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The article below appeared in Pearls and Irritations on 27 January, 2022.

‘Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive’, is a lexicon, introduced by Sir Walter Scott in the poem, ‘Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field’, 1808.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) should absorb the message. For the past five years they have been deceiving and dissembling with respect to China’s intentions in the region. Trump and his acolytes got them going with substantially increased funding from the US government and arms manufacturers who saw profit in raised levels of tension. Trump thought he could bully China into allowing an uncompetitive America regain lost markets.

The Australian government also provides funding to ASPI on the basis it gives independent advice to government. It has the status of a quango; the government appoints its director, which, with its unusual funding arrangements makes it anything but an independent ‘think tank’. As a source of advice, it has the government’s ear. It has direct and privileged access. On strategic policy formation it has supplanted DFAT and Defence. It advocates greatly increased defence spending.  

It is a conduit for hard-line US policy toward China. It has become the stalking horse for US think tanks and agencies. It undertook research into the alleged mistreatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province. It alleged genocide, which has been resoundingly disproved, but not before it got legs in the Murdoch press. It has claimed with the use of satellite photos, presumably provided by the CIA, that millions of Uyghurs are kept in high security detention centres undergoing political indoctrination and re-education. This was a report prepared by what is termed the International Cyber Policy Centre of ASPI.

In an independently funded investigation, ‘The Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Uyghurs for Sale Report: Scholarly Analysis or Strategic Disinformation? By Jaq James says on page 51 that, “Given the frequency of dubious arguments, unsupported and overplayed claims, poor-quality sources, lack of balance and completeness and questionable academic integrity standards, it is submitted that ASPI intentionally produced a piece of strategic disinformation propaganda.” The James investigation comprehensively dismantled the ASPI Report, bringing into question the morality and veracity of the ASPI undertaking. Why did they do it?

ASPI has been strident, some might say irrational and unbalanced, in its criticism of China over Taiwan. It has appeared as if it is trying to outdo its benefactor the US in seeking to impress. Quoted by Alan Macleod in MintPress on 20.1.22, John Pilger says, ‘ASPI has played a leading role – some would say, the leading role – in driving Australia’s mendacious and self-destructive and often absurd China-bashing campaign. The current Coalition government, perhaps the most right-wing and incompetent in Australia’s recent history, has relied upon ASPI to disseminate Washington’s desperate strategic policies, into which much of the Australian political class, along with its intelligence and military structures has been integrated.’  

There is no issue that ASPI has sought to involve itself in that does not bring into question its judgement. It ran with the conspiracy theory that the Chinese government was responsible for the Covid outbreak in Wuhan and subsequent cover up. In a report, ‘The Great Covid Cover-up’ ASPI wove a tale of a world-wide collusion to hide Covid’s origins and to cover for China.

ASPI has given enthusiastic support to AUKUS, conveying the impression it was in at the inception of the idea. AUKUS is probably the most ill-advised arrangement that Australia is seeking to get involved with since allowing the United States to establish Pine Gap. The purchase of nuclear-powered submarines with a delivery time of thirty years was said to be the driver behind AUKUS. I doubt it, it was more likely a smokescreen for setting Australia up as a forward US military base for confrontation with China. Talk of new submarines has been allowed to slide, replaced with discussion of the logistics of home porting US submarines at HMAS Stirling and Darwin. There is discussion of basing a variety of US combat aircraft in the Northern Territory, greatly expanding the US military base in Darwin to take an extra 6000 marines and their families (and in the process forcing the First Armoured Regiment to vacate its barracks and move to Edinburgh in South Australia)

Recently Australia purchased the M1A2, a heavy tank unsuited for operations in the region. It is said the purchase is designed to allow the training of Australian crews for deployment with the US in the ME and Europe. Australia has scrapped its still operational fleet of helicopters and will replace them with US choppers. Australia will manufacture tank ammunition and missiles and probably other materiel to be determined by the US. It seems major decisions relating to the ADF insofar as they relate to joint operability and the northern defence posture are being influenced if not directed by the US. Pine Gap is undergoing an expansion and refit to prepare it for the enhanced defence posture planned against China.

AUKUS will give the US unprecedented control over the ADF. They will run all operations directed against China. Those operations are likely to be similar to those deployed against the Russians during the cold war. The possibility of miscalculation leading to a ‘hot’ war are high. Australia could find itself at war without parliament and ministers even knowing about it, far less giving permission. This will have the effect of placing Australia on a permanent war footing.

To illustrate how unbalanced thinking has become, the former director of ASPI, Peter Jennings recently advocated in The Australian that Australia purchase the US B2 stealth bomber, there are only 21! Australia needs a stealth bomber as much as it needs ASPI.

Under AUKUS the US is likely to demand the ability to monitor and control aircraft and shipping within a pre-determined exclusion zone, probably centred on Darwin. The north of Australia will be placed on a heightened state of defence readiness. The British involvement in AUKUS is unlikely to survive the election of a Labour government. British involvement is nothing more than a half-cocked, messy post Brexit Imperial Tory wet dream.

I recently commented in an interview with NetPress (cited above)that, ‘ASPI has supplanted the Department of Foreign Affairs in advice to the government. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, (Marise) Payne, is really very weak, and has been bypassed. So ASPI is feeding straight into the prime minister’s office on matters of foreign policy, particularly as it relates to China…This is part of the militarisation of Australia and the Australian public service.’

It is extraordinary, to say the least, that a foreign funded ‘think tank’ has such privileged access and power within government. Organisations with a hint of Chinese government funding are investigated and taken to the cleaners. Make no mistake the US is a foreign power. It will say and do anything to advance its interests. A recent case in point is picking up on the trade Australia lost to China for bagging Xi Jinping.

For reasons best known to itself Twitter recently partnered with ASPI. This consolidates a relationship that saw Twitter close more than 170,000 accounts in 2020 on the recommendation of ASPI. These accounts were regarded as dangerous because they bolstered the CPC or played down the harm alleged by the US and UK against the Uyghurs. This is a dangerous development given how ideologically positioned ASPI is on the Right and how irrationally hostile it is toward China as it seeks to please the CIA and State Department.

ASPI is an important player in helping to prepare Australia for war with China. US arms manufacturers, most Republicans and conservative Democrats are working themselves up to unleash the dogs of war. They want it. They are conditioned for it. It is the only way they know how to ‘resolve conflict’, which in this case is the challenge to their global economic, military and political power. They do not understand diplomacy, they don’t know the art or how to practice it. Their diplomacy has always been backed by military power.

In short, the collective American psyche, reinforced by the major US power structures have resolved to take on China. It is not a matter of if, it is a matter of when. That’s what America wants to do. They have made up their minds, it is gun boat diplomacy with aircraft carriers. And ASPI is doing all it can to lock Australia into the US agenda, irrespective of the cost.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and a retired diplomat.