(Images: AAP/Darren England, Mick Tsikas)

Defence Minister Peter Dutton used an Anzac Day appearance on ABC’s Insiders yesterday to warn about the prospect of war with China. Conflict over Taiwan “should not be discounted,” Dutton said. Australians needed to be realistic about China militarising bases across the Asia Pacific, he warned.

“China has been very clear about the reunification and that’s been a long-held objective of theirs. They have been very clear about that goal.”

Dutton’s comments came at the end of another rocky week in Sino-Australian relations, just days after the federal government scrapped Victoria’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) agreements with China. His latest warning could be another sign of how the blunt, hawkish Dutton will manage the China relationship in his new portfolio.

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Conflict warnings

Dutton isn’t alone in warning about the prospect of a war over Taiwan. Over the last year, Australia’s political and foreign policy establishment have become a lot more comfortable speaking plainly about potential Chinese aggression in the region.

Just weeks ago, former defence minister Christopher Pyne warned the prospects of a “kinetic war” in the Asia Pacific, most likely over Taiwan, were far higher than during his time in office. Tony Abbott also raised his concerns about Chinese aggression at a speech in Auckland last week.

It isn’t just politicians getting anxious. James Laurenceson, director of the Australia-China Relations Institute, said the government was simply stating a reality by sounding the alarm.

“That’s a reasonable thing for them to do. The risks of conflict have risen from what they were five years ago,” he told Crikey.

But Laurenceson worries the messaging from politicians like Dutton has so far failed to capture the reality of just how devastating such a conflict would be.

“We’re talking millions dead, including Australians. A global economic disaster. We’ve got to raise the entire reality of what a war would actually be like.”

Hard heads prevail

Interestingly, Dutton’s latest intervention doesn’t seem to have caused any major rebuke from Beijing, so far. Still, Australia is hardly in China’s good books right now, with the federal government’s scrapping of Victoria’s BRI deal last week causing more threats and bluster.

The government seems to have picked this fight with China because despite picking several others over the last year — most prominently over an inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 — China’s coercion is yet to really hit. But the fate of the BRI, and the increased talk of potential conflict, are a sign of just how much both Australia and China have changed in the last few years.

Here, attitudes are hardening, and the hawkish national security frame dominates a relationship once viewed primarily through trade and economic opportunity. In 2017, then trade minister Steve Ciobo travelled to China for a Belt and Road forum. Two years later, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary Frances Adamson attended a similar forum. By 2021, the BRI is largely considered too toxic to handle. China, for its part, has doubled down on authoritarianism, and militarised nationalism and repression of minority groups.

Comparing Australia’s position to that of New Zealand is also revealing. Last week, New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta criticised attempts to pressure China using the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network, indicating New Zealand will pursue “multilateral opportunities” to raise its concerns with Beijing. In January, Kiwi Trade Minister Damien O’Connor took a swipe at Australia for failing to show respect and act diplomatically towards China.

Australia didn’t need O’Connor’s suggestions — we’re pretty comfortable with hawkishness now. With Dutton in defence, that hawkishness isn’t going away any time soon.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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