A top-ranking security official’s startlingly grim China prediction made global headlines this week but it could end up backfiring, says Joe Hildebrand.
A top-ranking security official’s startlingly grim China prediction made global headlines this week but it could end up backfiring, says Joe Hildebrand.

Truth behind ‘alarming’ China warning

OPINION

There are many ways in which a top-ranking national security official can write a public memo warning of a potential war brewing on the home front.

Accidentally is not one of them.

And so what is most alarming about Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo's now infamous "opinion piece" - as his new minister described it - is not the sentiments he expressed or the language he used, but that so many would-be experts have dismissed it as reckless or inflammatory.

Public servants may be rightly criticised for many things, but recklessness and inflammation are what they are programmed not just to avoid, but to actively suppress.

Indeed, in the high-stakes and hypersensitive fields of defence, foreign affairs and homeland security, there is a whole language of bureaucratic and diplomatic doublespeak - incomprehensible to any native English-speaker - which is deliberately designed to strip any emotion and meaning from the words themselves.

Even the characterisation of Pezzullo's words as an opinion piece by new Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews is telling. Public servants are not supposed to have opinions, and certainly not public ones. They exist solely to provide advice to ministers and then enact the minister's opinion on those aspects of the advice he or she chooses to accept.

And so the notion that a public servant as experienced, intelligent and highly-ranked as Pezzullo has simply gone off-script or got a rush of blood to the head in posting his Anzac Day address on the departmental website is far more naive and careless than anything Pezzullo himself would ever say or do.

For those who are living under a rock in the Simpson Desert, here are the words that have made headlines around the world:

"Today, as free nations again hear the beating drums and watch worryingly the militarisation of issues that we had, until recent years, thought unlikely to be catalysts for war, let us continue to search unceasingly for the chance for peace while bracing again, yet again, for the curse of war."

RELATED: China warns of 'severe countermeasures'

Michael Pezzullo’s words made headlines across the globe. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Gary Ramage
Michael Pezzullo’s words made headlines across the globe. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Gary Ramage

This sentence would likely be seen by the average reader as a statement of the bleeding obvious or mere rhetorical flourish. However, the language of diplomacy explicitly forbids rhetorical flourish and statements of the obvious are equally forbidden to the public service - at least until several high-cost feasibility studies have been conducted.

And so it has been almost universally interpreted as a warning about the threat posed by China as it pursues territorial expansion in the South China Sea, trade embargoes as payback for perceived political slights and "reunification" with Taiwan. Those on the left who are obsessed with the concept of consent might want to apply that lens to just how consensual such a reunion might be.

The adroit China watcher Senator Rex Patrick posited on Sky News this week that this raised two key questions: Was Pezzullo right, and should he have said it? His answers were, respectively, yes and no.

But there is a much more significant question that looms behind all of this - namely, was Pezzullo really just shooting the breeze on the Home Affairs website?

For all of the reasons outlined above, the answer is clearly no. Even if he passionately held these views, which he no doubt does, there is no way such a smart and wizened Canberra veteran would blurt out such a thing without it being sanctioned, supported and sought after by his political masters.

RELATED: Radical idea to nullify China threat

 

Indeed, the new Defence Minister Peter Dutton made similar comments about wars coming closer to home mere days before Pezzullo's piece and it caused a fraction of the hand-wringing in Canberra. Dutton was of course assumed to be acting as his hawkish, media-savvy self, but when a top bureaucrat echoed the sentiment, the proverbial really hit the propeller.

Likewise a piece in The Australian from a top adviser to former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop happened to drop in the same week. China's aggressive expansion was not inevitable, academic John Lee argued, and could be resisted.

And then of course came the bombshell announcement of Australia's "Northern Shield" - a multimillion-dollar upgrade of defence capabilities in the Territory.

Obviously none of this is a coincidence. Australia is doubling down on its stance against Chinese trade aggression and a decision has clearly been made to test the strength of China's resolve.

It is also probably no coincidence that this occurred after a couple of chats with US President Joe Biden about climate change and "the Quad" - the loose and embryonic alliance between the US, Australia, Japan and India that is hoped to act as a counterweight to China's expansionist ambitions.

Such is the grand scale of international politics and posturing and Pezzullo's piece was clearly designed to draw a new line in the sand. Anyone who thinks he was simply talking out of school probably needs to go back there.

The hope, of course, is that this dissuades China from a Taiwan takeover. Talk of war is almost always intended to avoid it, not start it.

Whether it works or not is another question altogether.

 

 

Originally published as Truth behind 'alarming' China warning



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