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As published in Independent Australia – 20.5.21

Last week Australian Prime Minister, Morrison, mixed up Taiwan and Hong Kong. They don’t matter to him. He doesn’t care, just as he doesn’t care that Palestinian children are being murdered by the Israeli air force and army. If he cares at all, it is because he thinks believers of the Old Testament are under attack.

China for Morrison is a domestic issue. He demonises the country in the hope that the tradies and bogans will agree that China is a danger to Australia and that they and their drinking mates will vote for him. Otherwise, he knows nothing about China, only that it is positioned north of Australia. It is doubtful that he could name the states that border it, he hasn’t got a clue.

ASPI says we may soon find ourselves at war with China. The source of its information is US right wing ‘think tanks’, funded, like itself, by US arms manufacturers. ASPI has taken to publishing threat assessments by retired US military officers. It is no longer concerned to hide its bias. And as disciples of ASPI, Dutton and public servant Pezzullo slammed another nail in the coffin of the relationship with a recent left field claim that war is imminent. It’s not. China does not, and will not, go to war over Taiwan. The irresponsibility of Dutton and Pezzullo is playing to domestic anti-China sentiment fanned by the Murdoch press for electoral advantage. Sick and stupid.

The only way war will occur is if the US engineers it as they ‘justified’ war with North Vietnam by engineering the Gulf of Tonkin incident. But this time around they are justifiably wary of the considerable military power of the Chinese. But not it would seem ASPI and Australia. Kids on the block.

What ASPI and the Australian defence department have not done is to spell out the reality of Australian participation in a US fostered war with China. One gets the impression they don’t know and don’t want to know. There have been no war projections published. No force comparison in the event of hostilities, no discussion of casualties, targets, supply and resupply, interdiction of supplies and the prospect for the use of nuclear weapons.

It is almost as if ASPI is talking up the prospect of war to promote and aid the sale of US weapons. In any case, from Morrison’s perspective, it helps his prospect of re-election. When it comes to the realities of war Morrison is way out of his depth, lacking the experience and emotional intelligence to get his head around what it might mean. It is a useful tool in his now familiar domestic posturing. Another scare tactic to help herd the mob.

Morrison relishes the notion of being the cop on the block for the US. In 2003 President Bush referred to Australia as the US Deputy Sheriff in Asia. Howard puffed himself up only to have his bubble burst by criticism from Indonesia and Malaysia. Similarly, no one in the region is taking Morrison seriously in this role. In fact, Morrison’s clumsy and inept diplomacy toward both the US and China have alienated him from the region, as increasingly nuanced moves are made to manoeuvre between the edgy superpowers.

There is no explanation for the deterioration in the China/Australia relationship. The government has not adjusted it’s thinking since the departure of Trump, if anything it has become more hard line such as cancelling the MOU relating to the Victorian Belt and Road Initiative with China. Which came exactly twelve months after Morrison accused China of fostering Covid through the so-called wet markets of Wuhan and unilaterally calling for an international investigation. In retaliation for cancelling the BRI, MOU, China suspended the China-Australia Strategic Economic Dialogue. Setting the scene for a further deterioration in relations.

The Wuhan accusation tipped the scales already finely balanced after Australia’s ban of Huawei from building its 5G network, undertaken on advice from US security agencies seeking to protect US intelligence gathering. Trade sanctions followed Wuhan. However, the impact has been hidden from the Australian public by unprecedented levels of borrowing necessitated by Covid. Such is the economic ignorance of the LNP, particularly the right-wing ideologues, that they refer to trade with China as ‘dirty money’ and argue a case that Australia can survive without Chinese trade. They claim that new markets have already been found for barley and wine. Immature and worrying and the ABC has run with it.

Australia has acquiesced to American pressure to increase its defence presence in the Northern Territory. It is considering rescinding a 99 year lease the Chinese company Landbridge has with respect to the port of Darwin. The narrative of Chinese ‘aggression’ toward Australia provides justification for ‘taking on’ China and the US is happy enough to encourage the Deputy Sheriff to swing the lead. A no-lose situation for them. We do their dirty work and they gain trade opportunities at our expense.

As a practicing Diplomat for 25 years and student of politics I have never seen such inept, corrupt and bloody minded government. Morrison broaches no criticism. Those around him in government and the public service who seek promotion and preferment mirror his negative and racist anti-China attitudes and statements.

China has reinforced and to an extent justified and legitimised the negativity and paranoia of Morrison and his government with tough trade sanctions, which has assisted his domestic standing on the issue. Fearing the wedge Labor has ducked for cover and run up the white flag. Penny Wong agreed to launch the book of rabid China basher Peter Hartcher on 17 May.

Australia needs help. It is being played by the US. It is suffering a dearth of leadership which is unable to handle climate change, a coherent Covid vaccination response, quarantine regime and a balanced relationship with China, our biggest and most important neighbour.

Bruce Haigh is a monumentally pissed off former Diplomat and political commentator.



As published in the China Daily – May 2021

In October 2003 US President Bush referred to Australia as the Deputy Sheriff of the US in Asia. At first prime Minister John Howard seemed pleased with the descriptor, however following criticism from Indonesia and Malaysia, he sought to distance himself from it.

However, the term stuck, particularly in light of the fact that Australia had just followed the US into war in Iraq when it had no good reason for doing so. The perception persists that Australia remains in that role, it has not taken much pressure from the US to hold it there. In fact, under the Prime Ministership of Scott Morrison it would be fair say it has become an even keener Deputy Sheriff.

The actions Australia has taken in recent times with respect to China should be seen against the background of this role and the emotional connection that conservative Australians have toward the US, particularly the ruling LNP and particularly after Trump became President.

Otherwise, how can the actions of Australia toward China be rationally explained. They defy common sense. The ruling LNP have not adjusted their thinking post Trump. If anything, they have become more hard-line such as The Federal Government cancelling the BRI, MOU between the Victorian Government and China exactly twelve months after Morrison accused China of fostering Covid19 through the so-called wet markets of Wuhan and unilaterally calling for an international investigation.

In retaliation for cancelling the mutually beneficial Victoria/China BRI, MOU, China suspended the China-Australia Strategic Economic Dialogue. That set the scene for a further deterioration in relations.

The Wuhan accusation was the trigger on a gun already loaded by Australia’s ban of Huawei from building its 5G network, undertaken on advice from US security agencies. Trade sanctions from China followed, however the economic impact has been hidden from the Australian public by unprecedented levels of borrowing brought about by government stimulus in the face of Covid.

Anti-Chinese sentiment amongst the Australian public has been fanned by the Murdoch press, which owns 70% of the media in Australia. In light of Australian government negativity toward China other media outlets have felt constrained to follow suit.

Australia has acquiesced to American pressure to increase its defence presence in the Northern Territory and is considering rescinding the 99 year lease the Chinese company Landbridge has with respect to the Port of Darwin. At the moment there is no domestic counter balance to the negativity being fostered within Australia toward China. China is feeding this with a response to what it no doubt perceives as rude ignorance toward China’s motives and intentions.

Nonetheless Chinese ‘aggression’ toward Australia feeds the narrative of the Australian Right Wing and makes them feel justified in ‘taking on’ China. A veritable Catch 22. And the US is happy enough to encourage the Deputy Sheriff to swing the lead. A no-lose situation for them. We do their dirty work, they lose nothing, in fact they have gained trade opportunities at our expense.

Some say that China bashes Australia as an example to the rest of the world of what will happen to other countries if they do not show respect to China and acknowledge China’s achievements and its place in the world. Heaven help if they have governments as ignorant as the Australian government. However, it is a tactic with limitations. It amounts to bullying. And bullying amounts to a threat.

Those engaging in bullying as a means of coercion and change reduce their own standing and dignity and with it influence. It is a sign of weakness to bully. There is no wisdom in bullying, it is a short-term game. It is something the Americans have engaged in for the past 70 years. Does China want to stoop to those levels? Isn’t China better than that? Many of us think so. The world is looking for leadership and statesmanship. Making a fool of fools is a demeaning undertaking. Leadership requires a broadness of spirit, vision and morality.

The world knows what America stands for; it is driven by, money and power, not morality, not empathy and not compassion. China can be different; it does not have to reflect American norms and ways of operating internationally. It can write new rules and deploy new forms of behaviour. It shouldn’t be defensive. It should take the lead, with confidence, real confidence, a confidence which is not yet apparent.

China is a great country and will become even greater. It will be a force for good. It should behave as such. China must rise above the petty games dictated by the US if it is to realise its full potential.

Crushing the Australian gnat may give short term satisfaction, but whatever victory results, other slights and insults in the future will not be similarly resolved. What is obvious is that the world is looking for leadership and sitting on Australia is not providing it.

Bruce Haigh is a former Diplomat and political commentator.

The philosophy and attitudes underpinning and guiding the direction of the Australian Security Policy Institute (ASPI) can be traced to the early years of the Howard government. Since that time there has been a steady erosion of core values that might once have been said to constitute the Australian social fabric.

The first was the undermining of the rights of asylum seekers, with Ruddock attempting to influence and then undermine the decision making process of the Refugee Review Tribunal. On shore detention facilities were expanded as men, women and children, were made to spend longer periods in detention. Then there was Tampa and Howard’s election moment when he sneered and spat out, ‘We will decide who comes here.’ A throwback to, or more likely a revival of, the white Australia policy, which was based on a fear of an influx of people to our north and of colour. The fact that asylum seekers arrived by boat fed the long held primal white fear of an Asian land grab.

Policy relating to the arrival of asylum seekers was mixed by the Howard government into the phenomenon of Islamic terrorism, 9/11. Many refugees were fingered by the government and the Murdoch press as potential terrorists and all were demonised as a result. Howard’s LNP government used both as an election strategy and deployed hysteria as a tool. The aim was to herd a concerned if not fearful electorate into the corral. It worked.

The AFP assisted this process with the dramatic exposure of ‘terrorist’ cells. Intentionally or not, they became aligned with a government seeking to maintain enhanced levels of community anxiety for electoral manipulation and advantage.

To assist in maintaining a sense of threat Howard turned to the armed forces. Initially he deployed the Navy to turn back asylum seeker vessels. This was done aggressively, with much fan fare and publicity. The conditions relating to the detention of asylum seekers, the length of time and turning around boats in international waters were illegal under International and domestic laws.

Howard further raised the profile of the military by committing Australian troops to Afghanistan and Iraq. It was deemed unpatriotic and disloyal to question these deployments. Howard lied about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction, which was given as the reason for Australia going to war. He lied about the reason for a subsequent deployment of Australian troops to Afghanistan. The Murdoch press backed him. Truth became a casualty. Hysteria was used to address legitimate criticism.

Expert advice on the treatment of refugees was ignored and strategic and foreign policy advice from DFAT, ONA and Defence relating to the Middle East, marginalised. The advice of experts and scientists in other areas was ignored or ridiculed. This particularly related to climate change and the use of fossil fuels, where in pursuing its ideology, the government has distorted and ignored peer reviewed scientific advice and lied and often using charged emotional argument.

The AFP and ASIS were used to stop the departure of asylum boats at source in Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Appointments to senior public service positions were increasingly determined by the loyalty shown or likely to be shown to the government by recipients. The increasingly unquestioning responsiveness of the federal public service to the political imperatives of government became apparent in climate, energy, water, strategic, defence and social policy, in areas such as aged care, Robodebt and Indigenous affairs. In all of this the government received the backing of the Murdoch press and after the Channel 9 takeover, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

The ABC has been hard pressed to maintain its independence. Starved of funds by government it has cut back on programs and hard edged commentary. The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) has influence with the LNP government. It believes the ABC, along with many other public undertakings, should be privatised. It also believes that the private sector should be the primary source of advice for the government.

Successive LNP governments have allowed the US to dominate thinking on strategic and foreign policy. When Trump became President, the relationship became closer. Morrison admired him and sought to move further into lockstep with US foreign policy. China became the dominant issue.

Obama had moved to ‘Pivot the US to Asia.’ Basically, a policy to contain China. Gillard agreed to rotate US troops through Darwin and undertake joint exercises. Tension in trade and economic relations between China and the US was increasingly the defining aspect of their bilateral relationship. Australia, under Gillard, sought a path between the two although heavily on the side of the US, even so that was enough to set the LNP right wing barking and pulling at their chains.

Trump exploded on the scene, bullying and blustering, with most in the LNP welcoming his arrival. They endorsed his hard line on China and it was at this point that ASPI’s influence began to grow. Under Morrison the so-called debate on China was marked with growing hysteria and hostility. This was primed and fostered by ASPI. To bolster their case right wing commentators began referring to China as Communist China and some academics and researchers were able to assert sustained Chinese cyber attacks on universities, scientific, industry and government institutions. Together with the media they sought to throw doubt on the motives and destination of joint scientific research and on the activities of students.

Australian Xenophobia, once directed against Islam and Arabs, was now directed against China. It reached its apotheosis with Morrison, Dutton and Payne’s attack on China on the origin of the Covid19 virus, which they declared was Wuhan and required an investigation staffed by inspectors. That amounted to a declaration of war which Australia had no chance of winning. China suspended imports of agricultural goods including, barley, wine and meat and advising students and tourists not to come to Australia, ineffective in the face of Covid border restrictions.

But the tool of Howard Hysteria was unleashed in full force by the government with ASPI as the principal spear carrier. Journalists such as Sheridan and Hartcher led the media charge, Academic Clive Hamilton spelt out the danger faced by universities with continued co-operation with Chinese researchers.

ASPI is funded by the Australian government, and several large US arms manufacturers. It claims to be independent. It also claims that China is expansionist, a military danger and a repressive state and cites genocide of Uyghurs in Xinjiang State as an example. There is no proof of the genocide of Uyghur people. There is proof of detention of some for political purposes and there is proof of intimidation and repression of many others.

There is scant acknowledgement of where Australia is at after 25 years being corralled and dumbed down by a combination of government, media and now academia. ASPI is part of that. It both leads and responds. The LNP now has ASPI as its preferred source of advice on China. DFAT and Defence have been marginalised. The Lowy Institute gets a look in from time to time but it is ASPI who has captured the hearts and minds of government and many in the media.

The government is using China as a domestic vote winner. It has no concept of what a war with China would entail. It collectively lacks the emotional intelligence to envision outcomes from such an undertaking. Does ASPI? If so, what is its agenda in pushing the line that China is an ever present and increasing military danger? If not, what is it engaged upon and why? We know that arms manufacturers like international tension as it increases sales, particularly US arms manufacturers. The sale of arms by the US is an important aspect of their economy and not something, given their present economic circumstances, to be foregone lightly.

With government and ASPI in lockstep does ASPI have a domestic agenda? Is it seeking, with the electorally popular China bashing, to help get the LNP re-elected? Anything seems possible in the Australia of today. Harnessing hysteria for electoral purposes has little precedent in this country. For students of history and politics the last time it was deployed in Australia was by Menzies in the 1950’s, against the background of the Cold War, and during the Conscription Campaigns of 1916 and 1917. Hitler and Goebbels used it in Nazi Germany against the Jews.

As a result of the deployment of hysteria, half truths and no truth as an instrument of foreign policy, China, our biggest trading partner and the most powerful country in the region and soon the world, has frozen us out of significant bi-lateral trade, economic and diplomatic relationships. The US, which whilst apparently sharing our views, has not been frozen out.

It would be interesting to see what ASPI thinks of this. We may soon lose part of our iron trade with China, perhaps when the Confucius Institutes are closed around Australia. Then we will be trapped in the ice and of increasing irrelevance to China, the region and the US which has used us, needing us only as a base.

Bruce Haigh is a retired Diplomat and political commentator.