To hear Defence Minister Peter Dutton talk this week, one could be forgiven for thinking we are about to plunge into war just as we begin to see an end to our COVID-19 confinement. “The only way you can preserve peace is to prepare for war, and be strong as a country. Not to cower, not to be on bended knee and be weak,” he told Nine’s Today show on Anzac Day.
It is clear that Dutton wants us to see this dichotomy between strength and weakness as one that separates the Coalition from Labor. In February he went so far as to suggest in parliament that Labor leader Anthony Albanese was the Chinese Communist Party’s preferred prime minister and that Labor lacked commitment to “defending our nation”. Despite warnings from current and former intelligence chiefs that this sort of talk only helps those who wish us ill, it is now being revisited in the feverish confines of an election campaign.
Defence Minister Peter Dutton.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
In his National Press Club speech in November, as he did this week, Dutton evoked the spectre of the 1930s in talking about current national security challenges, implicitly painting himself as a Churchillian figure and the opposition as inheritors of the policy of appeasement towards the Nazis.
National security is complicated and infused with diplomacy as well as defence spending and positioning. There is nothing wrong with national security issues being debated in a campaign, but there is a need for care because incendiary remarks can be counterproductive to our national security.
The government, with some justification, believed that this would be an area where it had a good story to tell, yet Solomon’s agreement with China has raised – again, too stridently – the suggestion that the Coalition has treated our relations with the Pacific too casually. The wider regional alliance we have fostered in a bid to counter Beijing’s spreading influence, the Quad, has proven less solid than was hoped in the face of an actual war in Ukraine.
We have entered an era when the global balance of power is in flux. After nine years in office, the Coalition confronts the burdens of incumbency in this policy area: the Solomons deal has taken place on its watch, although whether anything Australia could have done would have stopped the deal is debatable. By contrast, Labor has seized the opportunity to make headlines with its version of a “Pacific step-up”, pledging millions this week for outreach, defence training and maritime security.
The larger question is whether, as a nation, we can debate these problems without descending into misty-eyed patriotism or partisan point-scoring.
Without a genuine debate about what our strategy and tactics ought to be, what our capabilities are and where we have fallen short in our engagement with neighbours and allies, Morrison’s talk of a “red line” when it comes to a Chinese base in the Solomons is just that: talk. As Carrillo Gantner recently argued, “we need to learn that chest-thumping and megaphone diplomacy are entirely counterproductive, especially when we are using someone else’s megaphone”.
Morrison says he has been assured by his Solomons counterpart, Manasseh Sogavare, that there will be no Chinese military base in the islands. Whether that promise holds, or we find that Honiara’s understanding of what constitutes such a base differs from ours, we will need more than just talk of strength and historical analogies to keep us secure. We will need allies in the region and the world that are on the same page as us and clarity on what our political leaders plan to do, in war and peace. The bluster of the past week is no substitute.
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