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Sabre-Rattling in Australia: Why is Rupert Murdoch Beating the Drums of War over China?

CJ Werleman warns that, though it may play well in domestic politics, the bellicose rhetoric over China’s strategic threat may lead Scott Morrison’s Government little room to manoeuvre

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his wife attend an event marking Anzac Day on 25 April 2021. Photo: Xinhua / Alamy Stock Photo

Sabre-Rattling in australiaWhy is Rupert Murdoch Beating the Drums of War over China?

CJ Werleman warns that, though it may play well in domestic politics, the bellicose rhetoric over China’s strategic threat may leave Scott Morrison’s Government little room for manoeuvre

Earlier this month, this column warned that the left must figure out a way to speak honestly and accurately about the undeniable threat China poses to global security, particularly in the Asia Pacific region, otherwise it will cede the debate to right-wing political parties, which have demonstrated time and time again, from the Cold War to the War on Terror, they are capable of speaking only in jingoistic, xenophobic and militaristic slogans.

Should the right monopolise the debate over China, it risks dragging the United States and its allies into a shooting war against the world’s biggest army, one that boasts more than two million soldiers.

With this sombre warning in mind, Australia offers a textbook example of how the right has hijacked the debate with mindless sabre rattling, as the left struggles to find its voice about China’s international law and human rights violations, expansionist policies and ever-increasing military aggression.

Equally concerning is the way in which the Rupert Murdoch-dominated news landscape is playing cheerleader-in-chief as the country’s right-wing Government ratchets up its militaristic bombast towards what it claims to be a “likely” confrontation with China, mostly as a means of diverting attention away from criticism regarding its stubborn refusal to address climate change or allegations of rape and sexual assault within the ruling party.

The Lessons of Iraq

Talk of military build-ups, military exercises, military alliances, war games, arms races, weapons systems and conflict are fast replacing the right’s culture war against imaginary straw-men, including “woke-ism,” transgenders and those who wish “happy holidays,” instead of Merry Christmas.

Australian leaders will do well to recall how easily hyperbolic headline-driven media can juice a population for armed conflict, vis-a-vis the way in which the Murdoch media empire mobilised popular support for the United States-led coalition’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.

“We can’t back down now, where you hand over the whole of the Middle East to Saddam,’” said Murdoch in a 2003 interview, two months before the invasion. ‘“Bush is acting very morally, very correctly”. He drummed this message through his cable news networks and newspapers in the US, UK and Australia on a daily basis.

Australia has announced plans to increase its military budget by 40% over the next decade compared to the last to meet its security challenges.

In the past month or so, Murdoch has launched a war-mongering blitz to bolster the sagging electoral prospects of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his conservative coalition, with recent national headlines reading, “Get Ready to Fight For Our Liberty [against China],” “Potential China War Sees Audit of Deals [with China],” and “China Arms For War As QUAD Fights Back”.

The headline to Thursday’s front page of the Murdoch owned broadsheet The Australian read, “Let the War Games Begin,” while the front page of his NT News read “$747M DEFENCE BLITZ,” accompanied with a half-page colour photo of Australian soldiers performing military exercises, alongside a large photograph of Morrison, a man who, last week, told members of his Pentecostal church that “God is on our side”.

Morrison had leaked details of his Government’s plan to spend US$581 million upgrading its military and expanding joint military exercises with the US to the Murdoch press – News Corp – in order to control the media cycle as television news networks around the country showed the Prime Minister being given a tour of Australian Defence Force facilities in the northern port city of Darwin.

The next morning, The Australian praised Morrison for his militarised photo-op an article titled, ‘Peace and Freedom the Scott Morrison Way‘, a peculiar way to describe a leader who has been blamed by Freedom House for downgrading the country’s democracy; violated international law by detaining thousands of refugees on offshore concentration camps, and gave a speech to a pro-Israel group the same day Human Rights Watch accused Israel of operating an “apartheid regime” in the Palestinian Territories.

That said, his Government is smart to upgrade its military and invest in weapons platforms that provide it the capability to project force at greater distances from its shore to meet the challenges of an ever-changing and ever-escalating strategic threat environment in the South China Sea, where China has constructed a chain of maritime military bases and runways in violation of international law, causing great angst for Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia.

Australia has announced plans to increase its military budget by 40% over the next decade compared to the last to meet its security challenges.

Alarmingly, however, the Morrison Government is choosing to ignore the wisdom of US President Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy maxim: “Walk softly and carry a big stick,” as it sounds the drums for war, egged on by a war-hungry Rupert Murdoch.

The Strategic Threat

Last week, Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo told Australians to “brace for war” because the “drums of war beat,” accusing China of being the drummer in the South China Sea, echoing the words of former Defence Minister Christopher Payne, who predicted that a war between Australia and China is “likely” within the next 10 years. Last week, current Defence Minister Peter Dutton warned that war with China “should not be discounted”.

Certainly, there’s nothing unreasonable or unrealistic about either Payne’s prediction or Dutton’s warning of war, given Beijing has made little secret of its intent to retake Taiwan within the next decade.

In fact, it’s not only almost unimaginable China won’t wage war over Taiwan in the next decade, but also equally unimaginable Xi Jinping will survive as leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) should China not to retake the disputed island territory within the next five to 10 years, given he has made avenging the country’s “century of humiliation” the cornerstone of his legitimacy.

A Chinese invasion of Taiwan pits the Peoples Liberation Army, Peoples Liberation Navy and Peoples Liberation Air Force against Taiwan’s defences and US naval and airpower, however, not Australia.

In other words, Australian military involvement in such a war would be a war of choice for the Australian Government, not one of necessity, so it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever for its leaders to be spouting war rhetoric against its number one trading partner – China.

“It is crazy, irresponsible and comes from people who seem to know nothing about recent history or the consequences of their actions,” said Scott Burchill, a senior lecturer in international relations at Deakin University in Melbourne, in a recent interview. “For example, the idea that Australia would go to war against China with the US over Taiwan would result in national suicide”. 

Burchill also slammed Morrison for his war dance in Darwin on Thursday, saying that the latest defence spending announcements are “militarily insignificant” and a reiteration of earlier pledges, but the Prime Minister, like all cunning political entrepreneurs, is acutely aware the dance of war makes for good domestic politics, particularly in a time of increasing angst towards China, as a result of its alleged cover up of the COVID-19 outbreak and bullying tactics against Australian exporters.

And the dance of war, as Rupert Murdoch knows all too well – sells a lot of newspapers and attracts a lot of eyeballs.

Threats and warnings of war might make for effective, albeit sinister, electoral politics, but they often magically disappear the moment the last vote is counted in the next election. The problem materialises, however, when a leader or government leaves itself with no off-ramp in the rhetorical march towards conflict.

In hyping up likelihood of war against an emerging superpower, one must now wonder whether the Australian Government has merely shot itself in the foot or taken the first step towards national suicide. Time will tell. China waits.

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