By Global Times
Last week, Richard Marles paid his first visit to the US as Australia’s deputy prime minister and defense minister. In the four-day visit, he repeatedly advocated that Australia and the US should work together to contain China. Marles also said that Australia and the US will “move beyond interoperability to interchangeability. And we will ensure we have all the enablers in place to operate seamlessly together at speed.” Marles’ remarks suggest that he is ready to serve as a “forward theater commander” of the US.
Judging from the strengths of Australian and US forces, the so-called interoperability or interchangeability will undoubtedly be a one-way “operation” of the US to the Australian military, and the result will be a greater integration of the Australian military into the US global military system, driven by Washington. Just as some Australian media noted, Marles did not only degrade himself, but actually belittled the whole of Australia, which is tantamount to surrendering Australia’s sovereignty to the US. The Australian Defense Force would then become a plug-in of the US, while Australia would become a forward base of the US military.
Even when Washington reluctantly maintains that it has “no intention to have a conflict with China,” Australia hardly hides its intention of regarding China as its biggest imaginary military enemy and has even repeatedly acted more aggressively than Washington.
In this process, the Australian defense minister has become one of Canberra’s most aggressive actors against China. Marles’ image as the new defense minister is now becoming blurred. From Tokyo to New Delhi to Washington, Marles’ string of comments on the so-called China threat make it increasingly difficult to distinguish him from his extremely anti-China Liberal predecessor Peter Dutton. In less than two months, Marles has rushed to reverse the outside world’s impression of him as being “rational” toward China, and it has also raised more doubts about the willingness of the new Australian administration to improve relations with China.
Since the new Australian administration took office, there have been many discussions in both countries about a possible “thaw” in bilateral relations. Some departments have also been gradually reaching out. However, the continuity of the two defense ministers Dutton and Marles in regarding China as a “imaginary enemy” is sufficient to indicate that the US’ influence over Australia, particularly the Australian military, is very deep, which reflects the complex challenges for improving China-Australia ties.
On the one hand, as a member of the Five Eyes alliance, Canberra gets much of its intelligence on the so-called China threat from Washington, which means that a large amount of intelligence containing Washington’s “conspiracy theories” inevitably affects Canberra’s perception of Beijing. On the other hand, it is not easy to change this system given that Canberra’s defense procurement, intelligence services and cooperation with allies have been shaped in recent years to counter the so-called China challenge. Moreover, the Australian military, which has special ties to Washington, clearly does not want to see the easing of China-Australia tension, which it considers to be a move against Washington’s Indo-Pacific Strategy.
Since the Cold War, Canberra’s perception is that Australia benefits from “great and powerful friends.” Therefore, it is easy to understand that Canberra sees maintaining, consolidating and strengthening the US-Australia alliance as its national interests. Australia also relies on how well it acts as the US’ “deputy sheriff” in the Asia Pacific to judge its “value.” The problem now, however, is that Canberra’s obsession with “a great and powerful friend” is unnecessarily creating “a great and powerful enemy.”
That the US is Australia’s main geostrategic ally is a matter between Australia and the US. But it is also undeniable that China will remain Australia’s leading economic partner for the foreseeable future. This means that it is in Australia’s national interests to avoid a conflict with China. The Morrison government has severely led Australia in the wrong direction with a serious tilt in the balance between security and economy. At moments like this, Australians should remember former Prime Minister John Howard’s admonition that “hostility to and containment of China is not only harmful but dangerous.”
Some of the first signs of danger are already emerging. Amid the former defense minister’s constant warmongering, a Lowy Institute poll released in June showed that 75 percent of respondents believe China is “very” or “somewhat” likely to become a military threat to Australia. Moreover, following Washington’s lead, Canberra’s increasingly frequent “freedom of navigation” operations in the South China Sea, including close-in reconnaissance on China, have led insightful people, including politicians, business elites, intellectuals and members of the public in Australia, to increasingly worry about the risk of misfire.
To put it bluntly, Australia has turned itself into a strategic asset for Washington, leaving its comfortable position in the safe zone for the frontline of geopolitical conflicts. Will this make it more important or more secure? If Canberra is really looking out for its own national interests, it should truly recognize, as Marles himself said before, that “it would be a profound mistake to define China as an enemy,” and that “the talk of a new cold war was silly and ignorant.”