Jacqui Lambie warns that a Chinese invasion of Australia is a frightening possibility. But is it? Dr Strobe Driver reports.
These past weeks have seen Clive Palmer MP berate the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government and other (Chinese) that have had business dealings with him. This was followed by a further dictum from his colleague Senator Jacqui Lambie speaking about the potential of a Chinese invasion and what’s more, she has refused to withdraw her comment. The short-tempered outburst by Senator Palmer on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Q&A program, to be sure was just that, an outburst. As insulted as the Chinese community feels toward Palmer, his outburst was attributed to his frustration with the legal system, his dealings with some Chinese business people and when it all imploded, he drew in other societal elements. Nevertheless, being a minister of parliament does demand a level of tact and discretion that was obviously lacking on the night in question and there has been some repercussions, but other than hurt feelings not much more seems to have eventuated—an apology was forthcoming and all appears smooth again.
Returning to Senator Lambie, and her comment about the ‘Chinese invasion of Australia,’ it can be safely assumed that what Lambie is actually referring to is contained in a broad military context: an air- and sea-borne attack culminating in a boots-on-the-ground, physical armed presence not dissimilar to the one taking in place in Ukraine by Russian forces in recent times; the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas in the early 1980s; and the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003. History, and moreover recent history, is littered with examples of the ‘type’ of military engagement Senator Lambie is identifying. To be sure, this is a step further than the ‘fiscal invasion’ of the Chinese that was hinted at prior to the election of the Abbott government, which directly dealt with the number of Chinese investments in Australia—especially with regard to landholdings/farming—which was driven by the somewhat xenophobic Nationals under the guise and umbrella of ‘who owns what in Australia.’ Free market squabbling aside, and the prejudices inherent within this argument about the marketplace, the issue that needs to be examined is whether there is a modicum of truth in what Lambie has stated. Is Australia really in danger of being invaded?
Acknowledging the obvious generalizations that are present in the political deliberations and in the comments of Senator Lambie, there is a need to examine what is pushing the underlying tone of the debate, and then driving the discussion. One upshot of her comment/s is that the military ‘rise’ of China is now out in the public sphere and the massive impact this will have on Australia is finally beyond the hallways of the Department of Defence in Canberra. The heretofore hidden fears that reside alongside the mercantile arena of profit and the ‘food bowl’ debates within the Asia-Pacific (A-P) have evolved into the public arena. It is also fair to argue the popular press has played its part in the awareness of the ‘fear factors.’ Articles that have appeared in the press recently include ‘China must be offered a bigger role in the Asia-Pacific,’ ‘New vertical Chinese map gives greater emphasis to South China Sea claims,’ ‘Return of the samurai: Japan steps away from pacifist constitution as military eyes threat from China,’ ‘Long March Out of China’; and one of the most recent which offers an historical, rather than a straight contemporary assessment, is Paul Monk’s ‘China’s parallel with Germany before WWI [World War One],’ which highlights the course of war being the outcome of particular political processes. With all of the above-mentioned commentary, and in particular because Monk has drawn into the mix an historical pivot, there is a need to examine these issues further to highlight where the fear ‘comes from,’ and where it has its roots.
The idea of an invasion being the only pathway to gaining political and geographical advantage is in part due to the popular media being awash with images of war comprising fast moving conflicts that escalate quickly, are both broad-front/symmetrical and asymmetrical, extremely violent and intense and have the ever-present element of ‘collateral damage’ (read: civilian deaths) in the race for armies or militias to establish their strategic footprint/s. However, the relevant issue is invasions gain results which inevitably have to be repelled, defused or accepted. Invasions by the Soviets into Chechnya, the United States of America (US) into Iraq, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO) troops and their allies incursion into Afghanistan, the recent Israeli invasion into Gaza, and the Islamic State (a non-state actor) being successful in northern Iraq, all offer and reinforce a broad-based understanding of what invasions can actually accomplish and also offer an insight into why they are embarked upon. There is however, more to all of these events in terms of them being simply categorized as overt acts of violence that have a focused outcome—namely territorial acquisition through force—and it is within this spectrum that Senator Lambie alludes to, that can be given a perspective.
A significant part of the reason the rise of China, and the subsequent actions of the PRC government have become so chilling, and the reason the ‘invasion’ word was used by Senator Lambie, is twofold. In the first instance an Asian nation has never presented such a symbolic threat to Western hegemony; and secondly, never has an Asian nation had the actual potential to follow through in a sustained/long tern way with military force. The shock of this state-of-affairs resides in Western nation-states and Western European-centric nations—Australia and America, and to some extent Japan are included is included in this mix—have been privy to, over the past several centuries is watching the slow but sure rise of Western Europe as a ‘force.’ As Europe became a force it has incrementally been able to dictate its version of what government and governance should ‘comprise of’ to the rest of the world. And moreover, it has used force in the process of making nations adhere to ‘Western’ principles. The way in which this has happened includes both military and political realms: the forcing of democracy on Japan at the end of World War Two (WWII) by the US and Allied powers; winning the Korean War by United Nations forces; and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. All of these instances have had the enduring effect of proving Western liberal-democracy is the most venerable and robust of all governments and governance. Francis Fukuyama would deem the collapse of communism to be the ‘end of history,’ which translates in simpler terms, to liberal-democracy as a form of government ‘winning’ against communism. In the process of the West ‘winning’ however, there has also been double-standards along the way which have undermined the faith and confidence in Western governance and the damage this has caused should not be underestimated. Included in demanding of good governance from others there has been an acceptance of appalling behaviours from the West per se in favouring those that have served the needs of the West: Singapore and Saudi Arabia being leading examples of this phenomenon. Other examples of atrocious behaviour are incursions by France into Algeria to stem independence movements and its claims on (French) Indo-China; the US and Allied invasion of Iraq in 1991 in order to gain a ‘New World [American/Western-driven] Order;’ the second invasion of Iraq under false pretence in 2003 is to name only a few instances in which Western geo-political and geo-strategic double-standards with regard to ‘good governance’ have reigned supreme. In accomplishing such occupations and political tenets, the West has been able to decree the way in which the world—aside from the Russian Federation and China—must operate. These cursory examples prove the West has made, and remade, the platform upon which ‘good governance’ is judged. The time of this dominance is coming to an end, as China is on the rise.
China will be a vastly different case to what the West has previously encountered and then dominated, as it has adopted the West’s interests in being a regional as well as global controller and therefore the ‘case’ of China is completely different than what has gone before in the power-stakes of the twentieth century. China is a completely different because it has a ‘pax-Sino’ in mind—not unlike the pax-Britannica of the 1800s—and it has embarked upon this in earnest from the mid-1990s—and it has a century’s long plan. China’s dominance is that of being a global geo-political and geo-strategic actor and thus, current preponderance in the A-P is only the first step, and an even stronger global military presence will follow. China has moved in a truly ‘global direction’ and is on a pathway that was triggered, and then further stimulated, by Premier Deng Xiaoping who started the process in the mid-1980s. The Xiaoping era would be the first quantum leap into a globalized world and would signal significant domestic and international changes—this was defined by Xiaoping as ‘socialism with a Chinese character.’ China was essentially, thrust into a Western world and it would over time exploit the free market, gain international political astuteness, and in the late-1990s, begin to stamp its geo-strategic authority on the world: the A-P region is its first port-of-call. Over time China is seeking to take its ‘rightful place’ in a globalized world. This ‘time’ has taken two decades and it is now in that ‘place’, or in simpler terms, China is now a major actor on the world stage and moreover, one that is prepared to back its position/s up with military force if need be. It is at this point that the historical element as well as the dangers for other actors—particularly Australia in the A-P region and the invasion scenario to which Lambie alludes—can be introduced.
Part of the danger Australia faces in the future as China moves out ‘into the world,’ is that the world will have to accommodate the PRC’s needs, and by necessity its people. This factor, in the first instance is where there are ongoing and developing difficulties. There is an ‘accommodation’ that will need to be given over to China and a significant point to focus upon is to observe an historical element, and to realize within it lies a chilling and changing demographic. In 1913 Western Europe accounted for 14.6 percent (%) of the world’s population. By 2001 Western Europe comprised 6.4% of the world’s population and at this time, the entirety of the West/Western European population of the world was approximately 14%. America, as a standalone country comprised at this time, 4.6% of the world’s population. As at 2001 China’s population comprised approximately 21% of the world. Herein lies the ‘problem’ that Australia in the first instance and the Western world in the second, will have to face: if China is not offered a more prominent of ‘rightful place’ in the schemata of world strategies/politics a massive disruption will occur as China will react to any moves by other nation-states to retard its progress. Based on history, a war is in the making. It is pertinent to ask what will drive such an outcome. The evidence-base for this ‘outcome’ is also in the history of the West.
The schemata upon which the West has developed its societal modality is one of a thriving and burgeoning middle-class, and this has been encouraged in other societies by the West in order for the West to meet its own needs, and in doing this the West has had other societies contribute to its progress. The ‘progress’ became an ever-upward spiral in which the dictums of modern nation-statehood—that is, economic growth equaling stable investment environments for Western enterprises—were ones that offered ongoing prosperity; and the middle-class continuum. What is happening in China, and has been exponentially expanding in the past decade, is the PRC has set about accomplishing exactly what the West has done for centuries: developing a strong middle-class. The Chinese government has set about actively creating a burgeoning middle-class in part to have a greater tax base, to extract people from grueling, chronic poverty and to in general raise the living standards of citizens. Domestic harmony is also part of the PRC’s aim. Overall, this has been successful as poverty has fallen from 26% in 2007 to 7% in 2012. An historical comparison can be made here which befits the West’s pattern, and in doing so offers the growth of China another perspective and the inherent dangers for the West.
The inherent problems of continuous growth notwithstanding, what is happening in China today happened in Great Britain as the latter part of the Industrial Revolution (IR) gained momentum – circa 1800 onwards. In the process of the IR’s momentum the British government had to meet ever greater demands from its populace. How did it satisfy the demands of its ever-growing middle-classes? Britain robustly expanded beyond its own borders often usurping other nation-states, frequently through violence and colonisation in order to gain what it needed. Nations that acceded to British demands, either as a ‘protectorate’ that was accorded all of the security and safety Britain could muster or, alternately, Britain used force. Nevertheless, Britain still gained what it needed and the British people benefited—the middle-class continued. To be sure the French before Britain used this method, and since post-1945 the US has followed a similar trajectory with its domination of world markets through the Marshall Plan, the Bretton-Woods agreement which allowed America to essentially dominate the world’s free market, are examples of heavy-handed polity.
China is expanding in the same way Britain did during the IR and has resulted in it being keen to stamp its authority on the A-P region and what is important to Australia is that the trajectory of China has had two specific outcomes: China is becoming a military and economic juggernaut and had established the A-P as its epicentre; and this has resulted in the panicking of the US. Recently the Obama administration has gone to great lengths to reassure Australia it is committed to keeping a geo-strategic and political presence in the region with a recent visit by Secretary of State Kerry and a reiteration of wanting to ‘rebalance’ Asia. This illustrates the US is keen to keep one step ahead of China in the region. However, and crucially for Australia, underpinning this is America does not want to modify its approach to the region; and wishes the status quo to remain within the post-WWII and Cold War parameters.
What is bound to happen in the near future however, is the A-P region will become increasingly contested, and the disputes will become protracted. As the middle-classes of China begin to demand their perceived and/or actual rights, the PRC government will have to succumb to their demands, if only for enhanced domestic stability. Hence, China will, like the Spanish, French, British and Americans before it, have to use extramural preponderance to get what it needs for its populace. The question that can now be asked and the one that returns to the core of this article, is will this result in an invasion of Australia? From a geo-strategic perspective it is unlikely that this would happen in the next decade as China does not have the support facilities in the region for a limited invasion as the most vulnerable ‘impact points,’—the west/northwest of Australia—would not be able to be adequately reinforced after an initial foray. China over the next decade will be dealing with its expansion in the A-P region in a much ‘softer’ way, as it has done in the region generally, and in Africa and Oceania. This has been done with unconditional fiscal contributions (loans).
With regard to soft power China is critically aware of the political ramifications of Australia’s poorly thought through foreign policies, and in particular the rage that these have created throughout Indonesia. China has been quick to capitalise on this with gaining deeper connections with Indonesia. If a more solid outcome and strategic footprint—air- and sea-bases in Indonesia—is enabled by the PRC beyond the current military outposts of Pakistan and Myanmar the danger/s for Australia exponentially increase and an invasion would be more likely. The importance of outposts and the enhanced capabilities they offer can be seen through Britain in the Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas, the US in Guam, Diego Garcia and the United Arab Emirates. These are clear examples of preponderance and to believe China is not on a similar pathway modeled on British and American history is to deliberately ignore the evidence. From this point it is obvious that if China were able to establish a greater military presence in Indonesia exercising control over Australia would be more able to be achieved although this would more likely be the strangulation of access to shipping- and air-traffic in the region, regardless of whether it is military or mercantile, as this tactic would essentially render Australia fiscally and militarily decapitated in the region.
Returning to the initial centrepiece of Lambie’s argument and notion of whether Australia is in danger of being invaded in the ‘traditional sense’ of the term. The reason this is not probable is the state-of-affairs regarding invasion are dictated by sheer logistics and materiél requirements for an invasion to succeed and then be sustained. Chinese support- and/or operated-bases are in their infancy and this will be the case for at least another decade and therefore an invasion would not be strategically viable. In the meantime China will continue to ‘invade’ Australia from an economic perspective and this will have a triad attached: to enable China to exert influence on regional strategic partnerships; to establish China and A-P multilateral deals that actively encourage the use of the Renminbi (sometimes called the Yuan), as a source of collateral; and to pro-actively downgrade Australia-US military commitments and partnerships. As happened with Britain and the US the middle-classes of China will demand more from their government—in particular more fiscal and military status in the world—and Australia will be at the forefront of these ructions that both soft power and hard power bring. As the decade toward 2025 grinds on the massive influence China will have will cause the displacement of Australia’s and as such, the Chinese will not automatically accept Australia’s definitions of how the A-P should be controlled: this will cause problems. The coming state-of-affairs for Australia will be one surviving the numerous upcoming protracted and friction-filled escalations and the ever-greater political and military demands China will inevitably make. In parallel with this the other issue for Australia will be whether Australia is also able to fend off America’s increasing desperation to maintain its traditional post-WWII foothold as it too, and in order to fulfill its ‘rebalancing’ claims, must enter the regional quarrels. However, this does not necessarily equate to protecting Australia per se.
For Australia the decisions that will have to be made, in order to totally avoid an outbreak of war—one in which Australia for all intent and purposes will inevitably lose and one that would encourage a ground invasion by Chinese forces—is where to place China as these regional machinations increase? And correspondingly, where to place the US? The point for Australians’ to understand is it is a WWII-based belief to assume that the US will come to Australia’s aid immediately, or as a follow-up to any Chinese show of force. The truth of the matter resides in the history of the US as per WWII being a ‘European war’ until the bombing of Pearl Harbor forced the US to face the realities of the conflict, and the undeniable reality is that an Australia-China military collision would not necessarily be an urgent priority for the US. Once again the making of such a statement can be given credence by observing that America is fiscally bankrupt to China, and owes the PRC trillions of dollars and the US would simply not risk China calling in its debt/s as this would devastate the US domestic economy. And moreover, for the US Australia would not be the only ‘game in town.’ Reflecting on this statement, a significant part of the reason the US lost the Vietnam War is that it was not the ‘only game in town’ as it was beset with domestic civil strife, had ongoing issues with the Soviet Union-Cuba alliance, and had European Cold War commitments as well as the ‘space race.’ An Australia-China conflict will also adhere to the ‘not the only game in town’ principle for the US and for Australians’ to believe that the US will see a conflict in the A-P region as important enough to warrant an immediate response is simply wrong. Also, America will be tormented with fiscal and political problems in the next two decades which will continue to render an already war-weary nation to be dubious about entering another war. The problems that will influence the US’ lack of enthusiasm to intervene in the A-P will range from the sheer distance from the US and of it being a China-controlled environment; intractable domestic and regional dealings with Mexico and the South Americas associated with drugs, migration and political trends; the combined economic, geo-political and in some cases geo-strategic influences of what has become colloquially known as the ‘BRICS,’ (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa); the ongoing and increasing demands of, and ties to, Israel in a continuously fractious Middle East; and the immersion of energy, politics, and geo-strategies of the ‘stans’ of Central Asia—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.
To be sure, the US essentially having been sidelined to that of an equal rather than a superior player in the next decade is already being put into place by China. The evidence is America’s slow reaction to commenting on and having a greater involvement in the South China Sea tensions in a more immediate manner which is in direct contrast to its role in the Cold War years. Moreover, China has continued to exercise its perceived ‘regional rights’ with relative impunity; and the PRC recently rejected a US proposal to decrease tensions over the ‘disputed territories,’ and these are further signs the days of absolute control for the US are over. The issue-at-hand remains that China would not invade Australia in the next decade because pax-Sino has not been on the ascent long enough; and has not been able to establish the required networks for a limited invasion of Australia to succeed. Perhaps of equal importance in the next decade America will have declined to the point of being non-interventionist, at least in the eyes of the PRC. After the next decade for Australia all will not be so secure.
The implications for Australia beyond 2025 onwards are not as assured and this will be due to the fact that as China continues to rise the US will continue to decline and therefore, the US will have become a significantly lesser threat. Furthermore, as the US is forced to shift its focus toward Central Asia, the South Americas and Israel, this will make Australia more vulnerable. There is no reason to think that if Australia continues on its current pathway of antagonism in the region—especially toward Muslim countries—that there would be enough impetus for China to believe a limited invasion would not be successful. There is much China could gain from such an overt act as part of a grand strategy of preponderance; to force Australia to rethink its US ties; to gain greater access to Australia’s resources upon which it depends; as a signal to regional enemies that it is the force to be reckoned with; and to show regional allies it is the most powerful and dynamic actor. In short, Senator Lambie’s outburst is largely accurate, premature perhaps, but based on British and American preponderance, accurate nevertheless.
 ‘Jacqui Lambie refuses to apologise for warning of Chinese invasion.’ AAP/The Australian. Sydney: Murdoch Press. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/jacqui-lambie-refuses-to-apologise-for-warning-of-chinese-invasion/story-fn59niix-1227038207396
 Hugh White. ‘China must be offered a bigger role in the Asia-Pacific.’ The Age, Melbourne: Fairfax Publishing Ltd, 10 June, 2014, 16.
 http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-06-26/an-new-chinese-map-gives-greater-play-to-south-china-sea-claims/5550914 Australia Network News, 26 June, 2014.
 http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-08-19/japan-expands-their-military-amid-growing-tensions-with-china/5672932 Australia Network News, 19 August,, 2014
 Andrew Browne. ‘Long March Out of China.’ The Australian, Melbourne: Murdoch Media, 19 August, 2014, 9.
 Paul Monk. ‘China’s parallel with Germany before WWI.’ The Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney: Fairfax Media, 20 August, 2014. http://www.smh.com.au/comment/chinas-parallel-with-germany-before-wwi-20140820-10631j.html
 See Francis Fukuyama. The End of History and the Last Man. New York: Free Press, 1992.
 Gabriel Kolko. Another Century of War? New York: Monthly Review Press, 2002, 217.
 Ezra Vogel. ‘The Transformation of China.’ The Agenda. http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674055445
 Angus Madisson. The World Economy. Historical Statistics. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Paris: OECD, 2003, 258.
 GALLUPWorld. ‘China’s Per-Capita GDP has Led to a Drastic Reduction in Poverty.’
 Jemima Garrett and staff. ‘US secretary of State John Kerry uses Asia-Pacific to ‘redouble’ focus on region.’ Australia Network News, 14 August, 2014 http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-08-14/john-kerry-focuses-on-pivot-to-asia-pacific-at-end-of-region/5671992?section=world
 James Lee Ray and Ayse Vural. ‘Power Disparities and Paradoxical Conflict Outcomes.’ International Interactions, Philadelphia: Taylor and Francis, 1986,12, 315-342.
 David Tweed and Sangwon Yoon. ‘China snubs US proposal at ASEAN.’ The Age. Fairfax Media: Melbourne, 11 August, 2011, 13.
This article was first posted on Strobe’s blog Geo-Strategic Orbit and has been reproduced with permission.