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The rift with China: a time for harmony

  • 15 July 2021
  For those who remember the excesses of Cold War rhetoric and the spurious fears used to justify our ill-fated interventions in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, the current China bashing is déjà vu. It is also deeply troubling.

Judging from comments made a few days ago by Kurt Campbell, Biden’s senior adviser on Indo-Pacific affairs, there is more of this to come. Describing China’s approach as ‘unyielding’, he saw little prospect of the Australia–China diplomatic freeze easing any time soon. The only consolation he could offer was the vague promise of continuing US support.

The souring of relations with Beijing dates back to the 2016 Defence White Paper and the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper. In a major speech in March 2017, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop declared that China could not be trusted to resolve its disagreements in accordance with international law and rules because it was not a democracy. A few months later, Turnbull spoke of the dangers of ‘a coercive China’.

Since then Chinese actions in the South China Sea have been used to justify greater Australian participation in bilateral and multilateral military exercises, port visits, maritime surveillance operations and ship transits in the region.

In April of this year, Prime Minister Morrison stated that Australia’s objective was to build ‘a strategic balance that favours freedom’, leaving his audience in little doubt that freedom was codeword for the West generally and the United States in particular. Soon after came the intervention by Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo. Reminding his audience that this was the 70th year of Australia’s principal military alliance, he offered this chilling scenario:

‘In a world of perpetual tension and dread, the drums of war beat — sometimes faintly and distantly, and at other times more loudly and ever closer. . . We must search always for the chance for peace until we are faced with the only prudent, if sorrowful, course — to send off, yet again, our warriors to fight the nation’s wars.’

Two days later Scott Morrison unveiled the $747 million spending package on four key training bases in the Northern Territory. Adding grist to the mill Peter Dutton declared Australia to be ‘already at war’ in the cyber world. For dramatic effect, he told the ADF that Australia was prepared for action.

'Achieving a workable, culturally sensitive partnership with China is no easy task.'

In all of this, there is more than meets the naked eye. The souring of relations with