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If we’re going to have an honest conversation with the Australian people, we can’t avoid the ‘C-word’

With much of the Australian public still far removed from the realities now facing the nation, any honest conversation with the people is going to require honesty and bluntness, particularly when it comes to China.

With much of the Australian public still far removed from the realities now facing the nation, any honest conversation with the people is going to require honesty and bluntness, particularly when it comes to China.

Australians often pride themselves on being pretty cluey, in touch with the world and the ebbs and flows of contemporary events.

Equally, they also pride themselves on having a voracious desire to understand the challenges that face themselves, their families, their wallets, and of course, the nation.


It is important to say that while the focus isn’t always on the most consequential matters of the day, this is something Australians can rightfully be proud of.

Yet as the broader world and the Indo-Pacific closer to home continue to devolve into a highly contested, multipolar world, no longer dominated by our “great and powerful friend” and strategic benefactor, the United States, the Australian public seems to be absent from the conversation.

Equally important to this broader national conversation is the central economic, political, and security challenge of our time or the “C-word”, that being China, and Australia’s increasingly tense relationship with the rising superpower.

Deputy director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s defence team, Dr Alex Bristow, writing for The Australian Financial Review, in a piece titled, Australia can’t talk defence by not mentioning China, highlighted this.

Bristow began the important conversation by stating, “on defence affairs, raising public understanding of threats, and building the social licence for increased defence spending ... one essential word was missing from her argument: China”.

We need to be upfront and honest

The implications of any potential hostilities either kinetic or in the “grey zone” has increasingly become the flavour of the month, particularly for the world’s increasingly assertive autocratic powers, would prove to be utterly devastating for the Australian people and economy.

This is even more the case as the Australian economy (despite repeated efforts) continues to double down on its overwhelming dependence on Chinese demand for raw materials, agricultural produce and services.

The human costs are also increasingly factored into the policy-making decisions and more broadly by the Australian people, yet there still appears to be some disconnect, particularly as we frequently see references to a particular episode of The Hollow Men.

Bristow explained, “China is the state that poses the greatest danger to Australia and the stability of our region. We will not generate or sustain public consent for increased defence spending and the whole-of-nation effort required in the years ahead until our national security establishment stops publicly treating China as taboo.”

This is where the Australian military and our elected policymakers need to increasingly step to the forefront and have an open, honest and frank conversation with the Australian public.

Unpacking this further, Bristow stated, “The public must tap the military’s experience to build our understanding of Chinese sharp power, especially as it seems grimly inevitable that Beijing’s recklessness will lead to a deadly incident sooner or later, plunging us into a crisis for which the nation is sorely unprepared...

“This is necessary to preserve the ADF for its primary duties of deterrence and preparedness for war, but the trust and compact between the military and the nation must not be inadvertent casualties of these changes,” Bristow added.

However, in order to maximise the efficacy of any conversation with the Australian people, we need to avoid falling into the trap of using overly verbose, “bureaucratic” language that causes the “average punter” to disengage and tune out.

Bristow explained this, stating, “A good starting place for Defence to be candid about the threat posed by China is the forthcoming national defence strategy (NDS). The published version of the Defence Strategic Review (DSR) that laid the groundwork for the NDS made shrewd observations about China’s growing military capabilities and coercive playbook. But it followed the tendency in our public debate to use abstractions like our deteriorating strategic circumstances. Such abstractions cloud public understanding of the fact it is Beijing’s actions that are threatening our security and destabilising our region, not amorphous concepts like great power rivalry...

“Plain language on China would also help apportion the scarce resources of Defence and other parts of the national security ecosystem across a range of threats. The DSR calls for an ADF focused on “the nation’s most significant military risks”. But without clarity about which capabilities are required to counter China, there is a risk that the ADF will lose the scale and flexibility to fulfil other essential roles, as shown recently when ships were not available for collective maritime security operations in the Red Sea,” Bristow added.

Equally, it is becoming clear that the Australian people don’t only expect a conversation solely characterised by “doom and gloom”, rather the Australian people, while wanting a realistic conversation, equally want a clear path forward that secures their interests and provides a long-term, optimistic vision for the nation’s future.

Final thoughts

Australians are going to be asked to accept a number of uncomfortable realities in coming years. First and foremost, we will have to accept that while the world is increasingly becoming “multipolar”, the Indo-Pacific, in particular, is rapidly becoming the most hotly contested region in the world.

Second, both the Australian public and our policymakers will have to accept that without a period of considered effort, investment and reform, or as I like to colloquially refer to it, our Rocky montage moment, current and future generations of Australians will be increasingly impoverished, living in a nation pushed around by the region’s now rising powers.

Recognising this array of challenges and opportunities, both the Australian public and its policymakers need to look beyond the myopic lens of short-termism that has traditionally dominated our diplomatic, strategic, and economic policy making since Federation.

Ultimately, we need to see Australia begin to play the long game to fully capitalise on the opportunities transforming the Indo-Pacific.

The most important questions now become, when will we see a more detailed analysis and response to the challenges and opportunities facing Australia and when will we see both a narrative and strategy that better helps industry and the Australian public understand the challenges faced and opportunities we have presented before us?

As events continue to unfold throughout the region and China continues to throw its economic, political, and strategic weight around, can Australia afford to remain a secondary power, or does it need to embrace a larger, more independent role in an era of increasing great power competition?

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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