Australian war hawks, media, talk up war with China

March 8, 2023
The 'red scare' front cover of The Age on March 7.

Diligently and with a degree of dangerous imbecility, a number of media outlets are manufacturing a consensus for war with China, a country that has never been a natural, historical enemy, nor sought to be.

But as Australia remains the satellite for the Sino-suspicious United States, its officials and their dutiful media advocates seem obligated to pave the way for conflict.

The latest example of this are the front covers of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age on March 7.

For columnists Peter Hartcher and Matthew Knott, Australia faces a “Red Alert” and, to that end, needs a warring fan club.

Not since the domino theory have Australians witnessed a series of articles featuring a gang of five with one purpose: to render the public so witless as to reject any peaceful accommodation.

In the provocative article headed “How a conflict over Taiwan could swiftly reach our shores”, the Australian continent is shown bathed in a sea of red. Various military bases and facilities are outlined.

A photo of Australian soldiers firing an artillery piece in “military exercises in 2018 at Shoalwater Bay, Queensland” is thrown in for good measure.

The blistering opening lines read: “Within 72 hours of a conflict breaking out over Taiwan, Chinese missile bombardments and devastating cyberattacks on Australia would begin. For the first time since World War II, the mainland would be under attack.”

The authors anticipate a good complement of US troops to occupy Australia’s north, some 150,000 “seeking refuge from the immediate conflict zone”.

The Red Alert panellists, anointed “defence experts”, agree on one thing: “Australia has many vulnerabilities. It has long and exposed connections to the rest of the world — sea, air and undersea — yet is incapable of protecting them.”

Leading the gang of five is reds-under-the-bed fantasist Peter Jennings. A former deputy secretary for strategy in the Australian Defence Department and steering the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) for a decade, Jennings is adamant that any conflict over Taiwan is likely to expand: “As I think of a conflict over Taiwan, what I’m thinking about is something that very quickly grows in scale and location”.

The point of the Red Alert fantasy is to neutralise the significance of Australia’s natural boundaries — some of the most formidable on the planet — in any conflict with Beijing. “Distance is no longer equivalent to safety from our strategic perspective,” Jennings writes.

Jennings inadvertently reveals the case against war —encouragement to activists and officials who want to reverse the trend of turning Australia into a US outpost of naval and military bases to be used in any conflict over Taiwan.

“If China wants to seriously go after Taiwan in any military sense, the only way they can really contemplate quick success is to pre-emptively attack those assets that might be a threat to them. That means Pine Gap goes.”

Pine Gap is the misnamed joint US-Australian signals facility that has facilitated illegal drone strikes in foreign territories.

Oddly enough, the columnists suggest that Jennings is breaking the “powerful unwritten rule in Australia” which involves not mentioning war.

This is nonsense, given the trumpeting for conflict that has come from ASPI for some years.

Lavina Lee, another Red Alert panellist, is another one softening the public for war or, at least, “the possibility that we might go to war, and what would happen either way”.

Lee said: “We should talk about what we would look like if we win and what it would look like if we lose.”

Australia’s former chief scientist, Alan Finkel, dolls out his own catastrophic scenario: “Airlines in particular can be taken down very, very easily”.

He goes on to suggest that the challenges to electricity will be more resistant as “most of our generators are not that sophisticated in terms of cyber. They will be [more sophisticated] five to 10 years from now. Things like the telephone network and airlines are very obvious targets.”

Retired army major-general Mick Ryan’s contribution is to wish Australia is better readied for war. “Like most other Western militaries, we believe in the cult of the offensive, so we have underinvested in defensive capabilities.” He fears that any war over Taiwan would “involve strikes on US bases, on fuel and munition holdings, ships across the region, including our own country potentially”.

Lesley Seebeck, former head of the Australian National University’s Cyber Institute, who completes the crew of five, laments the “state of our critical infrastructure”.

“There is no sense of investing for the future,” he said. Perversely enough, Seebeck’s view reads amusingly when considered alongside Finkel, who points out that more sophisticated cyber-infrastructure in the future, rather than clunkier systems with greater redundancies, would make Australia more vulnerable.

A few things are worth noting in this frothy mix of fantabulation and establishment fire breathing. In the quest to gather such a panel, no effort has been made to consult the expertise of a China hand. That lobby, able to provide a more nuanced, less heavy-footed approach, is being shunned, their advice exorcised in any effort to encourage war.

Bizarrely, the panellists offer an increasingly popular non-sequitur that has creeped into the warmonger’s manual: Would Australia’s leaders, in war, pass the Zelensky test? This, somehow, implies that the Ukraine conflict offers salient lessons over a war over Taiwan.

Most of all, Beijing’s own intentions over Taiwan are to be avoided. The presumption in ASPI-land is that a war is imminent and that Beijing would want to go to war over the island as a matter of course. China’s President Xi Jinping’s main advisor on the subject, veteran ideologue Wang Huning, suggests an approach at odds with such thinking.

The Red Alert exercise has been criticised by former Prime Minister Paul Keating, who did not mince his words in a fuming column for Pearls and Irritations.

“Today’s Sydney Morning Herald and The Age front page stories on Australia’s supposed war risk with China represents the most egregious and provocative news presentation of any newspaper I have witnessed in over fifty years of active public life,” he said.

[Binoy Kampmark currently lectures at RMIT University.]

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