Paul Bongiorno
Diplomatic, systematic, emblematic: Dutton’s ceased enlightening

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton is putting extreme strain on Australia’s bipartisan foreign policy when it comes to dealing with our biggest trading partner, China. He continues to speak very loudly while Australia is carrying a stick he admits isn’t yet big enough.

He claims to be at one with the government in its condemnation of Beijing’s excessive military response to United States Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, but in reality Dutton has returned to his pre-election rhetoric.

Party strategists are now asking Dutton to tone it down. Their own analysis has found the rhetoric contributed to massive swings against Liberal candidates in seats with significant numbers of Chinese–Australian voters. But if he is working on it, he has a way to go. The opposition leader likens China’s behaviour and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to the 1930s, which saw the rise of lethal fascism in Europe and militant imperialism in Japan.

Dutton is at one with Defence Minister Richard Marles in saying Australia won’t be cowed by bullying from Beijing – a reference to the billions of dollars’ worth of trade sanctions already imposed on us. But when he says the way to maintain peace in our region is not by appeasement, he is using loaded language, demeaning any diplomatic nuance.

The historic reference is the dead giveaway. British prime minister Neville Chamberlain pursued what was called an appeasement policy with Nazi Germany, declaring “peace in our time” after signing an agreement with Adolf Hitler in 1938. A year later, World War II broke out.

If the lesson of 1938 is to apply, then you can have no good-faith dealings with Beijing and you must believe you have the means to take on and defeat China in any armed confrontation. Strategic experts such as Professor Hugh White believe the United States would not win any war with China. If such a scenario were to occur, there would be no winners. White concludes it would inevitably lead to a nuclear confrontation.

Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong is particularly alert to what is at stake. Since assuming the role, she has toned down Australia’s language, while at the same time clearly stating our values and position.

At the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh late last week, Wong sat at a corner of the table next to her Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, and listened intently as he upbraided the other ministers about the situation with Taiwan.

It was a history lesson spelling out Beijing’s “legitimate claim” to the democratically governed island that President Xi Jinping has vowed to bring under Beijing’s control. The lecture was prompted by Pelosi’s much-publicised official visit to Taipei and her praise of its continuing autonomous democracy.

This was a provocation for Beijing, seeing it in terms of America breaking its commitment to the “One China” policy that was the basis for establishing diplomatic relations in 1972. America does not recognise Taiwan as a separate country, which is also Australian policy. In some of his statements earlier this week Dutton ignored this or was unaware of it, though later in the week he admitted he had “misspoken”.

Under the One China policy Taiwan is a province of China, as Chinese ambassador Xiao Qian spelled out at the National Press Club midweek. But if there is to be any “unification” it is certainly Australia’s view that it should be peaceful and by mutual agreement.

The night before Wang Yi’s contribution to the East Asia Summit, Wong sat down with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi. They hammered out a statement that was unequivocal in its condemnation of China’s decision to launch ballistic missiles, “five of which the Japanese government reported landed in its exclusive economic zones, raising tension and destabilising the region”.

Earlier in the week, back in Canberra, Wong reiterated that it was “essential for regional stability that the temperature is lowered, and calm is restored”. She said Pelosi’s visit was a matter for the United States and certainly did not endorse it.

Dutton, on the other hand, praised Pelosi saying “of course” she should have gone and likened it to her visiting Tokyo or any other city in Asia. He said Beijing’s reaction was over the top. While that is true, the opposition leader surely can’t be this oblivious to her stated purpose of showing solidarity with Taiwan against Beijing. Even US President Joe Biden is on record as preferring that she didn’t go.

Dutton, the immediate past Defence minister, says his hawkish view of China is based on intelligence he was receiving while in government, which the current minister now has access to. Indeed, but that has left Richard Marles unimpressed. If the Liberals were being told of new and greater threats, they made a hash of responding to them. Marles says the legacy of the previous government is a huge capability gap, particularly when it comes to submarines defending our island continent.

Marles says China’s military build-up – the biggest and least transparent since World War II – is “the single biggest fact” shaping the strategic environment of the region. He has left open the option of buying submarines off the shelf from overseas to bridge the 20-year gap left before the projected arrival of the first nuclear submarines promised by Scott Morrison. Where they come from will be announced in March next year.

Politically, this is potentially dynamite, particularly in the naval ship building state of South Australia. In 2015, when Tony Abbott faced his first leadership spill, it was the threat from Liberals in the state to desert him if he went ahead with Japanese-built submarines that killed the deal. Labor, which took the electorate of Boothby from the Liberals and came close in former Defence minister Christopher Pyne’s seat of Sturt, now has that sort of pressure on it.

Marles says he will be guided in the first instance by “whatever needs to be done” to fill the gap as quickly as possible; but, in assurances we are sure to hear again in the run-up to the next election, he says “it’s really important we have an evolving submarine capability”.

Speaking on Adelaide radio, Peter Dutton had the same message, endorsing any plan that might see some submarines fully imported while expanded domestic manufacturing is developed. Ironically, the French are without doubt in the best position to fill short-term submarine manufacturing gaps in Australia. They were developing those plans for five years before Dutton and Morrison pulled the plug.

Dutton’s talk of war and muscling up to China is a stark expression of the excruciating dilemma in which Australia now finds itself. We are caught between our biggest trading partner and our biggest ally, something Ambassador Xiao Qian took delight in reminding us. He said this year marks the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations and two-way trade has grown from $US100 million a year to $207 billion. Not to put too fine a point on it, we had a trade surplus of $60 billion dollars in the same year.

Little wonder analysis by Alan Kohler in The New Daily concluded that if we ever resorted to serious trade sanctions against Beijing, as we have on Russia, we would suffer enormous economic damage. The sabre-rattling from China hawks like Dutton and elements of the defence policy establishment in Canberra requires a reality check. As Wong points out, our biggest immediate threat is provoking situations that could trigger fatal miscalculations.

Of immediate concern for voters is cost-of-living pressures exacerbated by the effects on world energy prices of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This was at play in a major way at the election, according to JWS Research.

It found that inflation, the state of the economy and finances was the biggest single factor in the defeat of the Morrison government, according to 36 per cent of voters. The next biggest was climate change at 26 per cent. This is no surprise, but it underlines the importance of the government’s jobs summit at the beginning of next month.

While the opposition’s question time tactic of blaming Anthony Albanese for breaking a promise to cut electricity bills by $275 is opportunistically premature, it carries with it the realisation that when people are doing it tough, incumbents cop the blame.

The ACTU, in its submission to the summit, is calling on the Reserve Bank to implement its legislated task of pursuing full employment. It warns that raising interest rates is a blunt instrument that could tip the economy into a recession with even more hardship and job losses. Economist Richard Denniss agrees. He says higher rates won’t help wages and won’t curb inflation that is caused by huge disruptions to supply and not by demand.

The opposition, after demanding an invitation to the summit, now dismisses it as a stunt. Treasurer Jim Chalmers says Dutton is “looking for any excuse to trash consensus” and that he is isolated in a country seeking collaboration to face its daunting challenges. A pattern is certainly emerging.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 13, 2022 as "Diplomatic, systematic, emblematic: Dutton’s ceased enlightening".

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