Opinion

Coalition’s tactics over China are questionable

While the Prime Minister has imposed financial sanctions on Russia, it is highly unlikely Mr Putin will be lying awake at night worrying about the implications.

The highest priority for the Australian Government must be to get serious about resolving what is an unarguable mess with China.

It is interesting to note a poll by the research company Resolve Strategic which shows that the Coalition primary vote, following all the rhetoric in the Parliament over China, has fallen to 33 per cent; it was 41 at the last election.

Importantly, the Prime Minister’s performance rating has worsened and the changes have come during a period when the Prime Minister was attacking the Opposition Leader as being “weak” on China and having an “each-way bet” on national security issues.

The attacks, according to the poll, did not erode support for Albanese but have affected the standing of the Prime Minister.

More recently, Australia was right to call out the targeting of our Defence Force surveillance aircraft by a Chinese navy ship, with a military grade laser, inside our economic zone.

This was last Thursday while the aircraft was carrying out surveillance duties in the Arafura Sea; and it put the lives of up to 10 Defence Force members in danger and sparked concern about China’s influence in the region.

It is interesting to note that Japan’s Ambassador to Canberra has backed Australia’s demand that China’s navy explain why it shone a laser at an Australian Defence Force plane. China has apparently targeted Japanese ships with lasers in the disputed waters of the East China Sea and the Japanese Ambassador to Canberra has said Tokyo is “fully behind Australia over the incident”.

This has sparked a fresh bout of recrimination between Australia and China and Prime Minister Morrison has labelled it, “an act of intimidation”.

China’s Defence Ministry has not denied that its ship lasered the Australian surveillance plane, but has accused Australia of “maliciously spreading disinformation”. China’s Defence Ministry says the Australian aircraft dropped portable sonar systems into the water and the Australian plane had come within 4kms of the Chinese ships.

Independent military analysts say that 4kms is not unusually close for surveillance planes and could not be regarded as an aggressive act.

It’s interesting to note that the Japanese Ambassador said that it was important to respond firmly, but also to be careful not to “react” in an emotional manner.

One must wonder though whether our repeated responses to China’s behaviour don’t escalate the problems we have with China.

I suppose it’s a futile exercise to suggest that people in Government take their cue from someone like Greg Sheridan, the Foreign Editor of The Australian newspaper; but in an outstanding piece this week, Sheridan rightly argues that, “Instead of a screaming and shouting response, it should lead to this utterly shocking recognition. Australia does not have the military capability to dominate and secure its own territorial waters. Forget about defending Taiwan. We can’t defend our own maritime approaches”.

Greg Sheridan bells the cat, “Authoritarian dictators are on the march militarily and politically and the scandalous truth is that for all the billions of dollars we have committed to Defence, we have done almost nothing to increase our ability to defend ourselves, much less to strike an enemy or keep one at bay.”

As Greg Sheridan writes, “Instead of screaming at China, the government should set about acquiring relevant Defence capabilities straight away.”

But what about this, “We normally plan to have a pitiful 100 fast jets for the defence of the whole of Australia and our near maritime approaches. At the moment, we have about 80, all up, and we don’t have enough pilots to man them.”

In the light of all the aggressive rhetoric about China, which seems to offer little opportunity for the resolution of our differences, Greg Sheridan writes, accurately, “Instead of announcing submarines, literally decades away, and extremely uncertain whether they will ever exist; and instead of unnecessary rhetoric about China, designed entirely for domestic politics, the government could actually do something on Defence.”

This Sheridan piece is compulsory reading, because this is the problem: “Nearly two years ago, it first announced Australia would build its own missile production facilities. Great decision. It reannounced it in March last year. Great decision. It’s on the brink of reannouncing it again. But here is the rub. Nothing has actually happened. Not a molecule in the physical universe, beyond meetings and papers, has actually been displaced by these measures.”

But the most important point, in my view, made by Sheridan, is in a single, simple sentence, “Tone down the China rhetoric”.

As Sheridan says, “No one is strategically more critical of Beijing than (me). But this recent stuff is ill-disciplined and entirely driven by domestic politics. If you keep abusing Beijing needlessly, you will certainly provoke it into gestures like we have just seen in the Arafura Sea. That does not optimise Australian security.”

No person in Australian politics, or on the edge of politics, as in commentary and journalism, has better put the case than Sheridan.

Toning down the rhetoric is a start.

We can’t run an election campaign on fear tactics, or by the government arguing that Labor is soft on China.

These are cheap political points based on, as one correspondent has said, “fictitious scare tactics”.

Nothing is achieved by the government accusing the ALP of being the preferred choice of the Chinese Communist Party, let alone describing the Deputy Opposition Leader, Richard Marles, as a Manchurian candidate, a reference to a film in 1962 in which an American Prisoner of War, from the Korean War, is brain-washed and sent back to America to assassinate a US Presidential candidate hostile to China.

There is no doubt about China’s growing economic and military power, which represents one of the great challenges of our time.

But the challenge will not be properly met by the divisive behaviour of the Federal Parliament in the last fortnight.

Both sides of politics have to understand that working with China is vital to Australia’s interests.

Politically, demonising contact with China must surely alienate the large Chinese-Australian community; and it could reach the unfortunate point where this language may well provoke attacks against the productive, dedicated and hard-working Chinese-Australian community.

The reality is, when China hit Australia with trade sanctions that have cost wine and seafood exporters hundreds of millions of dollars, both parties supported the Australian response.

Both parties have spoken with a single voice on foreign interference.

Indeed, the ALP’s Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Penny Wong was on the right track last year when she criticised the Coalition for speculating about a potential war with China, when she rightly said we are not made safer by our leaders beating the drums of war.

The ALP didn’t help last week by repeating the Coalition’s line that Mr Morrison was the Manchurian candidate.

Of course there must be debate about China policy. But exaggerating the threat and challenging the loyalty of fellow MPs is surely only encouraging more of the same from China.

Can someone go into the next election telling us how we are going to break this impasse with one of our major trading partners?

Such an answer should be given urgent priority in any election campaign.

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