Australian strategic policy leader Alan Dupont has called for a renewed, enhanced response to counter the increasing pervasiveness of Beijing’s influence peddling and meddling in Australia’s political discourse and posture towards the Indo-Pacific.
The values differences between Australia, the West and China are becoming increasingly visible – the way in which the nation navigates the increasingly complex relationship with China, combined with clarifying the long-term position of Australia in the Indo-Pacific is gaining additional traction.
While Australia has enjoyed a record setting three decades of uninterrupted economic growth buoyed by the voracious appetite of a growing China, all good things come to end as the political, economic and strategic competition between the US, its allies and China enters a new phase placing both the global and Australian economies in a precarious position.
Lowy Institute contributor Alan Dupont has echoed calls from colleagues and parliamentarians for a renewed, targeted and dedicated Australian response to an increasingly assertive and pervasive Chinese influence on Australia's political discourse.
"China’s extraordinary growth as an economic and military power has been a defining development for Australia. But managing our future relationship with an increasingly assertive and authoritarian China will require a reassessment of our assumptions about the nature of the Chinese political system and a willingness to learn from past mistakes," Dupont explained in an opinion piece for The Australian.
For the first time in nearly a century, Australia's benevolent 'great power' benefactor, the US, is being challenged by a series of ascending and resurgent peer and near-peer competitors, hell bent on eroding the global order and undermining the economic, political and strategic stability the US, UK, Australia and other allies established throughout the Cold War and into the new millennium.
The adversaries arrayed against Australia and its broader Western allies enjoy a number of advantages, namely the consistency of political leadership, long-term national ambition and a commitment to establish themselves as world leaders.
Recognising this, many potential adversaries have sought to leverage political warfare as a potent form of coercion and influence peddling to limit the effectiveness of allied response.
These calls come at a time of increasing tensions around the world, with both the US and UK placing renewed and increasing focus on the Middle East following the US airstrike on Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani and increasing Chinese assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific.
In particular, China's growing naval capabilities which will see the rising super power sporting a naval force capable of dominating the maritime domain across the Indo-Pacific, with only the over stretched US Navy capable of truly countering the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).
Beyond the overt arms race and strategic competition
Looking beyond the overt strategic competition, Dupont draws focus to Beijing's increasing willingness to engage in political warfare and 'grey zone' tactics to influence and compromise the political decision making and discourse of potential competitors, including Australia.
"Since former senator Sam Dastyari opened our eyes to Beijing’s extensive influence operations, we’ve come a long way towards understanding the nature and extent of the China challenge and developing effective responses," he articulated.
"Yet we still don’t have a clear-eyed view of China, judging by the persistent refusal of apologists and boosters to acknowledge the dark side of the Chinese Communist Party’s exercise of power."
Chief of Defence, General Angus Campbell, AO, DSC, has identified the growing complexity of the 'grey zone' battlespace, the contest of ideas and the unified response Australia and its allies will be required to embrace in order to respond to these emerging challenges – particularly from peer and near-peer competitors.
"Political warfare subverts and undermines. It penetrates the mind. It seeks to influence, to subdue, to overpower, to disrupt ... It can be covert or overt, a background of white noise or loud and compelling. It’s not limited by the constructs or constructions of peace or peacetime. It’s constant and scalable, and most importantly, it adapts. Political warfare has a long and fascinating history," GEN Campbell said.
This concept is something that was highlighted during the latest round of AUSMIN meetings hosted in Sydney in August 2019 – which saw Australia's defence and foreign ministers and their US counterparts, alongside their respective Chiefs of Defence, articulate the shared concerns:
"The United States and Australia shared concerns about threats to freedom of navigation and the uninterrupted passage of maritime trade in the strategic sea-lanes in the Middle East, and noted that attacks on civilian shipping were of grave concern and a serious threat to the safety of navigation," a joint AUSMIN statement said.
This is echoed by the Dupont, who states: "Chief of the Defence Force Angus Campbell was an early identifier of the importance of political warfare in the armoury of authoritarian states and the need to defend against it."
The challenges of the Cold War victory
Dupont focuses on the limitations and challenges Australia and its broader Western liberal democracies face in countering the authoritarian nature of governments in Beijing and Moscow, stating: "One reason is that we have different, much narrower concepts of war and peace and little experience of political warfare since the end of the Cold War. Deception and propaganda are central to its practice."
Nevertheless, Dupont believes we should avoid taking a "reds under the bed" approach to countering political and grey zone warfare against Australia and its Western allies and calls for Australia to more directly and concertedly define a clear strategy moving forward and the 2020s will require it.
"Protecting our sovereignty in this contested environment is a critical national security issue for Australia because there are few areas of policy where Beijing’s power, interests and preferences are not a consideration," Dupont said.
"In his recent Quarterly Essay on the China Challenge, journalist Peter Hartcher urges Australians to stand 'up for ourselves', echoing Malcolm Turnbull. But we can’t do this without a coherent strategy that safeguards the country from actions designed to weaken our democracy and capacity for independent thought and action."
The nation is defined by its relationship with the region, with access to the growing economies and to strategic sea-lines-of-communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport.
Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and chokepoints of south-east Asia annually.
For Australia, a nation defined by this relationship with traditionally larger, yet economically weaker regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build-up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities, competing geopolitical, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century's 'great game'.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves not only as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
Shifting the public discussion away from the default Australian position of "it is all a little too difficult, so let’s not bother" will yield unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.
Retired Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce issued a challenge for Australia's political and strategic policy leaders in late 2019, saying:
"If we observe that the level of debate among our leaders is characterised by mud-slinging, obfuscation and the deliberate misrepresentation of the views of others, why would the community behave differently ... Our failure to do so will leave a very damaging legacy for future generations."
Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia's future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of shaking up the nation's approach to our regional partners.