Beijing’s bullying needs to be called out, loud and clear

Deputy PM Marles meeting then Chinese Defence Minister General Li Shangfu. Direct discussion during crises where our military's lives are at risk is essential, as are consequences for China if it continues these dangerous actions. Image: Defence.

Written by

Peter Jennings

Defence Minister Richard Marles was absolutely right to call out China publicly for the “unsafe and unprofessional interaction” in which a People’s Liberation Army jet dropped flares in the flight path of an Australian helicopter operating off the air warfare destroyer HMAS Hobart in international waters near the Korean Peninsula.

China’s action could have downed the helicopter if the flares had damaged rotor blades or been ingested by the engine. This follows an incident last November when two divers from the frigate HMAS Toowoomba were injured by a Chinese use of a sonar system.

Both ships were enforcing internationally agreed sanctions against North Korea and looking to prevent the north from exporting weapons by sea.

Apart from the risk to Australian Defence Force people and platforms it is noteworthy that China is aggressively undermining sanctions enforcement against North Korea – now a major supplier of artillery ammunition to Russia for use in Ukraine.

That should lend extra weight to the strength of Australian protests against Beijing’s bad behaviour. It may be unsafe and unprofessional but you can be certain these military actions, in a strategic if not tactical sense, are centrally directed from the top in Beijing. China’s military leaders are seeking to push the military forces of all other countries (bar Russia and North Korea) as far away as possible from their claimed territories.

Late last year the US Defence Department released a list of several hundred similar incidents involving the PLA in recent years.|

It is astonishing that some of these incidents haven’t already led to air crashes, ships sinking and deaths. This will happen unless China can be jolted into changing its behaviour.

Marles is emerging as the one government minister willing to take a reasonably tough public rhetorical line about Chinese actions. As Defence Minister he has no other choice. Like some of his predecessors in the job he has presumably read deeply into classified reporting about China’s relentless attempts to threaten, undermine, compromise or otherwise attack its Indo-Pacific neighbours.

It’s disappointing that Marles is receiving half-hearted support from his ministerial colleagues. Anthony Albanese talks awkwardly and without precision about “communications with China” to express Australian unhappiness. The Prime Minister foreshadows that he will raise the issue with Chinese Premier Li Qiang on his June visit. That should be an absolute priority: Chinese senior leaders are sensitive to public criticism.

Albanese should not lose an opportunity to be seen to push back against Beijing’s bullying as a way to correct the impression that he has been too fawning and susceptible to Communist Party flattery.

Beyond comments to our media and polite diplomatic exchanges with Chinese leaders, my view is that the Australian government needs to look harder for actions that seek to impose some cost on Beijing for its aggressive and risky behaviour.

Nothing has been said at the political level – or in senior military-to-military exchanges – that would lead Beijing’s Communist Party hardheads to curb their military risk-taking. Australia needs to make it clear to China that risking the lives of ADF personnel is unacceptable and will have conseq­uences. Measures that should be considered include sending the Chinese defence attache home. Let’s be clear, the role is purely an intelligence-gathering mission.

Australia could choose to pause the promised resumption of the very limited military exercising and training we do with the PLA. We also should hit the pause button on senior level Defence and ADF-PLA talks.

Frankly there is no substance in these highly formulaic encounters. In the Xi Jinping era there is no such thing as candid discussions. So why reward China with the look of defence legitimacy after it routinely threatens our military?

Australia also should pursue more formal agreements with military counterparts in the Indo-Pacific on safety at sea and in air operations. Mostly these conventions are well understood and respected, but there would be value in Australia convening an Indo-Pacific discussion on how to deal with such incidents.

China could choose to participate or not in such a multilateral discussion. No country at the table would miss the reality that Beijing is the problem here.

Finally, just as Australia has applied its new sanctions legislation to ban a Russian involved in ransomware attacks on our citizens, so too could we sanction PLA commanding officers of ships, squadrons and units that engage in threatening and risky actions.

The message should be clear: if you threaten ADF personnel don’t plan on visiting here any time in the future. Will the Albanese government do any of this? Probably not. But low-key political rhetoric will not change Beijing’s behaviour. We have paid a high price in terms of compromising our strategic interests to supposedly stabilise our relations with China.

The test for the Albanese government is to know when and how to push back against bullying behaviour. Failure to get this right means China will continue to threaten our people at sea and in the air.

No Australian government should just shrug its shoulders at that reality.

This article was first published in The Australian.