28 May 2009

Defence White Paper: the China Syndrome

Today’s Australian Financial Review reports that Australia’s highly capable Ambassador to China, Dr Geoff Raby

...has launched a staunch defence of the Rudd Government’s defence white paper, saying Canberra did not consider China an emerging military threat.

The article goes on to say that [Dr] Raby’s comments follow uproar in China at an academic level over the government’s decision to predicate its long-term defence strategy around the unlikely prospect of a conflict involving China.

Dr Raby is entirely correct. As I commented back in April in Is China really the enemy?, the growth of China is a benign development which poses little threat to Australia’s security, and there are many other and better reasons for Australia to be spending more on defence.

This whole matter has been clumsily handled. I do not think that the White Paper is nearly as predicated on a China threat as much of the public commentary would have us believe, but the “In Fear of China” genie has been allowed to escape from the bottle, and the Government seems to have been unable to put it back in its place. More troublingly, it appears to have been uninclined to even attempt to do so, in which case it presents itself as much more thin-skinned than it ought to be about the Opposition Leader’s preposterous taunts about the Prime Minister being an apologist for China. Now that the issue is out there, the Government itself should be robust and forthright about its view of the implications for us of China’s rosy prospects. That message needs to be heard loud and clear in Australia, not just in Beijing.

Even more troublingly, there may be some influential people in defence and foreign policy circles who actually believe that China is a threat. I have heard a few cries and whispers that suggest that there is more substance to the front page story in the Weekend Australian for 11-12 April 2009 than I was giving credence to in Is China really the enemy? That story proclaimed that Defence strategists had “ignored the advice of Australia's most senior intelligence chiefs and rejected the view that China's military expansion poses little threat to the nation's long-term security”.

That is their prerogative, of course, but one version of the story I have heard is that the analysts came under a lot of pressure to change their assessments, to the point of the behaviour of the demandeur becoming quite intimidatory.

If there is one lesson to be learned from the Iraq debacle it is that we don’t need governments or senior policy officers telling the intelligence agencies how their assessments should come out. We need intelligence agencies that call it as they see it, and governments that take the trouble to listen. What government then decides to do, having listened, is entirely a matter for the government of the day, and entirely the responsibility of the government decision makers.

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