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Australia’s 'war' with China: featherweight versus heavyweight

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It is utter hubris that Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton continue to fan the flames of war with China discourse, writes Paul Begley.

BUSINESS STRATEGIST and former Chief Executive of General Electric, Jack Welch, was always happy to offer a few cautionary words for high-fllying executives wanting to cut corners by masquerading as "strongmen".

To those who might be conned by tough-talking rhetoric, Welch had two pieces of advice: first, "face reality as it is, not as it was, or as you wish it to be"; and second, "if you don’t have a competitive advantage, don’t compete".

Summed up, those two cautions were about survival. Ignoring them would not simply lead to trouble in Welch’s estimation, but would become pathways to self-immolation and annihilation.

Listening to the language of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Defence Minister Peter Dutton in recent times is a reminder of Welch’s cautions. We are being told the Morrison Government can manage an economy that, under its watch, has gone from a national debt of $191 billion after the global financial crisis in 2011 to a projected $923 billion by June this year. 

Much of that debt was accumulated by profligate borrowing before the onset of the 2019 pandemic under successive Treasurers Joe Hockey, Morrison and Josh Frydenberg.

More alarming than the tough talk about the economy is the bellicose posturing from Canberra on China. Not so many years ago, China was a struggling nation that could barely feed its people.

That reality has changed markedly and China is now a global heavyweight, rivalling the United States as an economic and military power. Staying with the boxing metaphor, Australia is a featherweight.

We might be a featherweight with potential when we compete within our class, but the reality is we are at a significant disadvantage if we attempt to depart from reality and fight outside our division.

Australia’s disadvantages are apparent on many fronts and talking tough will only accentuate them. The most obvious is starkly apparent when thinking about AUKUS, a defence partnership that Morrison and Dutton are using to position Australia as a pesky southern hemisphere featherweight snapping at the heels of an increasingly irritable northern hemisphere heavyweight.

If we are looking for comparisons, other successful featherweight nations can be found among the Nordic countries of Scandinavia. Rather than borrow massively to buy weapons to position themselves as fighters out of their class, they save money and declare non-alignment or neutrality as strategic defensive positions.

Apart from AUKUS being an uncosted, blank-cheque gamble that will, according to The New York Times, ‘bet the house’ on Australia throwing in its lot with the U.S. for generations to come,

Congress needs to agree to amend section 123 of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act 1954 for elements of the AUKUS deal to take effect and President Joe Biden has left it to Prime Minister Morrison to help sell the idea over the next 18 months or so.

He needs to convince U.S. lawmakers there are sound reasons to allow Australia to share in highly classified U.S. technology and to be treated as an exception to the rule that a non-nuclear nation be excluded from using U.S. weapons-grade uranium to produce the nuclear-propelled submarines proposed under AUKUS.

In order to sell the idea to Congress and Australian voters leading up to a potential May 2022 Election, the Morrison Government might reveal information about the proposal which will inform the world, and China, on details relating to the AUKUS partnership.

While we are revealing all, including a timeframe with a 2038-40 delivery date, the extent of China’s warship and submarine fleets remain secret. Western estimates guess that China has at least 350 warships and an unknown number of submarines. Telling a so-called "enemy" that you will be in a position to threaten them with eight nuclear-powered subs that depend totally on the U.S. for production and maintenance is not exactly a competitive strength.

Something that is likely to be predicably under-reported to the voting public by an obliging Australian mainstream media leading up to the Election is the idea that AUKUS will make Australia a nuclear target.

The notion of "mutually assured destruction" is premised on the idea that an attack using the weapons would trigger a retaliation that would destroy both assailant and retaliator. It also assumes that nuclear fallout from the weapons would harm all involved.

There have been no real-world tests of these weapons, because non-proliferation agreements have limited testing to underground exercises for decades. However, were a rogue northern hemisphere nation with nuclear weapons looking for an excuse and a place to undertake a real-world test with minimum fear of fallout, would there be a better location than an island nation in the southern hemisphere?

Ukraine is a sobering reminder that Australia cannot rely on American or NATO support were such an eventuality to unfold, especially with Biden’s lukewarm relations with Morrison, and with the unofficial head of Europe, Emmanuel Macron, regarding Morrison with undisguised contempt.

It is not far-fetched according to Victor Gao, a Yale-educated and well-connected international relations spokesman from the Center for China and Globalisation.

He made it clear in a 2021 interview with the ABC’s Stan Grant that Australia will “lose the privilege of not being targeted by nuclear warheads” if we were to go ahead with the AUKUS arrangement. His analysis suggested Australia would be on a path to war with China.

He also indicated the Morrison and Dutton rhetoric is a ploy to distract from the Coalition Government's considerable domestic policy failures ahead of the Federal Election.

Paul Begley has worked for many years in public affairs roles, until recently as General Manager of Government and Media Relations with the Australian HR Institute. You can follow Paul on Twitter @yelgeb.

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