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  • John McDonnell

The dogs of war are barking but Australia has no bite

The great diplomatic president of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt - who emphasised the need for statesmanship over war - coined the expression “Talk softly but carry a big stick”. At the moment there are a number of Australian defence and security leaders who are talking loudly about the fact that China is stirring the ‘dogs of war’, particularly in relation to Taiwan, but other experts are cautioning that Australia has a very little stick.

In an op-ed piece in the ‘Australian’ on Monday, former general and senator Jim Molan said that experts predicted that war between the United States and China could occur within three to five years. He said that even if Australia adopted a position of neutrality, we would be involved in such a war one way or another.

However, we are currently unprepared for major conflict. More frighteningly so is the United States with large numbers of defence assets having been decommissioned during the Obama and Trump administrations, because of cost pressures.

In the light of this scenario, Australia needs to adopt two policy approaches: firstly, to immediately formulate a national security strategy aimed at shoring up Australia’s preparedness for armed conflict, and secondly to develop a diplomatic and trade approach aimed at defusing the prospect of conflict with China.

Unfortunately, the policy debate in Australia is trapped in a bipolar warp between the hawks who proclaim that war with China is inevitable because of China’s hegemonic ambitions and the doves who believe the hawks are provoking China into war. Both groups are far too noisy for Australia’s national interests to be well served.

Recently, an address to staff at the Department of Home Affairs, by the secretary Mike Pezullo has caused consternation among the doves. Writing in the progressive blog, ‘Pearls and Irritations’, edited by former News Corp boss, John Menadue, Colin MacKerras said:

“In an Anzac Day message to staff, Home Affairs Department Secretary Mike Pezzullo spoke of the beating of 'the drums of war' in our region. War, he said, was undesirable, “'but not at the cost of our precious liberty.' He lauded the ANZUS Treaty of 1951 as signalling 'protection afforded to Australia' by the United States. Mike Pezzullo’s minister until very recently was Peter Dutton, and there is widespread speculation that he will follow Dutton into Defence.
“Former ALP leader Bill Shorten criticized Pezzullo for using 'inflammatory language'. He added: 'I think that is pretty hyper-excited language and I am not sure our senior public servants should be using that language'.
"Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong also called for more sober language.
“I agree with both Shorten and Wong but would put the matter much more strongly than they have done. I believe it is both frightening and appalling that a public servant should be, in effect, fanning the flames of war against China. He seems to be saying that, if war broke out over Taiwan, Australia should be sending in troops against China. He seems to be assuming that the United States would be leading the way.”

There is a need for a bit of composure among all this confected outrage. China has said that it will not enter into conflict with Taiwan unless Taiwan declares it is independent of mainland China. Since the time of President Nixon, the United States has affirmed that Taiwan is part of China. On the other hand, the United States has agreed to come to Taiwan’s defence in the event of an unprovoked attack by the mainland.

At the moment, China is conducting military exercises in Taiwan’s territorial waters. From one point of view, this is China exercising sovereignty in waters that are part of its territory. From another, it is preparation for an invasion.

Pezullo’s letter was incontestable as far as its content was concerned but secretaries of home affairs shouldn’t be commenting on foreign policy issues even as part of a job application for the secretary of defence job. This gives the impression of splits in government policy.

The government needs to get its act together, develop a national security strategy and establish an inter-agency China bureau to handle bilateral relations with China


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