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

PERTH – Another front has opened up in the ongoing, ill-tempered spat between Canberra and Beijing less than six months before Australia goes to the polls – and the two are linked, according to Australia’s shadow foreign minister. 

Australia has variously welcomed, and worried, at China’s rise and for about a decade been acutely aware of the crucial divide between commerce and strategy and sought to avoid that binary choice. 

With the recent AUKUS treaty, things have definitively moved beyond worrying about too many propaganda-heavy Confucian Institutes on Australian shores, even as natural resource exports to China remain strong. Confucian Institutes, once viewed as benevolent academic exchange, are now seen as promoting Chinese propaganda in Australia.

However, in the national capital Canberra, talk has suddenly moved from the usual war of words over how to handle the increasingly delicate relationship with Beijing to outright arguments over war. 

This started two weeks ago when former prime minister Paul Keating attacked Canberra’s China strategy, specifically the AUKUS submarine deal that brought Australia closer to the US and any naval conflict it might engage in. 

He pointed out just how much larger the Chinese economy will be than the US’ in coming years in absolute terms if not GDP per capita, and the US response that the much larger China could be “a stakeholder in our system” if it kept its nose clean. 

“It would make a cat laugh,” Keating told the National Press Club during his first address there in 26 years on November 10. 

Former Australian leader Paul Keating has a thing or two to say about the Morrison government’s China policy. Photo: Screengrab/ABC

Australians may have missed his turn of phrase, but Adelaide Senator Penny Wong kept the fire alive Tuesday, accusing Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government and Defense Minister Peter Dutton of using war as an election tactic. Australia votes before May next year. 

“It has been widely reported that the Morrison government wants to make national security a focus of the coming election,” she told the National Security College at the Australian National University in Canberra. 

“Amping up the prospect of war against a superpower is the most dangerous election tactic in Australian history. A tactic employed by irresponsible politicians who are desperate to hang on to power at any cost,” Wong said.  

The attack came at the end of a lengthy, largely boilerplate speech on the values of multilateralism for a middle power like Australia, its place in the region and the importance of Southeast Asian and Pacific engagement.

A copy of the speech had been given to select newspapers the day before, which had already run the senator’s remarks before she made them. 

She was rebutting Defence Minister Dutton, who was rebutting Keating, who had been attacking the government over the AUKUS deal and the new submarines that would change the concept of naval strategy for Australia from defense to offense, and an obvious way to get drawn deeper into any Taiwan conflict. 

Keating was attacked by some media and politicians and accused of being “pro-China” and for suggesting that despite a US treaty to defend Taiwan from Chinese incursion, Australia had no such obligation. He also said it is not in Australia’s strategic interest. 

Dutton, formerly in charge of home affairs, said Australia would absolutely defend the US in any fight with China. “It would be inconceivable that we wouldn’t support the US in an action if the US chose to take that action,” the minister told The Australian newspaper. 

“The consequences of a kinetic conflict over Taiwan, with the potential for escalation, would be catastrophic for humanity,” Wong responded this week. 

Australian shadow foreign minister Penny Wong has taken the defense minister to task over his comments. Photo: Facebook

“Republican and Democratic administrations have also taken a deliberate position of strategic ambiguity in relation to Taiwan … So when Peter Dutton talks about it being ‘inconceivable’ that Australian would not ‘join’ a war over Taiwan, he is wildly out of step with the strategy long adopted by Australia and our principal ally.

“Surely the real question is not, as he suggests, whether we declare our intentions, but why the Defence Minister is amping up war, rather than working to maintain a longstanding policy to preserve the status quo – as advocated by the Taiwanese leader, Tsai-Ing Wen,” Wong said. 

The suggestions of following the US into whatever new conflict arises come after presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping had a three-and-a-half-hour video conference that addressed rising tensions over Taiwan, as well as climate change and a potential revival of the Iran nuclear deal.

It was a strange time for Australia to wind up discussing the pointy end of what the two leaders outwardly committed to collaborating further on. 

Keating said the actual terms of the former ANZUS treaty in place since after World War II “commits to consult under an attack on US forces but not an attack by US forces. This is a very important point.” 

Australia has joined the US in conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, in addition to numerous peacekeeping ventures, but a war with a superpower in Australia’s wider region is a different proposition, he said, as the country will be stuck with the outcome in a way America will not. 

Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton has defended the AUKUS deal. Photo: AFP / Mandel Ngan

Australia’s various wars of words with Beijing have resulted in punitive tariffs on some goods from wine and barley to coal, with varying results for both nations (Australian winemakers lost, so did coal-reliant China) throughout 2021. 

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian suggested Dutton was “obsessed with the Cold War mentality and ideological prejudices.”

“He wouldn’t scruple to hijack Australia onto the chariot in confrontation with China. His real intention has been exposed to all,” he said.

Dutton, a former Queensland policeman, said Tuesday in parliament Wong “today doesn’t stand up for” Australian values. 

He said later to the press his “inconceivable” comment “wasn’t a precommitment – it wasn’t anything other than a statement of reality, and if the Labor Party has a different position, I’d like to hear it, because it seems today, that they do have a different position.” 

Keating has also described Dutton as “the growling Queensland policeman.”