The cliche about a week being a long time in politics has taken on dramatic salience during the past few days. A week ago Scott Morrison attempted to pour oil on troubled waters in our relations with China through a nuanced address to the Policy Exchange in London. The Prime Minister reassured Beijing that Australia did not view China purely through the lens of our deep alliance with the US. In carefully chosen language, Mr Morrison moved to reopen dialogue with Beijing. He rejected the binary choice, often mentioned by commentators claiming inherent tensions between our alliance with the US and our lucrative trading arrangements with China. As Mr Morrison said: “Our actions are wrongly seen and interpreted by some only through the lens of the strategic competition between China and the United States.”
The Prime Minister made it clear that while Australian sovereignty and values were not negotiable, “greater latitude will be required from the world’s largest powers to accommodate the individual interests of their partners and allies”. There were hints Beijing might have heeded Mr Morrison’s conciliatory language, with one Chinese agency describing it as an olive branch.
But that was a week ago — an age in geo-strategic terms. The relationship is now openly and dangerously hostile. The reprehensible use of Twitter by one of Beijing’s so-called wolf-warrior diplomats, Zhao Lijian, to smear the Australian Defence Force as murderers was highly provocative. It offered a stark insight into the character of China under Xi Jinping and into the ominous new strategic era in which tensions unfold in a grey zone between peace and war.
Earlier this year Mr Morrison revealed cyber attacks on Australian infrastructure by a sophisticated state actor. The consensus among strategic analysts was, of the handful of states with the capability to conduct such operations, the likeliest culprit was China. The litany of China’s attempts to coerce Australia lengthens each week. Wine exporters have been hit with punitive tariffs. Before them it was barley producers. One of our most respected diplomatic and intelligence leaders, Dennis Richardson, sounded a warning to the Minerals Council of Australia on November 9 when he predicted: “We are going to be in the doghouse, I think, for a good two to three years.” While echoing Mr Morrison’s insistence that Australia must adhere to its core liberal democratic values, Mr Richardson asserted that our China policy had been undermined by parochial partisan sniping inside Australia. The strategic climate to which he was referring has been radically altered by Beijing’s latest conduct.
Totalitarian states present a paradox. They crush internal dissent because they are terrified of their own population. Chinese citizens have no access to Twitter, so loved by their leadership cabal. These states use social media purely to destabilise Western democracies. They view the fault lines in our open societies as a weakness to exploit. Yet they are terrified that such open debate and exchange of ideas is so powerful that it could undermine their own grip on power.
Australia must handle this crisis with every element of soft and hard power in its arsenal. It is encouraging that our Five Eyes intelligence partners responded swiftly in condemning China’s grotesque, ham-fisted cyber attack. Tough-minded pragmatism needs to prevail, as Paul Dibb wrote on Tuesday. Professor Dibb, who was the architect of Australian defence policy during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, injected hard-headed realism into this debate. The Soviet Union, as he wrote, was a more potent threat at the zenith of its power than China is today. Yet we overestimated the Soviet Union and failed to understand the weakness of its economic system. Australia, as he said, must deepen its strategic policy expertise about China. Direct military threats, he argued, might materialise without the warning time presumed in much of our defence planning since the Vietnam War.
Regarding the offensive tweet about our troops as grey zone warfare is not alarmist. With the spectrum of conflict expanding to include the domains of outer space and the electromagnetic spectrum, it is vital that our defence capabilities be upgraded rapidly to allow us to defeat threats emanating from those domains. The package Mr Morrison announced on July 1 is an appropriate response to this reality. We must continue to refine the sophistication of our diplomatic and aid initiatives, especially in this region.
We can even draw some comfort from this episode. It has united Australians in revulsion at China’s overreach. The emerging giant has shown its feet of clay. It is alienating nations all over the globe. We must remain open to dialogue with this revisionist power. But, while our produce is for sale, our sovereignty is not.