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Chinese Ships in Sydney Harbour: The PLAN and its plan

By Dr Strobe Driver


There has been much comment in recent days about the arrival of three Chinese warships entering and berthing at Sydney Harbour’s Garden Island. This has included Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s stating the visit had been ‘planned for some time,’[1] through to Medcalf’s (@Rory_Medcalf) asking on Twitter ‘… What’s the story here?’[2] Whilst the arrival of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) ‘capital ships,’ which form a part of its ‘blue water’/ocean going task force is, indeed a major event it is nonetheless designed to send signals to Australia. Whilst the prime minister may dismiss the happening as something that is ‘routine’ and representative of the ‘… relationship we have,’[3] the subjectiveness of this statement begs the situation-at-hand to be analysed further—if only because China’s relationship with Australia is fraught at best and toxic at worst. This has been the case since especially (then) foreign minister (the Honourable Julie Bishop) had been labelled a ‘complete fool’ by the Chinese leadership.[4] Thus, the ‘relationship we have’ with China demands a coming to terms with the messages the PLAN is sending, the core and peripheral reasons for the visit and crucially, the message it is intended to send.

A show of force by China: The People’s Liberation Army Navy

First and foremost, the visit is a display of strength by the PLAN and one which is designed to send a clear signal that it (now) has a regional geo-strategic stretch that is the equivalent to the United States of America (US); Russia; France; Britain; and many other developed nation-states. To wit, its engagement with the Asia-Pacific (A-P)—which of late, has been conveniently relabelled by Australia and India as the ‘Indo-Pacific,’ in order to re-engage with India and diminish the ‘Asian influence’ as much as possible—is and remains a strong part of the PLAN’s agenda. There are also subtler though no less important reasons for a part of what is essentially, a battle fleet entering the harbour. A US marine rotation was also happening in the Northern Territory as part of the Australia-US ongoing alliance and it is important, if you are a competing power, to emphasise that one’s presence will not be dictated to by other engagements a country such as Australia may have and moreover, de-escalation of regional tensions is not part of, and never has been part of, an ‘upcoming power’s’ focus.

To place the ‘upcoming power’ concept into perspective, it has been true of many power-stakes pre-circa-1995 ‘rise of China’ to overtly signal with a naval presence that at the forefront of diplomacy, is military preponderance. What the entrance into the harbour reflects of the PLAN is, it has gained a level of professionalism; discipline; ‘hard power’;[5]and the scientific knowledge to venture far beyond its littoral waters. To be sure, such a feat would have been difficult pre-1995 and it is important for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to emphasise the feat to its domestic population as this encourages ‘nationalism’[6] and thus, national pride.

History has shown that powerful stake-holders use a definitive and observable naval military presence as a symbol of international standing; as a signal to their domestic population that an elevated level of power has been achieved; as a psycho-symbolic representation of power; and to signal to any adversary that it has the ability to apply immediate destructive power if needed. From an historical perspective, this aspect is writ large in the British and their ‘Dreadnought class’ ships, which were used to intimidate others. The British used them in order to get their ‘point’ across; and if necessary apply a barrage to hurry along negotiations. Such a tactic-of-suasion was applied in keeping Britain’s Anglo-Persian oil interests alive in the Middle East (1913); and of directly threatening Turkey (1918). The point being, that building surface (and from the mid-twentieth century sub-surface) fleets offer a tangible and real threat beyond simple assertive diplomacy and presents an intent: should dialogue fail threat-of-force will be followed by direct force. History is littered with what a naval power can accomplish and of its tool-of-suasion over a weaker actor. One need look no further than Japan post-World War Two (WWII). The US strategically imposed its will long after its occupation exit and essentially, forced the Japanese in the process to cede Okinawa for its future preponderance needs. The US’ success remains to this day. To wit, Okinawa backs-up an ongoing US naval presence in the A-P region. Furthermore and to reinforce the notion of power through a naval presence, is to note that the US is currently posturing against Iran in the Persian Gulf with the threat of sending in a carrier-strike group into the region,[7] due to Iran’s commitment to its nuclear programme. Notwithstanding the tensions, it reflects the certainty with which the US views sea-power as a regional interlocutor; and its codicil of being able to apply immediate and direct force if needed as per the historical model—especially if a fleet-air-arm is also initiated. China understands all of the aforementioned and this can now be elaborated upon.

What the PLAN understands: Core and peripheral issues

As per the US model-of-intervention, the PLAN understands the application of an overt physical presence is part of the psycho-symbolic components of re-configuring the way in which Australia must view the Asia-Pacific; that the presence of its ships is part of an overall regional coercion strategy; and that their presence sends a message about the future of what Australia should consider when making foreign policy decisions. These are only some of the core issues-at-hand that the PLAN has alerted Australia to, and whilst they may be the most straightforward there are subtler issues-at-hand.

The peripheral issues that form part of the overall strategy the PLAN is using is one in which historically, naval-power has often been utilised. A dedicated and powerful navy is used to support nation-state ‘business interests’—the British in India and Malaya, the US in the Central Americas, the French in Algeria and Indochina, and Japan in Korea is to name only several countries that have used their military to invoke their foreign policies. For the Chinese Communist Party the PLAN’s presence consists of but is not limited to displaying that its military might is largely unhindered by the China-US trade war; is immune to US posturing; regardless of diplomatic tensions, it takes A-P preponderance seriously; and that the show of warships is an overt sign of a growing ability to protect its assets—such as the Port of Darwin.

To be certain, a nation-state will use its navy as a deliberate and focused weapon-of-suasion and will do so by manipulating any given situation. This was true of the US has using its military assets to protect its oil imports in the Strait of Hormuz in 1982 (by re-flagging Kuwaiti tankers); of the British and Icelandic navies sending ships to offset each other’s preponderance in the so-called ‘Cod War’ of 1975 -1976; and of Australia using naval assets to transport and supply troops in the expulsion of Indonesian troops out of East time/Timor Lesté. All represent sea-power and its geo-strategic stretch and moreover, each action was designed to disrupt ‘push back’ against what is deemed hostile policies on the part of a perceived or actual threat.

To be sure, whilst the above-mentioned examples do not immediately correlate to China using direct force (at least at the present time) to reinforce its politico-stance. Nonetheless, it would be foolish to not recognise that it is sending a strong message to the Australian government and of course, to the Australian people. Notwithstanding the protection of physical assets in the current politico-mercantile environment, there is also the simmering discontent China has with regard to the Huawei issue and its (so-called) ‘threat to Australian security.’ It can be assumed the mishandling of this issue by the Morrison government, if only because the shutting out of an Asian country getting ‘too good’ at what it does is the reason. What of course the shutting out of Huawei emphasises—in a globalised and free trade world, which essentially, is and remains what the West imposed on every other nation-state—is to show that when a non-Western company becomes a serious contender (read: direct competition) in the telco industry, it needs to be stopped. Considering free trade; mercantilism and transnationalism are a part of ordinary twenty-first century business practice, the message Australia has become part of, is the ‘stop factor.’ To be certain, the shutting out of Huawei is however, simply another sad reflection of what has gone before, and moreover the veiled racism it displays is not lost on non-Western nation-states. History has shown that the West does not take kindly to non-Western nations becoming too competitive, as per the British, Dutch and US forcing the shutting of trade with Japan after the Meiji Restoration (1895). These three Western nation-states were the ones that insisted Japan break its isolationism and trade with the West or risk being bombarded by a US navy ship. However, once Japan got ‘too good’ at mercantilism/trading, the West moved against it. This appalling treatment of Japan by the West would sow the seeds for the Pacific phase of WWII, and result in the deaths of millions of people.

The growing threat that China poses as the Vasco da Gama era—the West’s untrammelled control of the world and its resources—comes to an end, a much more cosmopolitan approach to international relations will have to become manifest as the dominance of the West is moderated. To some extent, the West will have to change its inculcated norms regarding the East and for Europe, considering its not part of the A-P, it has time in its side and can approach the newfound loss of the West’s influence in a more surefooted way. This is not so for Australia, as it will be placed at the forefront of happenings; and will have to confront Chinese ambition head-on. At the present time Australia is a reactive, unfocused and policy-deficient nation-state in a region that is being overtaken by another actor and Australia is scrambling to play ‘catch-up’ rather than dispensing with the past; and reconfiguring the future. This state-of-affairs has not been lost on the CCP, nor has Australia’s history of ignoring its neighbours and it knows to force Australia into a decision will undermine clear thinking.


Beginning with diffusing the Huawei situation is to note Britain’s response to upholding transnational trade whilst moderating influence is to observe it only restricting access to specific components of the 5G network; and thereby, manage and mitigate any risks.[8] Australia is reactive and not as nuanced and this too, is not lost on the CCP. The message that is being sent to China is a dyad: Australia does not have the expertise to mitigate the risk; and Australia remains obsequious and sycophantic to US demands regarding the ‘security network,’ of which Britain is part of. This is yet another example of and for Australia, and due to its appalling record in the region, that the ship of good representation has sailed.

When Australia should have been building hospital ships and creating meaningful diplomatic tenets and good governance hubs within Micronesia and Oceania consecutive governments were busy cutting aid budgets; and lecturing A-P countries about what Australia was doing for the region. Climate change is a good example of what Australia was ‘doing for the region,’ and who could forget the Honourable Minister Abbott and Dutton’s deriding comments about ‘rising sea levels in the Pacific,’[9]which would go on to reflect the level of concern Australia really has about its nearest neighbours; and how much it truly cares. One need only ask, is this a good way to make friends and influence people? More to the point and from a political cum diplomatic perspective, to think that the CCP does not understand the way in which Australia is viewed as suspicious in its intent within the A-P would be naive in the extreme—one need only observe the corrupt gas deal with Timor Lesté[10] to understand Australia’s level of ‘care’ in the region.

After the recent election which saw the Liberal/National Party Coalition being successful, the prime minister scrambling to the Solomon Islands in his first overseas visit as the newly-elected prime minister, shows the newfound level of concern Australia has about its status in the region–and ‘panic mode’ would be an accurate summation of its disposition. However, it’s too late. It was Keating who told Australians’ that Australia was ‘part of Asia’ and its policies should reflect this. Instead, Australia has held on to its middle-power status and within this construct believed that it could never be disrupted. The unpalatable news for Australians is the PLAN has a plan for Australia and it comprises of, but is not limited to it being a major force on the part of the Chinese government’s disruption of Australia’s power in the A-P region; to shatter Australia’s middle-power status; to signal it will protect its assets with force if need be; and eventually, will demand that Australia declare whether it is ‘with China, or against it.’ For many more geo-strategic and geo-political reasons than those stated, these components will take another decade-plus to come to fruition for Australia, but they will come. Overall, what has happened however, is Australia—a developed, wealthy nation-state—has fundamentally ‘dropped the ball’ in the region due to consistent cutbacks in aid budgets; ill-thought through and reactive policies which severely impact on regional neighbours (such as talk about moving the Australian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem which created a political storm in Indonesia[11]); and a general lackadaisical approach to maintaining the true well-being of A-P nations.

And now China has ‘picked up’ where Australia should never have ‘left off.’ The Morrison government’s offer of an immediate 250 million dollar infrastructure investment[12] to the Solomon Islands is not because it genuinely cares about the A-P but is a reaction to its fear-base toward China; as is the upgrade to the Papua New Guinea (PNG) Manus Island Lombrum Naval Base which is also underpinned by a concomitant ‘rising anxiety about China’s power in the region,’[13] and not by a genuine concern for PNG. Who would have thought after years of neglect by Australia that another nation-state would take our place?

Nation-states are and remain opportunistic as per the above-mentioned examples of the US, Britain and France and moreover, to think that the governments of PNG and the Solomon Islands are not aware of the core panic-based reaction of Australia also represents a non-acknowledgement of their politico-sophistication. Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands should however, ponder one thing: if Australia slips into recession will the money actually arrive? This remains to be seen. What Australia needs to do is set about building constructive, meaningful and equal relationships, otherwise China will continue to step into the region. The PLAN ships have since departed, however the intent with which they came, remains.


[1] Andrew Green. ‘Chinese warships dock at Sydney’s Garden Island.’ ABCNews. 3 June, 2019. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-06-03/chinese-warships-enter-sydney-harbour/11172578

[2] ‘Chinese warships dock at Sydney’s Garden Island.’ ABCNews.

[3] ‘Chinese warships dock at Sydney’s Garden Island.’ ABCNews.

[4] ‘Chinese newspaper labels Bishop a ‘complete fool.’ SBSNews, 15 Jul, 2014. https://www.sbs.com.au/news/chinese-newspaper-labels-bishop-a-complete-fool

[5] ‘‘Hard power’ centres on military and economic power … .’ See: Joseph Nye. ‘Soft Power and European-American Economic Affairs.’ Hard Power, Soft Power and the Future of Transatlantic Relations. Edited by Thomas Ilgen. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2006, 26.

[6] Whilst nationalism is a multifaceted and complex issue some aspects of its makeup include: ‘… sovereignty, legitimacy, participation in collective affairs, direct membership, culture, temporal depth, common characteristics and special histories.’ See: Craig Calhoun. Nationalism. Buckingham: Open University Press, 1997, 4.

[7] ‘Strange things are afoot in the Strait of Hormuz.’ The Economist. 14 May, 2019. https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2019/05/14/strange-things-are-afoot-in-the-strait-of-hormuz

[8] Jack Stubbs and Kanishka Singh. ‘Britain does not support a total ban on Huawei: sources.’ Reuters. 18 Feb, 2019.

[9] Shalailah Medhora. ‘Peter Dutton jokes with Tony Abbott about rising sea levels in Pacific nations.’ The Guardian. 11 Sep, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/sep/11/peter-dutton-jokes-with-tony-abbott-about-rising-sea-levels-in-pacific-nations

[10] Chip Henriss. ‘I thought Australia wanted to help East Timor, not take its oil.’ ABC News/The Drum. 23 Sep, 2015. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-09-21/henriss-address-the-oil-injustice/6790978

[11] Michael McGowan. Q&A panel clash over moving Australia’s Israel embassy to Jerusalem.’ The Guardian. 20 Nov, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/nov/20/qa-panel-clash-over-moving-australias-israel-embassy-to-jerusalem

[12] Stephen Dziedzic. ‘Prime Minister Scott Morrison pledges $250 million dollars for Solomon Islands infrastructure.’ ABC News. 3 Jun, 2019. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-06-03/scott-morrison-pledges-$250-million-for-solomon-islands/11172062

[13] Stephen Dziedzic. ‘US to partner with Australia, Papua New Guinea on Manus Island naval base.’ ABC News. 17 Nov, 2018. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-11-17/us-to-partner-with-australia-and-png-on-manus-island-naval-base/10507658

This article was originally published on Geo-Strategic Orbit.

Dr Strobe Driver completed his PhD in war studies in 2011 and since then has written extensively on war, terrorism, Asia-Pacific security, the ‘rise of China,’ and issues within Australian domestic politics. Strobe is a recipient of Taiwan Fellowship 2018, MOFA, Taiwan, ROC, and is an adjunct researcher at Federation University.


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  1. New England Cocky

    An excellent analysis of the present military “games” being played.

    The PLAN invasion of Sydney Harbour is a repeat exercise of the 1942 Japanese attack by midget submarines without the death toll. The PRC have led a “strike” against Australia that the incompetent Prim Monster has failed to recognise.

    In 1942, Japan set out to demonstrate that everywhere was a potential target for Japanese military action by conducting lightening strikes against distant targets like Sydney Harbour, Newcastle, the Brisbane Channel and even in NZ.

    The presence of a US occupation force in Darwin is of little consequence for southern cities because the Yanks are in Darwin to protect US oil interests on the NW Shelf and the Australians are expected to mind their own back fences.

  2. Terence Mills

    The Australian government were evidently keen to insult the Chinese government by initially failing to tell the Australian public of this good-will visit, then not to extending the normal courtesies to the China Navy and then encouraging stories about it being a raid on infant formula.

    Beijing doesn’t forget or overlook these snubs.

  3. David Bruce

    We are being prepared for war and regrettably it seems Australia could become the battle ground. Visions of the Brisbane line strategy loom large as we celebrate the D-Day landings in 1944.If China still considers Australia its granary in the south, we don’t have long to decide how to stand up to China and restore win-win trade relationships in the region for all parties.

    Careless policy decisions by previous Australian Governments have allowed China to establish dual purpose port access and strategic land use assets. When Whitlam signed the Unidroit Treaty of Rome in 1973, he effectively handed the equitable title of the mineral and energy wealth of the Commonwealth of Australia to a foreign power. China knows this too.

  4. Phil

    David Bruce.

    In old Chinese writing Australia is known as the ‘ Golden Mountains.’

    The Chinese will be for mine, on the move sooner or later, they will need their own Lebensraum. They are drowning in human waste and other pollution. They are not building on the islands and reefs of the South China Sea and militarizing them for summer holidays. I keep my eyes and ears open to see what is going on in Taiwan this will be the first cab off the rank. A race between the Chinese and Idonesia. It is not out of the realms of possibility, that part of Australia could be annexed without a shot being fired.

  5. Tone Deaf

    More likely the Chinese directed Morrison not leak the visit to anyone, and he’s clueless enough to think it was a good plan.

  6. Sam Downer

    This is not the first time in history the Chinese have had a navy capable of expanding beyond its littoral waters. Seems that the author knows little history In the 1400s, China owned the greatest seagoing fleet in the world, up to 3,500 ships at its peak. (The U.S. Navy today has only 430). Some of them were five times the size of the ships being built in Europe at the time. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/500-years-ago-china-destroyed-its-world-dominating-navy-because-its-political-elite-was-afraid-of-a7612276.html

  7. Jon Chesterson


    When it comes to foreign policy, Morrison and the Liberals are disingenuous morons, and China knows it. Australia is an unsophisticated bogan enterprise under Liberal-National management, a small time regional bully, and foolishly sycophant to the USA.

    Australia needs to build genuine, constructive, mutual relations in the region and it would be well advised to include China, instead of posturing with its empty hairy chest like an idiotic baboon… Hello Morrison yes I am referring to you.

    Free trade means free trade, as a proponent of the west, it is utterly disingenuous ans insulting to treat Huawei the way Australia has – Even Britain isn’t that stupid arrogant hypocritical.

    The long term path under the Liberals clearly leads to a regional show down and destructive war, first by financial-investment, trade and technology, followed by chest beating and candy coated military hardware from US and France which when deployed won’t work or be easily seized, this a huge waste of public money, and then military conflict. All because politicians, the Liberals and their idiotic followers and voters have absolutely no idea how to conduct themselves or their country intelligently, respectfully either overseas or here at home.

    Hey no worries, it will all go away with another splurge on fireworks in Sydney on New Years Eve or the next State of Origin – Let’s spend another billion on a football stadium or Adani, oh and while we are at it, throw another billion on offshore detention, when we could be spending real money where it matters – On people’s lives here and in our region.

    Australia needs to ditch the pathology, behaving like a spoilt brat and grow up before it opens its mouth, especially under the current toxic command of an idiotic baboon and his pathetic rabble tribe.

  8. whatever

    “Tonkin Gulf” incident in the Persian Gulf to legitimize war against Iran.

  9. frank

    whatever – my first thought this morning when i saw vision of an oil tanker on fire in the gulf was here we go again, remember the weapons of mass destruction that never existed used as an excuse to initiate a war against iraq. man, just how more transparently deceptive can the media get. while the bulk of people believe the media and don’t push back this is the kind of propaganda we will get
    sam – maybe china discovered us

  10. Ron

    I wonder how much stock we should put into an interview on the ABC this week with an expert on Australian/US relationships in which he said he expects a war between China and the US over Taiwan in the next 5 years.

  11. Terence

    I think some people need to take a bex and have a good lie down. China’s navy won’t be taking over the A-P any time soon.

    Let’s put it in perspective, the Chinese (and I’m probably being very generous) has 1 fully operational Battle Strike Group and are in the process of developing another. Also their first carrier Liaoning is really just a training ship which they are using to try and work out how to actually use the thing properly. They really aren’t anywhere close to even having a BSG that could go one on one with the US.

    The US currently has 11 and let’s not forget that all these BSG are the real deal. They have been in service for decades despite all jokes about the US, they are super efficient killing machines. It’s one thing to build ships, it’s a whole different story to actually kit them out with state of the art technology, honing procedures down to a fine art and having tried and proven strategies in place to ensure their constant success.

    And furthermore, the US are so far ahead of the game of not only China but all other countries on earth when it comes to BSG, that even if the Chinese cobbled together 6 BSG’s, does anyone think that the Yanks are going to sit there and say “Oh that’s nice, the Chinese are catching up.” Of course not.

    I’m not saying the Chinese can’t do it or that they won’t be a powerful navy player in the distant future, but talk of them taking over the AP via their navy by 2030 is fanciful. I think they are much more likely to (and as this article has mentioned) take over the AP via intellectual smarts and diplomatic maneuvers.

    And lets face it, when you are talking about China’s brain’s trust going up against the the Scomo Muppet Show, it really isn’t a fair contest. They probably don’t even need a tug boat to beat Australia.

    I wonder if there is a mercy rule in diplomatic circles?

  12. Phil

    June 14, 2019 at 1:44 pm

    What was it Colonel Custer said to his men? At the Little Big Horn. Oh that’s right ‘ Don’t take any prisoners.’ Of course history will never forget Neville Chamberlain ‘ Peace in out time ‘ The Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, The gulf of Tonkin, but, who’s counting. Someone needs a Bex that’s for sure..

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