China’s aggressive military shows Australia needs a new playbook

A PLA warship equipped with anti-ship missiles. The PLA is risking deaths & damage when it bumps into other militaries.

Written by

Michael Shoebridge

The latest dangerous aggression by China’s military against Australia’s defence personnel – dropping flares in front of a Navy helicopter enforcing United Nations sanctions – showed us two things.

Xi Jinping is happy to see his fighter pilots and ship captains acting in ways that will, at some point, kill our and other militaries.

And the Australian Government’s China policy is not working to restrain this dangerous behaviour and limit the risk to the men and women of our Defence Force we are sending into harm’s way.

But it reveals a bigger problem: Australia’s region is getting much more dangerous much more quickly than we would like because of an aggressive China.

Unfortunately, our response is Richard Marles’ new National Defence Strategy setting out his plan for the $760 billion defence budget over the next ten years. Incredibly, a central fact in this plan is that our military will get less capable and less powerful between now and 2034, while others – notably China and its partners – get more powerful. 

So, if it’s hard to speak to the Chinese leadership now about defence matters and keep any form of self-respect, it’s only going to get harder if we stay on our current path.  It’s also going to get harder for Australia to play a constructive role in collective defence activities with our partners and allies, who are also facing Xi’s increasingly aggressive China. 

To turn this around, we desperately need a new plan for our military that acknowledges reality and increases our military power fast. Others like Japan, Poland and Ukraine are doing this. That will not happen with Mr Marles’ strategy.

On the 4 May helicopter incident itself, the Chinese government has been entirely predictable.  They have played the victim and denied endangering the lives of helicopter aircrew, while simultaneously insisting the Chinese fighter pilot did the right thing because our helicopter was trying to observe the Peoples Liberation Army training.

This manufactured story from Beijing’s propaganda machine relies on those hearing it having no memory and no access to Google search. Beijing wants to tell us  (and their actual audience in the countries of the Global South) that its military is only behaving dangerously because we’re too pushy and too close to China. 

The fact that even the Beijing spinmeisters admit this latest incident was not in Chinese waters or airspace is inconvenient for them.

But it’s not as inconvenient as the pattern of similarly dangerous behaviour by China’s military in international waters, in others’ Exclusive Economic Zones, and even thousands of kilometres from China that we’ve seen over recent years.

Back in May 2022, another Chinese fighter jet released chaff in front of an Australian P-8 patrol aircraft over the South China Sea, knowing that if it got into the plane’s engines, it could crash. In  late 2022, a Chinese warship used its laser on an Australian patrol aircraft off Darwin in the Arafura Sea, endangering the aircraft and its crew.    And there’s the infamous sonar incident in Japan’s exclusive economic zone last November that injured an Australian diver trying to make our frigate safe, which our prime minister seems to have thought best not to mention in his face to face meeting days later with Xi Jinping.  It might have distracted from the stability he was achieving that is getting Aussie wine back into China. 

The Philippines coastguard and navy have many more alarming examples of Chinese military violence and aggression, as do the Canadians, the Americans, the Vietnamese and others.

So, China’s military has form for being the aggressor wherever it encounters others, with the only remarkable fact being that so far it hasn’t killed anyone, except on the Indian border. No spin can obscure this to anyone who is paying the faintest attention.

Unfortunately, the Australian government is also being entirely predictable handling this dangerous behaviour.  The playbook we’ve seen after the 4 May helicopter incident is eerily similar to what Mr Albanese, Mr Marles and the departments of Defence and Foreign Affairs did back then, just a little faster. 

Step one is a media release talking briefly about unprofessional and unsafe conduct by the Chinese military.  That’s been followed by interviews from Mr Marles and Mr Albanese repeating these lines and noting the government has been ‘making appropriate diplomatic representations’.  That turns out to be a phone call from DFAT to China’s Canberra Embassy, without troubling Ambassador Xiao to get into a car and drive to DFAT.

When this looked bad to the Australian public, Mr Albanese told us not to worry – he’d raise the incident with Chinese premier Li if he visits in June. That’s a move that looks designed to defuse domestic criticism of government inaction. It also signals to Beijing that the incident isn’t important enough to raise with anyone that matters anytime soon.

And Defence minister Marles might mention the possible deaths of the military he presides over when he next meets with his Chinese counterpart in due course, as one of several key talking points in his briefing pack.

If Australia is serious about our security in a region where we will bump into an increasingly aggressive Chinese military more often, we need to be much more serious in what we do about this now obviously deathly dangerous pattern of behaviour. 

This has to involve our national leader and our Defence minister using all the levers they have – including direct phone calls and meetings in times of urgency and crisis like the one last weekend. And we need to be able to back our words with actions and military power. 

If protecting the lives of our Defence Force personnel matters to us, then let’s see a Chinese military attache expelled when it happens again and the Chinese pilots and commanders sanctioned, and let’s hear about Mr Albanese – and Mr Marles – speaking urgently and directly with their Chinese counterparts. All that is essential at the time these events happen. 

But to really shift the dial and help make Australians safer in our more dangerous world, this has to be backed by a credible plan with actions that grow our military power quickly and let us use that power to work more closely with the partners and allies who share deep interests in deterring and restraining China.

Let’s change the playbook to one that can work.

A version of this article was first published in the Australian.