It was one of the most alarming front-page stories in the nation’s history. Last week, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age splashed the first episode in a three-part series with the headline: “Australia faces the threat of war with China within three years – and we’re not ready.”
The most likely cause of war, the articles said, was a Chinese invasion of Taiwan to which the US would respond.
“The nature of the threat extends to the prospect of a full-scale war – and Australia would have to be involved.”
The series of articles, badged “Red Alert” was based on a “communique” issued by a panel of five specialists in aspects of defence policy, brought together by the newspapers’ international editor, Peter Hartcher, and foreign affairs correspondent, Matthew Knott.
Red Alert was a significant intervention on the public debate, running in the nation’s best-read newspapers and coming the week before an announcement on the Aukus nuclear submarines, and in the wake of the government receiving the report of a defence strategic review.
The series was criticised in colourful terms by the former prime minister, Paul Keating, and was defended by Nine Entertainment, which owns The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, as an attempt to broaden the debate in a manner independent of government, in the context of the largely “secret” defence strategic review.
But how independent was it?
A range of foreign affairs specialists contacted by Guardian Australia are universally critical of the series, describing it variously as “pretentious”, “hyperbolic”, “irresponsible” and implicitly racist in the way China is depicted.
More seriously, some have asked if it might have been inspired by an attempt to undermine the efforts of the foreign minister, Penny Wong, to stabilise Australia’s relationship with China.
James Curran, a professor of history at the University of Sydney, sees the series as part of a pattern by some within the defence establishment to prepare the ground for a “fairly full-frontal assault on Penny Wong’s policy.”
Wong has dialled down the rhetoric on China – refusing, for example, to either endorse or condemn the then US speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.
In a series of keynote addresses, Wong has emphasised that the middle powers of the region – Asean and the Pacific Islands Forum – should act together to take agency in the battle between the superpowers and attempt to shape their behaviour in the interests of peace.
In a major speech in the US, she has advocated “guardrails” – agreements and operational arrangements – to prevent strategic competition between the US and China from escalating to war.
Curran detects in the Red Alert series echoes of his recent conversations with some of those in the US foreign policy community, where he found “great frustration and nervousness” about the Wong approach and “the relative quiet from Australian hawks since Labor was elected”.
He sees the “shock tactics” of the Red Alert series as driving at equating stabilisation with appeasement, a claim which Hartcher rejects.
Allan Gyngell, adjunct professor of public policy at the ANU Crawford School and a former director general of the Australian Office of National Assessments, is also scathing of Red Alert.
He says: “The idea that you can address an issue as complex as the country’s preparation for war by self-selecting people, none of whom had a specialist background in either China or foreign policy, and then distilling their comments into a pretentious joint communique is ridiculous.”
Some of the individual quotes from the panel were accurate, he says “but it was fluffed up and splashed across the front page. It wasn’t journalism. It was propaganda in the formal sense – that is the systematic propagation of a given doctrine rather than a search for a complex truth.”
And the doctrine he detects?
“That there is a great and imminent threat to Australia from the Chinese government and that the only way to respond to this is militarily and the only way for Australia to respond militarily is by working closely with the United States.”
The director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney, Prof James Laurenceson says he wouldn’t rule out the possibility of “influence operations”, “given the strident and uncritical messaging”, but he adds that stands alongside other possibilities “such as crude commercial motivations and racist pandering” by the papers. “And, of course, it could be a combination of all three.”
Asked to respond to these comments, Hartcher dismissed the allegations of the series being inspired by “influence operations” as “complete conspiratorial nonsense”.
“We went to five experts. You’ve gone to some other experts to comment on our experts. I mean, great. Terrific. Let’s have open debate. Let’s have the questions asked. Let’s have the questions debated.” He said he regarded the series as having successfully opened up debate, citing responses from readers.
At the heart of perceptions of an influence operation is the dominant role of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (Aspi).
The Aspi thinktank was founded by the Australian Defence Department and is funded by it and other parts of the Australian government, as well as foreign governments and defence industries. It has a reputation for being pro-American and hawkish on China.
Hartcher said the panel was put together with an eye to recruiting a diversity of areas of expertise.
As for the lack of a China expert, he said all of the panellists “from their different realms know a great deal about China”.
The people on the panel are not alone in predicting war sooner than we might think or in urging preparation.
The Taiwanese foreign minister, Joseph Wu, told a delegation of visiting journalists late last year that the lesson of the Ukraine invasion was that dictators do not necessarily behave rationally and that a weak China was more dangerous than a strong one. He said his government was thinking in terms of three to five years for a possible invasion.
But the experts contacted by Guardian Australia say that even if that occurs, the outcome is far from clear.
Prof Hugh White, a former deputy secretary for strategy and intelligence in the Department of Defence, was approached to join Hartcher’s panel but declined due to pressure of work and a reluctance to lend his name to a collaborative project when he might not agree with all the outcomes.
He agrees the risk of war with China is real, but says “The three-year estimate has no serious analytic basis … it could quite possibly be sooner than three years.”
But for Australia to go to war, the US would have to go to Taiwan’s aid and Australia would have to join in. Neither is certain, he says. “I don’t think such a war can be won and should thus not be fought.”
Allan Behm, who has previously acted as an advisor to Wong and is now the director of the international and security affairs program at the Australia Institute thinktank, says he wasn’t approached to join the panel and would have refused if he had been.
“I found that each member of that panel evinced far too much certainty about things that are deeply uncertain. There are so many moving parts at the moment that anybody who thinks that there is one track to the future doesn’t know the history, but even more, doesn’t know contemporary international politics.”
Hartcher himself is a long-term commentator and has written books and numerous columns on the China “challenge”.
So what does he think of the Wong stabilisation strategy?
“It’s a very sensible approach … Of course you can’t stabilise a two-way relationship unilaterally.”
“The definition of diplomacy is you say ‘nice doggy’ while you reach for a large rock. The stabilisation strategy, together with the defence strategy, is essentially saying to Beijing ‘nice doggy’ while frantically commissioning a defence strategic review and the Aukus development to produce the large rocks. So far it’s working because it suits China’s interests to stand down from the confrontation.”
He agrees that Wong’s strategy does not amount to appeasement. “The government has made no concessions sought by China … The only change has been in the rhetorical tone and that has occurred at no cost to the national interest.”
Meanwhile the challenge for Wong, according to Curran, is to “maintain a rhetorical balance” when Aukus is dominating the headlines. She will be trying to depict the nuclear submarines and the Quad dialogue with India and Japan as about the interests of the middle powers of the region “about keeping a strategic equilibrium and maintaining the peace” – and not as a piece of western aggression.
One thing is sure. The Red Alert series will not have made that any easier.
Margaret Simons is an award-winning freelance journalist and author. She is also an honorary principal fellow of the Centre for Advancing Journalism and a member of the board of the Scott Trust, which owns Guardian Media Group.
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