On April 15th, 2018, three Australian warships
were travelling through international waters in the South China Sea, on their way to Vietnam.
Out of the blue, they were confronted by the Chinese navy and warned away. It is the latest event in years worth of increasing
tensions between China and Australia. Australian air force planes have been challenged by China
before. This was the first time the Australian navy had been confronted. Australian Prime
Minister Malcolm Turnbull confirmed that relations between the two nations have frozen. Will
this escalate to war? Will China invade Australia? If he wanted to, President Xi Jinping certainly
has the manpower to invade Australia. The People’s Liberation Army could stomp
all over Australia’s military. Both countries spend about 1.9% of their GDP on their military,
but where this amonts to $25 billion spent on Australia’s military, it translates to
$215 billion spent by China. As a result, the PLA boasts 2.3 million active personnel
and another half a million in reserve, compared to Australia’s 77,000 active and reserve
personnel. China’s land, air and sea forces are literally hundreds of times bigger than
Australia’s. Its navy is large enough to surround the Australian continent, and Australia
has nothing to combat the thousands of Chinese fighter jets and tanks that would attack its
shores. If China wanted to wipe Australia off the map, it could deploy its 260 nuclear
warheads – Australia could not retaliate, because it has no nuclear arsenal. However, Australia is too far away and too
big to invade easily. Supply lines from mainland China would be very overstretched and vulnerable
to attack at sea from Australia’s allies. An alternate war strategy might therefore
be for China to try to choke Australia by attacking its ships. As of 2017, the CIA ranks Australia’s merchant
navy as the 39th biggest in the world. This means it is not big enough to meet Australia’s
needs. If China were to attack Australian shipping, they would almost certainly end
up attacking American, British, Canadian, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Indonesian, German,
Kuwaiti ships and sailors. This is not to mention the fact that Australia is a member
of NATO, which means that an attack on Australia would be considered an attack on 28 other
countries. Such an alliance would be obliged to retaliate
by attacking China. So delicate are the tensions between the East and the West, it is easy
to see how, by attacking Australia, China could quickly spark World War 3. Xi Jinping knows to avoid this. Instead, he
may be targeting Australia with subtler weapons. In April 2018, academic Clive Hamilton told
the US Congress that China is waging psychological warfare on Australia. He claimed China was
subjecting Australia to a campaign of “subversion, cyber intrusions, and harassment on the high
seas”. Hamilton recently wrote a book about what
he called China’s Silent Invasion – but before it went to print, the publishers withdrew
it because of “threats to the book and the [publishers] from possible action by Beijing”.
After that, other major publishers expressed interest but also backed out for fear of China.
Hamilton says, “The shadow cast by Beijing over Australia is now dark enough to frighten
a respected publisher out of published a book critical of the Chinese Communist party.” That shadow takes the form of a disturbing
level of control exerted by the Communist Party over Australian media and politics.
In 2015, an investigation by Reuters identified at least thirty-three radio stations in fourteen
countries that are part of a global radio network structured in such a way as to hide
the fact they are owned by the Chinese government. This global media network, including Beijing-controlled
social media like WeChat and Weibo, filters out anti-China stories in the news. In Australia,
journalist Peter Cai says posts and articles are “censored and deleted all the time…
due to the Chinese government’s ability to control key information portals.” China
has taken this even further by investing in Australian media. As a result, news outlets
are already censoring anti-China content. Australian-Chinese relations specialist John
Fitzgerald says this is a passive approach in which “Media compliance comes about chiefly
as a result of commercial pressures.” This is all part of a wider strategy China
has developed in the past decade. In 2009, the Central Propaganda Bureau director, Liu
Yunshan, said, “In this modern era, those who gain advanced communications skills, powerful
communication capabilities, and whose culture and values are more widely spread, [are] able
to effectively influence the world.” More shockingly, December 2017 saw the culmination
of a political scandal in which China was paying Australian politicians for influence.
In response, Australia banned donations by foreigners to Australian political parties.
In retaliation, China is now refusing entry to Australian ministers for business and political
trips. As Prime Minister Turnbull said, “”Foreign powers are making unprecedented and increasingly
sophisticated attempts to influence the political process, both here and abroad.”” But why is China doing this? China says it has been provoked by Australia.
In November 2017, the Australian government recognised China is challenging the US’s
position as the dominant power in the Indo-Pacific region, and is “concerned by the unprecedented
pace and scale of China’s activities… Australia opposes the use of disputed features
and artificial structures in the South China Sea for military purposes.” China claims virtually the entire South China
Sea, including busy international sea lanes and potentially huge undersea deposits of
oil and gas. To this end, China has constructed seven artificial islands with airstrips and
military bases. In 2015, ten countries, led by the US, condemned China’s activities.
In 2016, Beijing ignored an international court ruling to stop its activities in the
South China Sea. Former Chinese ambassador to Australia, Fu
Ying, retorted, “The West is too arrogant and must stop lecturing us and trying to change
China. Unless you can accept China as it is, there is no basis for a relationship.” Malcolm Turnbull then implied China was using
“coercion, corruption and intimidation” to get its way. But as Clive Hamilton says, “Beijing knows
that it cannot bully the United States… so it is instead pressuring its allies.”
Australia is a prime target because, in China’s words, it has become a “distant propaganda
outpost” for America. All the same, it seems unlikely that China
will invade Australia in the traditional sense. China is Australia’s largest trading partner,
and the comparatively small nation won’t risk provoking the red behemoth much further.
As John Fitzgerald says, “It’s difficult to see any future for Australia that does
not involve China in a big way, whether it is in trade, services, investment, regional
security, cultural exchange [or] migration.” Conversely, China won’t risk sparking a
war with the entire world over the South China Sea. Rather, it plans an invisible invasion:
it wants to turn America’s allies, so they sympathise with its territorial ambitions.
At some point, China will feel ready to make its final move. Quite what that will lead
to – whether world war or victory for Beijing – is uncertain.