4 May 2021
Recent political rhetoric about a possible war with China over Taiwan is deeply disturbing. Have we in Australia learned nothing from our blundering involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Are we being misled, yet again, by hawkish elements within our governments, by faked or faulty intelligence, by supine media partly corrupted by powerful special interests, particularly in the arms industry, and by public opinion easily swayed by jingoistic nationalism? And who decides if and when Australian men and women are sent to war? Not just our prime minister and his immediate advisers, surely?
Foreign policy expert Hugh White warned that a war with China would be more like a world war ‘and perhaps worse, if it goes nuclear’. He warned that Australian leaders must stop going to war, as Iraq and Afghanistan were ‘horrible mistakes’ for the USA and Australia. ‘Now America seems headed for another, far bigger, mistake’, raising expectations that America will fight to defend Taiwan. In his view, ‘US conventional forces can no longer overwhelm China’s formidable navy and air force. And America shows no willingness to fight a nuclear war over Taiwan, whereas China probably would’.
In the public eye, China has moved from an economic saviour during the Global Financial Crisis to an imminent threat due to its military provocations over Taiwan, building new military bases in the South China Sea, its rapid arms build-up and its intimidating trade practices. As an emerging economic and military superpower, China is jostling with the United States for influence, and to secure its borders which it sees as including Taiwan at some time. None of this amounts to a justification for a devastating war. But, as we have seen in the past, accidents or miscalculation can result in wars nobody wants.
The question for us: is the casus belli, reason for going to war, being manufactured, as for Iraq in 2003?
William Briggs wrote recently in Pearls & Irritations: ‘If the USA goes to war with China, it will not be by chance. It has been meticulously planned, costed, budgeted for, and the weapons, including ‘low-yield’ nuclear weapons, have been manufactured and deployed by the USA. The world should be aghast at such blatant preparations, but it is not’. He concluded that ‘The world must not be sleepwalking. Nobody wants war but we are being prepared for it’.
The US under Trump withdrew in 2019 from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with the Soviet Union to eliminate all their nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometres. Now, the head of the Indo-Pacific Command, as part of its Pacific Deterrence Initiative, intends to provide ‘a network of missiles in Taiwan, Okinawa, and the Philippines directly targeting China’, some being only minutes flying time from Beijing.
Claims of Uighur genocide
Many people have been shocked by claims of a genocide by China of its Uighur population, a Turkic Muslim people in Xinjiang region. China certainly had Islamist terrorists to contend with in the last decade or so, and, according to the United Nations, in mid-2020 thousands of Uighurs were fighting in Afghanistan and Syria.
Echoing claims by Donald Trump’s then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that China was waging genocide of the Uighurs, the US Secretary of State under Biden, Antony Blinken, recently declared that China was making ‘an effort to commit genocide’ which he said was ’exactly the right description’, and called for a boycott of goods involved with repression of Uighurs. However, the Legal Advisor to the State Department cautioned that the human rights abuses amounted to ‘crimes against humanity, but there was insufficient evidence to prove genocide’ with its extraordinarily high threshold.
Two eminent scholars, Jeffrey D Sachs and William Schabas, contested the claim of genocide in Project Syndicate. ‘There are credible charges of human rights abuses against Uighurs, but those do not per-se constitute genocide.’ China suffered repeated Islamist terrorist attacks in the previous decade, and cracked down with ‘reeducation camps’ for a million people, forced labour, and other extreme measures.
It may seem a moot point to distinguish genocide from ‘crimes against humanity’, since all are extremely serious offences, but the charge of genocide has even more gravitas than this, with significant legal and international consequences.
Why the sabre rattling in Australia?
Following comments by the former Australia defence minister Christopher Pyne in Adelaide that Australia could get dragged into a war with China in the next five to ten years, the chief of the Australian defence force, General Angus Taylor, insisted on 15 April that a war over Taiwan would be ‘disastrous’ for the entire region, and he urged all countries to work earnestly to avoid such a conflict.
Nevertheless, Australia’s Defence Minister Peter Dutton warned on 25 April, Anzac Day, that conflict with China ‘should not be discounted’. He said Australia wanted to maintain good relations with China, but that Australia was prepared ‘to meet the threats we see in our region toward our country, against our allies’.
In addition, in an Anzac Day address, the Secretary for Home Affairs Michael Pezzullo warned that ‘the drums of war beat, sometimes faintly and distantly, and at other times loudly and ever closer’. ‘We must search always for the chance of peace amidst the curse of war, until we are faced with the only prudent course ̶ to send off, yet again, our warriors to fight the nation’s wars.’ He said that ‘as free nations again hear the beating drums and watch worryingly the militarisation of issues… let us continue to search unceasingly for the chance for peace while bracing again, yet again, for the curse of war.’
Need to act
This unsettling ‘war talk’ in Australia demands keen scrutiny, and, given our Australian experience of being lied to and manipulated into distant wars, we have every right to challenge any softening of public opinion. Noone could doubt that a major war between China and the USA would have catastrophic consequences for us all. Australians should be making it clear to elected politicians that war must be avoided, and that they expect renewed diplomatic efforts with China. A necessary first step is surely to take loose ‘war talk’ out of the press, and out of statements by politicians and staffers.
Photo Chinese Navy ship in Hawaii. US Navy. flickr cc.