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,’ through to Medcalf’s (@Rory_Medcalf) asking on Twitter ‘… What’s the story here?’ 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,’ 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. 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’;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’ 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, 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. 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,’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 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); 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 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,’ 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.
 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
 ‘Chinese warships dock at Sydney’s Garden Island.’ ABCNews.
 ‘Chinese warships dock at Sydney’s Garden Island.’ ABCNews.
 ‘Chinese newspaper labels Bishop a ‘complete fool.’ SBSNews, 15 Jul, 2014. https://www.sbs.com.au/news/chinese-newspaper-labels-bishop-a-complete-fool
 ‘‘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.
 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.
 ‘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
 Jack Stubbs and Kanishka Singh. ‘Britain does not support a total ban on Huawei: sources.’ Reuters. 18 Feb, 2019.
 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
 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
 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
 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
 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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