Recent talk about “appeasement” in Canberra is not due to interest in Neville Chamberlain. It’s about how far Australia will go to confront the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and stand up for Taiwanese sovereignty and a free and open Indo-Pacific.
The latest predicament has its origins in Paul Keating’s 10 November speech at the National Press Club where, among other typically flourishing pronouncements, he declared that Taiwan is not a vital Australian interest. This drew a swift and sharp response from the Australian government – most notably from Defence Minister Peter Dutton, who called Keating the “Grand Appeaser,” accused the current Labor leadership of being soft on China, and said it was inconceivable that Australia wouldn’t join the United States in the event of a regional military conflict over Taiwan. In his own Press Club speech, Dutton compared Keating’s remarks to Chamberlain’s detente with Nazi Germany prior to the outbreak of World War II and warned darkly that every major Australian city is reachable by long-range Chinese missiles. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has since endorsed Dutton’s comments.
It should concern Australians that their government is willing to inflame an already-fraught situation by tossing around words like “war” and “appeasement.” And it should also concern Australians that these remarks were made and later endorsed by leaders of a government that has often been willing to trade away the same liberties which make Taiwan worth fighting on behalf of.
Seemingly lost in this recent debate is whether the security situation in the Indo-Pacific, specifically as it pertains to Taiwan and CCP belligerence, has actually deteriorated so much that it warranted this intervention from Dutton. It is true that the Chinese military has stepped up its harassment of Taiwan and incursion into their airspace. But at the same time, the recent meeting between Xi Jinping and Joe Biden focused on lowering the temperature and reminding parties that no side is seeking war.
CCP officials have certainly not been reluctant to point out what they see as the causes of the deterioration of our bilateral relationship. Although tensions date back to well before the COVID-19 pandemic (recall China’s response to the Turnbull government’s foreign interference laws), the Australian government’s unilateral call for a global inquiry into China’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak in April 2020 was a turning point. It’s likely that there was no way to broach such a subject without angering the CCP. But Australia’s go-it-alone approach – no other nation was consulted or even warned before the announcement was made – was met with a response so furious it clearly surprised Australian policymakers.
Beyond this, the reconvening of the Quad (Australia, the United States, Japan, and India) after years of slumber has further raised CCP hackles, as has the recent AUKUS announcement. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin accused Australia, the UK, and the United States of pursuing “the rules of the jungle, where the weak are meant to be killed by the strong.”
This is not to claim that these actions are equivalent to the CCP’s volley of threats, insults, and de facto bans on the imports of vital Australian goods and commodities, never mind their threats to broader regional security. It is simply to describe reality, and the CCP’s claims that Australia, together with the United States, is limiting China’s sphere of legitimate regional interests. Beyond the factors which have contributed to the breakdown of Australia’s relationship with the Chinese government, Australia has done its own democratic backsliding – often in pursuit of narrow, largely partisan political interests.
Australia continues to do far less than its fair share to respond to the urgent threat of climate change, especially in the South Pacific where nations face being swallowed by the sea. It is now routine for politicians to sue citizens for defamation. The Coalition has proposed “anti-troll” social media legislation which would ban people from creating anonymous profiles, in a move reminiscent of the CCP’s surveillance of its own citizens online. This, after years – mostly with Labor backing – of increasing the capacity of intelligence and law enforcement agencies to monitor the online activities of Australians. Senators ask Chinese Australians to perform de facto loyalty oaths and denounce the CCP, as though not loudly doing so would render them suspect.
Trading away liberties for security is a slippery slope. The erosion of Australia’s own democratic standards undermines the argument in favour of a free and open Indo-Pacific while also sending a signal to regional partners, especially South Pacific neighbours confronting the massive twin challenges of climate change and political stability, that democratic governance may not necessarily be worth persevering with.
Every Australian wants the government to stand up for their interests. But sounding the drums of war with China, even if made notionally in defense of a fellow democracy, does not serve Australian interests. There was no obvious need to reiterate Australia’s commitment to the alliance with the United States – and, through them, Australia’s potential willingness to come to Taiwan’s aid. Nor was there a need to further escalate the war of words with the Chinese government.
Make no mistake. The CCP’s hostile takeover of Hong Kong, imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, contempt for international law, and menacing of Taiwan (to name just a few of their violations of regional stability) represent a grave threat to the liberal rules-based order and to every citizen of the Indo-Pacific. But, albeit in a smaller way, so do clumsy interventions made conspicuously close to an election by a government grasping for a winning message, which has already traded away precious liberties for dubious benefit.
The messy reality of foreign affairs makes it difficult to stick to universal principles. Although avoiding conflict with China ought to remain one of our highest priorities, there must also come a point at which the cost of a cold peace, built on a CCP-led regional order fundamentally inimical to our interests and values, becomes greater than the cost of a potential conflict. But, as we assess where that threshold lies, we cannot become complacent about our own values. As Nietzsche warned, whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. For if, in deterring the CCP, our nation is allowed to become less free, less open and less democratic – then what will be the cost of victory?
Mateo Szlapek-Sewillo is a Melbourne-based writer with a keen interest in the politics of Eastern Europe. He is the founder of a freelance speechwriting service called SimpleSpeaker. Mateo can be found on Twitter here.
This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.