Labor’s drive to war

18 April 2024
Ben Hillier
Defence Minister Richard Marles addresses the National Press Club, 17 April 2024 PHOTO: Martin Ollman / NCA NewsWire

The federal government’s inaugural National Defence Strategy, released Wednesday, significantly increases the country’s military burden and takes us further down the path to war with China.

The document projects overall funding to the Department of Defence and the Australian Signals Directorate to be $765 billion over the next ten years. The figure includes an extra $50 billion on top of previous announcements, of which $5.7 billion is budgeted for the next four years—“the biggest commitment, in terms of increasing the defence budget over the forward estimates, in decades”, according to Defence Minister Richard Marles, who launched the strategy at the National Press Club.

By 2034, annual military spending will reach $100 billion, equivalent to 2.4 percent of Australia’s entire economic output.

The last major military policy document of the Coalition government, 2020’s Defence Strategic Update, projected ten-year spending of $575 billion. At the time, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a think tank funded by the Department of Defence, estimated that “remarkable” outlay to be an increase of 87 percent on the defence portfolio’s 2019-20 budget.

The Labor government has now pushed up military spending by another 33 percent (in nominal terms), committing to $330 billion in new investment over the next decade. However, the Integrated Investment Program budget summary gives a total planned investment range of $330 billion to $420 billion—so the cost could turn out to be more than the headlines suggest.

The Defence Strategy offers general and specific rationale for such an extraordinary increase. It observes as a point of fact that a regional arms race is increasing the possibility of military conflict. “Entrenched and increasing strategic competition between the United States and China is a primary feature of our security environment”, the document notes. “It is being accompanied by an unprecedented conventional and non-conventional military build-up in our region, taking place without strategic reassurance or transparency.”

This is the general rationale: tensions are growing and everyone else is increasing military spending; so too must Australia. The specific rationale is that Australia faces “coercion” and potential disruption of “sea lines of communication”. The government is unambiguous here: China is the great threat. As such, the military must, it says, “project power”.

The major drivers of the increased expenditure are therefore hardware acquisitions, including long range missiles and warships, plus outlays on “undersea warfare” associated with the 30-year $368 billion commitment, announced last year, to buy, operate and, later, build nuclear-powered submarines. These procurements are clearly about developing the capacity to go to war with China.

The Defence Strategy perspective raises obvious questions but avoids a serious assessment of why such intense strategic competition has eventuated in the region. Why is there a regional arms race? Why does the United States, located as it is on the other side of the world, maintain so many forward military positions in Asia aimed at China, positions that predate China’s more recent military build-up? What were the effects of Washington’s stated desire in 2012 to “pivot” ever more of its military into the region? Why would China try to economically strangle Australia—its sixth largest trading partner, and one that provides two-thirds of its iron ore?

Australian government propaganda could hardly be relied on for honest responses to such questions. Yet the answers are hardly a secret. As the scholar Renato De Castro noted three decades ago: “Access to the large Asian market and the prevention of any preponderant regional power have been the fundamental objectives of American policy for more than a century”.

Indeed, the basis of the regional arms race today is not simply “out of the blue” Chinese aggression but is in part a function of Washington’s attempt to isolate Beijing and to maintain its own dominance in the western Pacific. Relatedly, any plausible Chinese threat to Australia emanates from Canberra’s absolute commitment to an offensive military alliance with Washington in aid of this end.

By encouraging the US in its imperialist aspirations in Asia, by parroting its strategic assessments and by integrating the Australian military into a broader US Pacific command that is preparing for a confrontation, the federal government and its agencies are part of creating, rather than deterring, an environment ripe for a potentially devastating military conflict.

But politics, at least as it’s practiced by those at the top, is less often about facts than “the narrative”—the story a government or opposition, with their allies in the media, can come up with to get the public to buy what they’re selling. In this case, it’s a simple one: China is a uniquely malign actor in regional affairs.

Yet the Labor government has been forced to concede that an invasion of Australia “is an unlikely prospect in any scenario”. It has therefore constructed a narrative that the main threat to the security of people living in Australia is Chinese domination of the South China Sea. Countering that threat requires a huge reallocation of public resources to war preparations—resources that could otherwise be used for hospitals, housing and social welfare.

There is nothing particularly new about this method of selling war. Almost all of Australia’s military engagements have had little to do with “defence” but were invasions that destroyed other countries and countless lives while diverting resources from social spending. From World War One to the most recent interventions, each has been accompanied by some narrative of good vs evil in which the good is Australia and its allies, and the evil is always someone else.

So the 1915 Gallipoli landing—an invasion of what is now Türkiye—was about defending the “great” British Empire from a nefarious rising Germany. At the time, Britain’s purported greatness was openly linked to its ability to colonise and rule people the world over. Perversely, Gallipoli has been recast more recently as some sort of battle for “our freedoms”.

The Liberal Menzies government in the mid-1960s justified Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war with reference to purported Chinese aims to “dominate by force” all the countries of South-East Asia. In reality, this was the West’s practice in Vietnam, famously revealed in a US general’s comment to journalist Peter Arnett after the battle of Bến Tre: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it”.

The October 2001 invasion of Afghanistan was sold as a civilizational battle between good and evil, and variously described as being about bringing Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to justice after the group’s attacks on the US, about liberating women or about bringing democracy. But almost as soon as Bin Laden reportedly escaped to Pakistan, the United States installed a new government made up of warlord factions and, with Australia, moved on to obliterate Iraq.

That war began amid false accusations of the country harbouring weapons of mass destruction and terrorists before, again, moving on to a narrative about “bringing freedom and democracy”. Iraq is today in utter ruins, with more than 1 million people dead because of that callous invasion, which was about nothing other than cementing US power in the Middle East.

Now, there is a new conflict brewing. Workers in Australia and every other country in the region have nothing to gain from the continued escalations. Already, masses of resources are being diverted on all sides from the main threats to working-class wellbeing: poverty, homelessness, poor wages, unaffordable medical bills and prescription drugs, overrun and understaffed hospitals, widespread pollution, climate change and so on.

While it’s hardly novel for an Australian government to spin a Manichean tale to justify its aggressive foreign policy, the stakes in Asia are high. A confrontation between two nuclear-armed states, the US and China, could be the most devastating the world has seen. Everything should be done to reduce the tensions and to prevent war.

Unfortunately, the Labor government—the entire political establishment in fact—appears hell bent on provoking one.

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