Australian politicians like Defense Minister Peter Dutton say they hear the drums of war beating louder across the region, including over Taiwan. Image: Twitter/Getty

SYDNEY – Michael Pezzullo was in many ways stating the obvious when he used Australia’s annual commemoration day for military deceased to declare that the “drums of war” were beating louder across Asia.

China’s air force had throughout April been making almost daily thrusts towards Taiwan with advanced bombers and fighters. A month earlier, US Pacific fleet commander Philip Davidson had warned China could invade the self-governing island within six years. Britain, meanwhile, was preparing its big new aircraft carrier for a show of force in the South China Sea.

Pezzullo had been hearing the war drums for a very long time already. In 2009, he was the lead author of a defense white paper that recommended Australia’s navy double its submarine fleet because of growing strategic uncertainties, a policy Canberra is now pursuing with an order for 12 new French-designed submarines.

Still, the bookish civil servant currently charged with anti-terrorism, migration and domestic police as secretary of the Department of Home Affairs garnered worldwide attention with his dark turn of phrase on Anzac Day, with his warning even making the front-page lead story in The Times of London.

A statement by Defense Minister Peter Dutton saying that a war over Taiwan “should not be discounted” has added to the alarm.

Once again this put Canberra’s head above the trenches in its jousting with Beijing, which over the last three years has seen Australia block some Chinese investments and technology on national security grounds and carry out arrests and raids over alleged Chinese interference. China has responded by blocking some imports from Australia and arresting Australian journalist Cheng Lei for undisclosed security reasons.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said “some individual politicians in Australia” were making “extremely irresponsible” statements “that incite confrontation and hype up threat of war.” China’s ambassador in Canberra said it raised the likelihood of Chinese students and tourists turning away from Australia.

The Australian Labor Party opposition and a range of commentators in Australia also declared Pezzullo’s essay unnecessarily inflammatory, especially coming soon after Prime Minister Scott Morrison used newly legislated powers to cancel two agreements made by the state of Victoria to cooperate in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Michael Pezzullo hears war drums. Image: Facebook

“While there are good reasons to increase our defense spending and to raise public awareness of the challenges that loom in our region, there are also real risks that come from causing panic and hysteria,” Natasha Kassam, director of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute’s public opinion and foreign policy program, told the Guardian Australia.

“No other country in the world – not Taiwan, Japan or South Korea – are talking about the likelihood of war on a day-to-day basis. In Australia we seem to be focused on the distant threat of war rather than the very real support that the Taiwanese people need today.”

Former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd said “the public language of Morrison, Dutton and Pezzullo on China, Taiwan and the possibility of war in the last week serves zero national security purpose.” He added that Australia already had a “highly problematic” relationship with China.

“Much of this is because of changes in Chinese policy and posture under a much more assertive Xi Jinping,” Rudd said. “But it is also because Morrison et. al. are addicted to the drug of ‘standing up to China’ every day of the week because of its perceived domestic political utility.”

Dutton, for one, was not heeding calls to tone it down. In an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald on May 2, he vowed to speak out more openly about China’s acts of aggression, declaring everyday Australians are with the government and understand the threats posed by Beijing. He said Australia was “already under attack” in the cyber domain.

Dutton was also unapologetic about his earlier remarks on Taiwan, saying China had been “very clear about their strategy, their approach and their desires and so pretending it’s not being said or turning a blind eye to it is not in our national interest.”

Prime Minister Morrison himself traveled to Darwin on April 28 to inspect a US Marine Corps task force on its annual dry-season training rotation in the open spaces of the Northern Territory, and announced an A$747 million (US$576 million) upgrade to joint training facilities, an expanded version of a project announced in 2019.

Dutton has also revealed that Morrison’s conservative coalition government has asked the Defence Department to review a 99-year concession given in 2015 by the Northern Territory’s government to Chinese firm Landbridge to operate the port of Darwin.

The deal was approved by the coalition under a previous prime minister and then defended by defense officials as posing no security threat but raised concerns in the US.

US Marines from the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines arrive in Darwin as part of the Marine Rotational Force in 2016. Photo: Twitter.

Driving the drumbeat are strategic concerns shared with Washington, with possibly some personal ambitions thrown in for good measure. Canberra is seen responding to approaches by Washington to its allies in the Pacific, principally Japan and Australia, to add their weight more openly to the US deterrent, mandated by the 1979 Taiwan Defense Act, against any Chinese military threat to Taiwan.

“Because of the capabilities that the Chinese have been developing it’s going to become more and more difficult for the Americans to come to Taiwan’s defense in the way they were able to, not without cost but relatively easily in the past,” said Brendan Taylor, a strategic specialist at the Australian National University in Canberra.

In his recent visit to Washington, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga joined US President Joe Biden in a declaration supporting “peace and security” in the Taiwan Strait – a coded message that alarmed Beijing and drew warnings in Chinese state media that US bases in Japan could come under attack if used to support the defense of Taiwan.

Australia’s forces have spent decades working towards the capability to join in such an operation. The navy operates three Aegis destroyers that can be networked into a theater air and missile defense system. Its submarines have US combat systems and weapons.

Its two landing ships can each carry a battalion of troops to take back islands. The air force flies American F-35, P-8 and Wedgetail control aircraft. All three services have senior officers rotating through US command positions in the Pacific. Seamless “interoperability” with the US is the doctrine.

It would be hard to refuse. “There’s absolutely no doubt that if the Americans were to go to war over Taiwan we would be in it,” says John McCarthy, former Australian envoy to the US, Japan, Indonesia and India.

“Australia is not a major player,” said Cavan Hogue, a former ambassador to Russia, South Korea and the Philippines. “But if the Americans decided to defend Taiwan which had been attacked they would expect us to join in  – or at least our flag even if the military contribution were minimal.”

Even so, he adds that if such a war escalated, America’s Pine Gap satellite station near Alice Springs, a key link in space-controlled warfare, could come under Chinese ballistic missile attack.

“US policymakers would be expecting, at a minimum, intelligence support, political-diplomatic support, probably facilities access of some sort,” said Scott Harold, a senior China analyst with the Rand Corporation think tank in Washington, adding it would not be surprising if the US also looked for some “niche” capabilities as well, such as special forces, anti-submarine operations and some air and surface ship deployments.

An Australian naval officer on patrol in a file photo. Photo: Twitter

Although conventional wisdom is that time is on China’s side, as its power grows relative to America, Harold suggests that might not be the case. He points out that America is responding to China’s growing power by dispersing its forces from bases vulnerable to Chinese strikes, a process perhaps taking over five or six years to complete.

“If the US military becomes substantially more resilient, lethal and agile and survivable in the face of China’s very expansive military modernization,” Harold said. “then they could certainly perceive that this is a gap that if they don’t opt to move within it before it closes, there could be some incentives there.”

Taiwan itself has been angling for more explicit support from Canberra, notably through a long interview given to the ABC in December by its Foreign Minister Joseph Wu.

But Mark Harrison, a China specialist at the University of Tasmania who closely watches Taiwan, sees no upgrade in relations.“There is a view in certain quarters that Australia is particularly belligerent towards China but that really isn’t the case,” he said. “In really significant areas – Hong Kong, Taiwan, Xinjiang – Australia’s actually been very reticent.”

Still, many expect the contest over China rhetoric will continue in Canberra. Dutton clearly has ambitions to become prime minister if Morrison falters, and will use the defense portfolio to burnish his credentials.

Pezzullo has long wanted to return to the Defense Department as its top civil servant, and some read his Anzac Day speech as a job application. When the job last came up in 2017, he met strenuous objections from uniformed defense chiefs, according to a senior government member at the time.

The job went instead to incumbent Greg Moriarty, a former ambassador to Indonesia regarded as a level head. The current defense force chief, General Angus Campbell, is also unlikely to applaud war drums. He recently said a war over Taiwan would be “disastrous” and urged more diplomacy to reduce tensions.

The impending retirement of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary Frances Adamson, a China specialist who has been ambassador in Beijing and head of Australia’s quasi-embassy in Taipei, will spark a reshuffle of top bureaucrats that will see whether the combination of Dutton and Pezzullo, which has vastly expanded the ambit of Home Affairs, will move to Defense.