Beijing, China

Gauging Beijing

25 July 2023

6.5 MINS

by Andrew Hastie

Our large and ever more powerful northern neighbour poses to Australia both public policy and strategic questions that must be answered urgently.

This very important issue is going to affect not just our generation but generations to come. China is a growing power, with 1.9 billion people who are not going away. We are in the same region, the Indo-Pacific region, and the public policy and strategic question is, how do we interact with and live alongside China?

It is really important that we wrap our heads around that and consider Australia’s role in maintaining peace in the region. Also, how we can have a relationship with China because, frankly, we are a small country – just 26 million people – and border security and peace are goods that all of us have an interest in preserving.

I was an officer in the Australian Army for 12½ years. I am a graduate of the Australian Defence Force Academy, the Royal Military College Duntroon. I deployed several times to Afghanistan. I also spent time in the Middle East on the ISIS problem in 2014-15. So, all my early attention in the national security space was focused on terrorism and counterinsurgency.

Some of you may be familiar with a piece that I wrote in 2019 for The Sydney Morning Herald entitled, “We Must See China – the Opportunities and the Threats – with Clear Eyes”. It caused a bit of a stink at the time. I’m now 40, but as a younger man, I thought September 11 was the geopolitical moment of the 21st century, that it would be the defining moment for at least 20 to 30 years; and in a sense it was.

We all remember the very sad exit from Afghanistan in 2021, when that era came to an end.

But what is certain is that we all had our eyes fixed on Afghanistan and the Middle East and we neglected China, which had risen rapidly over the two decades between 2001 and 2019.

Rise to Power

China has rapidly modernised economically, militarily, and it is now a great power that can flex its muscles in the region and beyond. As a great power, it is what I call “revisionist”; it wants to revise the world order. It wants to supplant the United States as the world’s leading superpower.

Second, it is expansionist. It is seeking to expand its influence around the world. By diplomatic-economic means, in the Belt-and-Road initiative, even as close to our doorstep as in the Solomon Islands. It is expanding economically.

We have all benefited from Chinese exports, but it is also exporting some unsavoury elements through some of the very sophisticated technology that is sponsored by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and is being used to harvest data and tether other countries in a sense to the CCP surveillance state that it has built.

Since about 2015, 2016, the final few years of the Obama presidency, the CCP has really started to incur a trust deficit with its neighbours near and far, with the militarisation of the South China Sea, with the increase in espionage and foreign interference worldwide.

What it has done in Xinjiang province to the Uyghur people, effectively eradicating their culture, imprisoning them and, frankly, making people just disappear, is a chilling example of what can happen when you have a one-party totalitarian government.

We have seen what has happened in Hong Kong. We saw what happened during the pandemic. We saw what happened to Australia with the strategic and trade coercion that the CCP imposed on us by targeting our exports in wine, barley, wheat, and other items.

So, China has accrued a massive trust deficit at the same time that it has undergone the biggest peacetime militarisation since the leadup to World War II. It has been investing huge amounts of money in advanced weapons technology, like hypersonic missiles, AI, quantum, you name it. The CCP is seeking to lead the world, both militarily and technologically.

Australia’s Role

Back in 2019, in my Sydney Morning Herald piece, I wrote that we must be clear-eyed about our position in the world. I was talking about what we were doing as a government at the time: we were resetting the terms of engagement with China to preserve our sovereignty, our security and our democratic convictions as we also reaped the benefits of the prosperity that came with our mutually beneficial trade relationship.

In 2018, the then Coalition government secured bipartisan passage of laws to counter espionage, foreign interference and influence. We made tough decisions on our future 5G network to safeguard our digital sovereignty for generations to come. And we were also monitoring critical assets such as ports and gas pipelines to preserve them.

We need to grow our defence force significantly. So, where do we find the young Australians who are going to crew our future submarines, and are going to do many other jobs that don’t yet exist?

But I also said there was more to be done and our greatest vulnerability lay, not in our infrastructure, but in our thinking. I went on to say that we have got to actually understand what the strategic objectives of the CCP are, and only then can we appreciate the challenge that it will pose to security in our region.

A great concern over the last two or three years has been some of the commentary that is coming from top defence experts. Admiral Phil Davidson, a former commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, told the Armed Services Committee in the United States (equivalent to our Senate committees) that he expected China to try to take Taiwan by force within five to six years. He said that two and a bit years ago. Kevin Rudd said something similar late last year in a speech. And in January, U.S. Air Force General Mike Minihan wrote in a memo that he anticipated that the U.S. could be at war with China in 2025.

Sovereignty and Security

So, what are we doing to protect Australian sovereignty and security? That is the question that the Defence Strategic Review must answer. But to my mind, I think we need to invest in hard power. It is absolutely critical.

What we have seen in the war in Ukraine is that you absolutely need to be able to back up what you do diplomatically with hard power. Otherwise, it is just empty talk. And you need to have supply lines that are secure and resilient.

So, we need stocks of ammunition and pharmaceuticals. We need energy security, both liquid fuels like diesel, but also gas and other forms of electricity generation. And we need people who are trying to do these things.

The Defence Strategic Review must deal with some of these problems because Australia’s economy is very integrated, which leaves us quite vulnerable. Our fuel stocks are low. We depend on the imports of pharmaceuticals and liquid fuels. And we run a just-in-time economy, which has implications for ammunition stocks as well. All these areas need to be looked at holistically.

We also need to grow our defence force significantly. The former Coalition government committed to growing the Australian Defence Force by about 20,000 personnel over the next two decades.

Something I have been thinking about is, where do we find the young Australians who are going to crew our future submarines, and are going to do many other jobs that don’t yet exist? We are going to need young people to run our cyber operations and do some very, very demanding things.

The labour market in Australia is very tight and Defence has to think about how to compete with all the other enterprises out there that are looking to recruit young Australians.

So, there are a number of areas that we really need to focus on. But the main thing is that we need to be engaged with the challenge intellectually. If we fail to recognise the nature of the Chinese Communist Party, its aims and objectives, we will fail to protect and defend ourselves.

Strive to Secure Peace

Now, I mentioned earlier that we need to secure peace in the region. As a former soldier who has seen some ugly things overseas, the last thing we need is a war. So, we need to be striving every single day and working on our relationships in the region.

We always need to be talking with our strategic competitors, and that includes China. But we also need to work on the assumption that things can get ugly, and that is why we need to be able to defend ourselves and we need to be able to defend ourselves for a period of time.

Now, the last government struck the most historic defence deal in a generation, probably since ANZUS, back in the 1950s. A long, long time it took, but we finally got there. And we are now pursuing nuclear submarines, which is very, very significant.

My view – which coincides with [Opposition leader] Peter Dutton’s view – is that we should be seeking submarines from the United States, straight off the production line out of Connecticut, and getting boats in the water as soon as possible. That will be our best hedge against any sort of conflict in the next six to eight years in our region.

___

Andrew Hastie served as an officer in the Australian Army for nearly a decade. He was first elected to Federal Parliament in 2015 for the electorate of Canning and served as Assistant Minister for Defence in the Morrison government in 2021-22. At present he is Shadow Minister for Defence.

On the evening of February 2, he spoke to the National Civic Council’s National Conference on the strategic challenges we face from Beijing and outlined what should be Australia’s priorities in view of that threat and what would be the likely response of the Defence Strategic Review.

NB: Since Mr Hastie’s address, it was revealed in the media on March 8 that Australia planned to acquire two different classes of nuclear submarines under a multistage plan.

First will come the purchase of up to five U.S. Virginia-class boats, followed at a later date by the acquisition of a fleet of British-designed subs based on Britain’s planned Astute-class replacement and incorporating American tech­nology.

Originally published at News Weekly. This article is Part 1 of 2. Read Part 2 here. Photo by Magda Ehlers.

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