‘Fuel on the fire’: war of words between Australia and China stokes tension

Scott Morrison says Australia’s defence policies are “designed to pursue peace” – but some analysts are worried the increasingly stark warnings from his government about the threat of a military clash with China could fuel panic.

“I think while there are good reasons to increase our defence spending and to raise public awareness of the challenges that loom in our region, there are also real risks that come from causing panic and hysteria,” says Natasha Kassam, the director of the Lowy Institute’s public opinion and foreign policy program.

“No other country in the world – not Taiwan, Japan or South Korea – are talking about the likelihood of war on a day-to-day basis. In Australia we seem to be focused on the distant threat of war rather than the very real support that the Taiwanese people need today.”

The new defence minister, Peter Dutton, and his former right-hand man at the home affairs department, Michael Pezzullo, have speculated about the risk of war over the past few days – prompting a sharp response from China late on Wednesday.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, said “some individual politicians in Australia” were making “extremely irresponsible” statements “that incite confrontation and hype up threat of war”.

“These people are the real troublemakers,” he said.

Zhao – who was at the centre of a diplomatic storm late last year when he tweeted an image purporting to show an Australian solider cutting the throat of a child in Afghanistan – added: “I have noticed that many people in Australia have expressed disapproval on social media, saying that such inflammatory language are outrageous and extremely crazy.”

Dutton argued that people should not “discount” the risk of conflict over Taiwan, as China had been “very clear” about its long-held goal of reunification and the “animosity” between the two sides. While Australia planned to stay in “peace time”, the defence force was ready to meet potential threats, he told the ABC’s Insiders program.

The rhetorical warnings intensified in a speech by Pezzullo, who speculation suggests may soon be appointed to lead the defence department. In comments made on Anzac Day but first reported on Tuesday, Pezzullo said “free nations” were again hearing “the beating drums” towards conflict and needed to brace “for the curse of war”.

“We must search always for the chance for peace amidst the curse of war, until we are faced with the only prudent, if sorrowful, course – to send off, yet again, our warriors to fight the nation’s wars,” he said.

The comments come amid a deepening diplomatic dispute between China and Australia, which flared last week when the Morrison government tore up two belt and road agreements between the Victorian state government and the Chinese government, and invited fresh questions about Canberra’s overall strategy.

The former prime minister Kevin Rudd said speculating about a war over Taiwan “throws fuel on the fire unnecessarily”.

“My interpretation is this is primarily about a piece of domestic political repositioning by the government to change the domestic political narrative and agenda from areas where the government’s in trouble – on vaccines, on climate change, and on sexual abuse scandals in Canberra – to what they would regard as much safer political terrain of a national security agenda,” he said on the ABC’s 7.30 program on Wednesday.

Kassam, a former Australian diplomat, says Australian public opinion towards China “is at record lows, in part because of China’s growing aggression”. The Lowy Institute annual poll that Kassam oversees found last year that only a quarter of Australians surveyed trusted China to act responsibly in the world – with such faith crashing nearly 30 percentage points over the previous two years.

“The same aggression, as well as the shifting military balance between the United States and China, is likely informing the government’s changes in defence spending,” says Kassam, who researches Australia’s Indo-Pacific strategy, China’s domestic politics, Taiwan, and Australia-China relations.

This week Taiwan’s foreign affairs ministry “expressed its gratitude for Australia’s long-standing support for Taiwan and welcomed the recent increased attention paid by a number of international leaders and senior officials to the situation and regional security in the Taiwan Strait and their serious concern about any provocative actions that undermine peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait”.

But Kassam questions the growing public warnings about the risk of conflict, citing an article by three US analysts on China policy, “Don’t help China by hyping risk of war over Taiwan”. Richard Bush, Bonnie Glaser and Ryan Hass argued that Beijing’s actions “have earned scrutiny” but its goal is to “gradually weaken the will of the people of Taiwan to resist integration with the mainland”.

Hyping the threat that China poses to Taiwan “does Beijing’s work for it”, they wrote, adding: “Taiwan’s people need reasons for confidence in their own future, not just reminders of their vulnerabilities.”

China, says Kassam, seeks “to weaken the resolve of the Taiwanese people and demonstrate the impotence of partners in the region”.

“China uses the threat of war as a political tactic and to describe today as akin to the 1930s will only encourage acquiescence to China’s goals,” she says. “Most do not want to suffer the horrors of war again, so this kind of pre-emptive acquiescence could undermine decades of successful deterrence.”

Labor’s foreign affairs spokeswoman, Penny Wong, is also concerned about the government’s rhetoric: “In national security, in diplomacy, words matter. I’ve said for some time I think that in relation to China, Australians would benefit from the Morrison government approaching that relationship with less politics and more strategy.”

While the chief of the Australian defence force, General Angus Campbell, has argued that a Taiwan conflict would be “disastrous” for the region, and Australia would keep pushing for peaceful dialogue, Wong describes Pezzullo’s drumbeat to war comments as “not the sort of language that we generally use when we are trying to be sober and cautious”.

“When it comes to issues of national security, when it comes to issues of foreign policy, when it comes to issues as sensitive as Taiwan, our language should be sober and it should be cautious,” Wong says.

Morrison says the government wants to “promote an environment where peace will be the outcome” but argues it needs to build up Australia’s military capability “in what is a very uncertain world”.

The prime minister visited the Robertson barracks near Darwin on Wednesday to promote a $747m upgrade of defence training bases in the Northern Territory, an updated, more expensive version of a project announced two years ago. A notice published by the defence department in May 2019 sought a managing contractor to oversee the upgrade of NT defence bases with an estimated price tag of between $300m and $489m.

The newly confirmed upgrades – to focus on military training areas and weapon ranges including Robertson barracks, Kangaroo Flats, Mount Bundey and Bradshaw – would “enable the Australian defence force to conduct simulated training exercises and remain battle ready”, Morrison said.

Asked how much of the funding was genuinely new money, he said the plans had been “significantly upgraded” since 2019, with the government tipping in “hundreds of millions more”.

Morrison also signalled that the 99-year lease of the Port of Darwin to a Chinese company could be reconsidered, saying he would take seriously any advice from the defence department or security agencies “about the national security implications of any piece of critical infrastructure”.

Such an intervention, if taken, would be likely to attract yet another strong reaction from China, which has already threatened to take further action after the Victorian belt and road agreements were cancelled. Chinese authorities have targeted Australian export sectors – including wine, barley, coal and lobster – over the past year, after disagreement over issues including the Morrison government’s early public calls for a global Covid-19 inquiry. Morrison has repeatedly said Australia will not “trade away” its values, amid a push from Coalition backbenchers to take a stronger line against Beijing.

Neil James, head of the Australia Defence Association, says there is no change in the substance of the government’s position as outlined in last year’s defence strategic update, when it also outlined plans to spend $270bn on defence capability upgrades over the decade, with Labor’s support.

That document warned of sharpening competition between China and the US and that the “prospect of high-intensity conflict in the Indo-Pacific, while still unlikely, is less remote than in the past”. It was followed up the defence department secretary, Greg Moriarty, saying it was “very legitimate” for Australians to be concerned about how Beijing was asserting its interests, including “disturbing” militarisation in disputed parts of the South China Sea.

“There’s no change in the substance,” James says. “The only change is [Dutton] is reminding people, perhaps a bit more forcefully, of what they should have already realised from the update and from China’s recent adventurous behaviour.

“And yet the average Australian doesn’t appear to have registered that yet. This is a bipartisan thing – it’s not just the government saying it.”

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