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Rudd's risky fear of Beijing 'bastards'


'Rudd and China' by Chris JohnstonKevin Rudd is not like an earlier generation of political leaders who feared that impoverished Asian hordes would pour down and eat our lunch. His worry is that their offspring can now afford to come armed with the latest weapons and steal our lunch.

His solution, however, is much the same. We must 'populate or perish', and also revive the doctrine of 'forward defence'.

Rudd doesn't use this dated terminology, but the substance of what he says is often redolent of the 1950s and '60s. When interviewed on the ABC last October about a projected population increase to 36 million by 2050, Rudd said he made 'no apologies' for believing in a 'big Australia' because it would be 'good for our national security'.

With opinion polls showing that voters want a much slower rate of growth, Rudd now soft peddles this belief, but has not backed away from his claim about its importance to national security.

For 40 years prior to Rudd, Australian defence planners and intelligence analysts gave little weight to population. Countries with smaller populations have shown they are no pushover. For much of the cold war, Sweden's population was only 7–8 million, but it had a formidable air force and could mobilise an army of 800,000 in a week. Despite a population of only 7.5 million and a smaller defence budget than Australia's, Israel has the strongest conventional military forces in the Middle East.

To an extent not seen for decades, Rudd is basing defence policy on a fear of change in Asia. He is reviving the doctrine of forward defence — that it is 'better to fight them up there than down here'. The doctrine was put to the test during the Vietnam War. The communists won, but the fears about the threat to Australia soon evaporated. Vietnam now hosts visits by US warships and is happy to buy Australian exports.

Coalition governments abandoned the forward defence doctrine in the late 1960s in favour of the direct defence of Australia. All subsequent strategic analyses concentrated on developing a force structure primarily designed to deter or defeat an attack across the approaches to Australia. This always contained elements that could be deployed much further afield, such as currently in Afghanistan.

But Rudd is going much further, radically restructuring the navy so it can fire missiles into our biggest customer.

Rudd's fears centre on claims that Chinese prosperity poses a 'strategic risk' to Australia, despite the tremendous advantages for our economy. He has never explained why China would undertake the immensely difficult task of attacking Australia, when it would be much easier and cheaper to keep buying our commodities. He also ignores the likelihood that the combined power of India, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, Australia and the US will outweigh that of China for many decades.

Apart from his concern that a strong economy allows China to buy more weapons, Rudd's anxiety appears to be motivated by little more than a hunch about the behavior of the Chinese leadership in the 2030s–40s.

On 9 September 2008 Rudd delivered a sanitised version of his views to the RSL's national congress. A few days earlier, he gave a more candid exposition during a non-attributable briefing for senior News Ltd journalists. 'I don't trust the bastards,' he said, referring to the Chinese leadership. Therefore the 2009 Defence white paper would, he said, unveil a massive Australian military build up.

The white paper revealed that the Government would equip the navy with long-range Tomahawk cruise missiles for attacking land targets far from Australia. Previously, the navy never even had short-range land attack missiles. Now it will possess an independent forward defence/offence capability that the air force lacks because of the limited range of its fighter planes.

The Tomahawk's 2500 km range, plus the long range of the navy's proposed new fleet, means it will be able to attack targets in most parts of the globe. In the opaque jargon of the white paper, the Tomahawks 'will act as a hedge against longer-term strategic uncertainty'. Defence officials acknowledge privately that this is code for saying that their job will be to hit targets in China, if needed.

The paper said the navy's six large Collins Class submarines will be replaced by 12 much bigger boats, armed with Tomahawks. Based on calculations by Australian Strategic Policy Institute analysts, they could cost around $40 billon compared to $9 billion for a proven design for smaller, highly capable German submarines. Tomahawks could also be fitted to other vessels in the future, including eight new 7000 tonne frigates (double the size of the ones they will replace) and three big new air warfare destroyers.

While key passages in the paper painted China as a potential threat, it did not see anything drastic occurring before 2030: 'Australia will most likely remain, by virtue of our geostrategic location, a secure country over the period to 2030.' It is absurd then for Rudd to claim a special insight into how untrustworthy and dangerous China's leadership will be after 2030, to the extent that Australia must prepare now to hit it with Tomahawks.

No one knows what will happen in China or the US more than 20 years from now, regardless of whether they speak Mandarin or English. Some fear that US leadership, egged on by domestic extremists, will lash out militarily if America's power declines in Asia. Meanwhile, China's economic power could collapse, leaving it as no more than a military minnow compared to the US. (The International Institute for Strategic Studies in London calculates that the US military spending is currently over 10 times higher than China's.)

Perhaps China will pursue Confucian ideals about harmonious international relations. Alternatively, it might become an expansionist power that seeks to conquer parts of Asia and all of Australia, though its prosperity and prestige is more easily assured by taking advantage of mutually profitable trade and investment opportunities.

The white paper says the 'pace, scope and structure' of the modernisation of China's forces is concerning everyone in the region. Not really. The US Defence Secretary Robert Gates says he's not bothered. If he were, he would not be cancelling production of the F-22 fighter, the US plane best suited to air-to-air combat against the Chinese air force. The CIA assesses Beijing's military stance as defensive. Australian intelligence agencies agree, despite being subjected to intense pressure from Defence to back the white paper's hawkish stand.

It might seem prudent to start now to prepare for what might occur after 2030. But defence planners over the last 40 years have argued it is possible to do this without nominating an enemy in a distant future.

In discussing a serious assault on Australia, the 1994 white paper said, 'Military capabilities on this scale cannot be developed in secret ... On the basis of these judgments, rather than on any attempt to predict the future, we are confident that we would have sufficient warning time to adapt and expand our own forces to defend Australia against a major attack of this sort.' The 2000 paper echoed this assessment.

Nor did these planners consider it prudent to start buying expensive weapons systems to project power far to our north, when that capability may turn out to be irrelevant, while diverting resources from more pressing needs.

Moreover, one of the most influential planners from this period, Paul Dibb, has criticised the current provocative assumption that Australia should contemplate firing Tomahawk missiles into a nuclear-armed China with no apparent consideration of the possible repercussions.

Prime ministers since the late 1960s have accepted that there is nothing abnormal, or necessarily alarming, about changes in power over time. Rudd is the exception, fretting at great cost to the nation about a nebulous 'strategic risk' posed by an unknown set of bastards in Beijing sometime in the 2030s or '40s.

Brian TooheyWalkley award winning journalist Brian Toohey is a columnist with the Australian Financial Review.

Topic tags: Brian Toohey, Kevin Rudd, defense white paper, china, tomahawk



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Existing comments

"a non attributable briefing for senior News Ltd. journalists". Hmmmm

Jemima | 02 June 2010  

I welcome Brian Toohey's courageous opening up of this vital subject, appalling as it is, for public scrutiny. It is also important that we citizens know what our present Prime Minister says about China in a 'non-attributable' briefing to News Limited editors and journalists. I regard this reported statement on the Chinese leadership that our PM 'doesn't trust the bastards' as about as irresponsible as Tony Abbott saying that 'climate change is all crap'. It is good that we now know Kevin Rudd said this - the Chinese Government certainly will have known it long before now, from media gossip.

As a former diplomat, Rudd should know better than snyone that in international relations there are no friends or enemies - only interests: which makes his reported statement here all the more amazing for its triviality, clumsiness and potential to do harm.

Having said this, I find Brian Toohey's first analysis a bit superficial. If one is going to talk about the world twenty years out, one has to fsctor in climate change and oil scarcity as major determinants of emerging strategic reality after 2030. (See Gwynne Dyer's thought-provoking book 'Climate Wars').

It is no use saying no one knows what will happen 20 years out - defence forces have to (and do) think a long way ahead, given long equipment purchase lead times and long operational life. By 2030, a new world will be emerging of very extreme weather events, including destructive delta inundations, inland droughts and food famines, and a lack of oil to power the kind of unlimited international trade in bulk commodities that the world has now. National strategic imperatives will begin to look quite different in that emerging world.

I doubt very much that Australia would face invasion 1942-style from conventional navies and armies - but we could face 'invasions' from massive humanitarian flotillas of environmental refugee ships crammed with desperate unarmed people and backed by the implicit threat of internationally supported armed force if they are turned back.

I don't know whether Rudd sees his enhanced missile submarine fleet capable of doing massive damage to Asian coastal cities as some sort of envisaged national counter-strategy to this - if so, it would be a Dr Strangelove style Mutual Assured Destruction scenario, which would carry enormous risks of retaliation as all our populated cities are on the coast.

Whatever the truth is, these things need to be brought out into daylight - not discussed in cosy narrow in-groups of political power elites. This is no way for an informed democracy to conduct its strategic analysis and planning.

tony kevin | 03 June 2010  

For some reason I haven't come across a Brian Toohey byline (more's the pity I think) for a long time. It's good to read that he hasn't lost any of his journalistic candour. All the same, to paraphrase Jemima, quoting News Ltd is like reading Goebbels' propaganda. Perhaps Mr. Toohey has mellowed after all these years?

On the China issue, what has changed? Australians have always dreaded the 'northern hordes'. News Ltd's predecessor, The Bulletin, the one that displayed the "Australia for White Australians" masthead, contributed to our paranoia - traces of which still pop up from time to time. In other words, we like their money but don't let them marry our daughters (or sons).

Alex Njoo | 03 June 2010  

Thank you to Brian Toohey and Eureka Street for bringing this grave subject into public view. As Tony Kevin concludes "these things need to be brought into the daylight." The only way I can do this is to accept your invitation to email a friend and I will do just that. We really are kept in the dark about so many important issues as our political leaders on both sides perform cape and mirror politics to distract us from plans and the reasons behind such plans that are of such immense national importance.

Anne Chang | 03 June 2010  

The Collins class submarines were intended to have the capability to put a cruise missile in Shanghai, if required. The one child policy in China is a ticking time bomb, with a generation of predominately male children. In 2030, they will be in their early 30's? Maybe the prime minister has reason to be alarmed...

Bruce Hodgen | 21 June 2010  

What alarmed Kevin Rudd enough to form his views and come out with his 'bastard' statement and want to spend $100B in re-armament ? .... It would not be domestic events in China 60 to 70 years ago .... I suspect that the Chinese leaders said things or made threats to Kevin Rudd behind closed doors in trade negotiations ..... things too volatile to make public

Paradox | 30 June 2010  

What alarmed Kevin Rudd enough to form his views and come out with his 'bastard' statement and want to spend $100B in re-armament ? .... It would not be domestic events in China 60 to 70 years ago .... I suspect that the Chinese leaders said things or made threats to Kevin Rudd behind closed doors in trade negotiations ..... things too volatile to make public

Paradox | 30 June 2010  

That is why we chose Rudd, Joel did a good job on the Whitepaper. We did not get everything we wanted, but they were prepared to listen. If the Whitepaper is implemented, that will be Rudd's legacy. A country that can defend itself in a non-polar world. We have a doctrine to go around the Whitepaper, in which we only need logistical assistance from the US.

TCMSOLS | 07 July 2010  

Seems like this article didn’t age well…

Marco | 25 June 2021  

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