomatic recognition of the government of Taiwan. The United States agreed in principle to the ‘One-China Policy’, wherein it was recognised that Taiwan was a constituent part of China.

During previous periods of heightened tension between China and Taiwan, Australian politicians were far less bellicose. In 2004, during a spat between China and Taiwan over the possibility of a formal declaration of independence, then foreign minister Alexander Downer publicly affirmed that Australia would not be beholden by the ANZUS treaty to go to war to defend Taiwan should China attack.

The mining boom was just heating up, China was a rapidly expanding export market, and its military strength and economic heft paled next to those of our great ally, which had only recently declared ‘Mission Accomplished’ in Iraq. The ‘New American Century’ was a certainty, and Australia needed not sour its relationship with a lucrative business partner.

Today, US economic and military supremacy, which has undergirded its unparalleled position of global leadership since 1945, is much shakier. China has now advanced to the point that it is a serious rival to the United States as both military hegemon in Asia and central pivot of the global economy. This is what the brewing war, hot or cold, between China and the United States and its allies is all about.

This is not to say that Australia does not have legitimate concerns over China’s rise as a superpower. Australia has done very well during the period of US global leadership. Since the Second World War we have enjoyed levels of prosperity and security rarely achieved in world history. How China rises, and whether it seeks to reshape or undermine democratic governments and international norms and institutions is of great concern to us and the world.

China’s propensity for mass surveillance, collective punishment, the suppression of free speech, and unchallengeable one-party rule are all outrages against democratic principles and the human spirit. They are also, unfortunately, far from unique. Australia should be working to support international human rights and political freedoms. Regrettably, even in the face of a decades-long downward trend in global respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law, the Australian government continues to structure its foreign policy on these issues around strategic and commercial expediency.

In the same decades that China was expanding its military power in the region, pushing up against its neighbours in the Western Pacific, and conducting its own ‘war on terror’ in Xinjiang, the Australian government was uncritically supporting a series of catastrophic and destabilising wars in the Middle East. A comprehensive study by fifty leading scholars in the United States has shown that these wars have resulted in around 900,000 deaths, almost half of which were the deaths of civilians, and the creation of 21 million refugees.

This selective concern for international human rights continues to this day. At the same time as the UN Secretary General was describing the Saudi- and UAE-led war on Yemen as the ‘world’s worst humanitarian crisis’, and warnings were being issued that the resulting famine would cause the starvation of millions of Yemeni children, our current government was launching a multibillion dollar program to enlarge our market share of arms sales to our ‘closest friends in the Arab world’, the aggressors in the conflict.

Even today, when European countries and the United States itself have banned arms sales to the UAE and Saudi Arabia over the war on Yemen, the Australian government refuses to follow suit.

We should be supporting the human rights and political aspirations of all people, including those within China, leading by example in crafting a consistently moral foreign policy of our own, and making clear-eyed assessments of how the characteristics and policies of the current Chinese government threaten Australia itself, and how our own diplomatic and military stances impact and shape China’s behaviour. 

China’s military expansion and increasing assertiveness in its near seas is not occurring within a geopolitical vacuum. The United States has established over 200 military bases in the Western Pacific region alone; its vast array of military access agreements with regional security partners, its carrier strike groups, its modernisation program for offensive nuclear capabilities, its forward-deployed Marine Air Ground Task Forces, and over 100,000 military personnel stationed in the region are just some of the many ways that our side contributes to the region’s militarisation and threatens Chinese security.

We are returning now to a period of superpower competition. A serious, well-informed public discussion needs to be had on the best path forward for Australian security and welfare. Australian media particularly needs to do a much better job of dispelling the convenient illusion that we simply conduct our foreign policy on high-minded principles, and look deeper into the structural reorganisation of world power that is behind current tensions.

Australian policymakers should be planning for all contingencies, studying the history of global power transitions, and working with the United States to construct a region that can achieve security with China, not from it. This discussion is far more advanced in US media, academic and strategic policy circles than here in Australia.

There is a degree of tragic irony in Mike Pezzullo’s choice of Anzac Day to express his opinion that Australia must again prepare to send forth its soldiers to war.

It was over a century ago that the first Anzac Day was held in remembrance and recognition of Australian soldiers fighting and dying on the shores of a foreign land in the First World War. That conflict, perhaps more than any other, has come to symbolise the massive and horrific costs of avoidable war, waged not due to unreconcilable hostility but as a result of the waxing and waning of rival empires, competition for the world’s markets and resources, the hubris of reigning powers, and the impetuousness of rising ones.

Australian politicians, the media, and the public at large would all do well to remember the tragic cost of that conflict, and recognise that there is every likelihood that the devastation caused by a fully fledged war involving China, the United States and ourselves today would dwarf it by comparison.

The fact that the Pentagon itself has determined that the United States would likely lose any conflict with China in the Western Pacific or Taiwan Straits speaks volumes on the ridiculousness, and danger, of this new way of speaking about war with China.

The stakes are that high. We should be mending fences, seeking areas of cooperation and mutual benefit, and, where necessary and justified, holding China to account through the organs of international dispute resolution that were constructed for that very purpose. We should not be striking out ahead of all others in a race to beat the drums of war.

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About the author

Stuart Rollo

Dr Stuart Rollo is a writer and researcher focusing on geopolitics, history, and US-China relations, based in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney.

More articles by Stuart Rollo

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“Now members of the current government openly compare China to Nazi Germany.”
Something about the Xinjiang internment camps housing several million Uyghurs reminds me of Nazi Germany…..
It’s disturbing that you conveniently gloss over the genocide taking place in China.
The same hesitation you express for confronting China smells eerily similar to our past hesitations in confronting Nazi Germany.
This article attempts to minimise China’s obvious threat to the western world by pulling loose, disjointed comparison’s to Australia’s record on human rights.

Xinjiang is references several times in the article, “repression of domestic ethnic minorities, and regressive and inhumane collective punishment and ‘re-education’” etc.

If you have any evidence supporting the claims that there are ‘several million’ Uighurs being interned in China right now please do share it. As it stands even the US State Department legal office has found that there is insufficient evidence to support claims of genocide in Xinjiang. (https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/02/19/china-uighurs-genocide-us-pompeo-blinken/) So you are a little bit ahead of yourself with that comparison.

The article appears focussed on discussing the motivations for Australia’s recently aggressive approach towards China and how it clearly contrasts previous policy. The article rather than glossing over China’s behaviour, highlights that their are reasonable concerns. Specifically that the activity in Xinjiang are “inhumane” and “sins”. It is quite inaccurate to see this piece as excusing Chinese policy as opposed to its clear intent to investigate Australia’s foreign policy strategy towards China.

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