Australia’s ‘khaki’ election campaign centres on fears of China

Australia’s defence minister told the country to “prepare for war” in the run-up to this week’s general election, capping what analysts have called a “khaki campaign” by Scott Morrison’s incumbent rightwing government.

To counter what it sees as the threat from China, Morrison’s Coalition government has in recent years sealed the Aukus security pact with the US and UK and promised billions of dollars of new defence and cyber security spending.

With Labor party leader Anthony Albanese leading in the polls, the May 21 election has been viewed internationally as a potential reset of Australia’s highly assertive approach to Indo Pacific security and China’s rise.

Yet while Morrison has made defence central to his campaign and sought to portray Albanese as soft on China, analysts said a Labor victory would be unlikely to substantially alter Australia’s national security strategy. The leftwing opposition party already backs Aukus and other Coalition military initiatives and insists it is ready to stand up to Beijing.

Michael Fullilove, executive director of the Lowy Institute think-tank, said Australia had been the “tip of the spear” in the Indo Pacific under Morrison, who since becoming prime minister in 2018 has committed to upgrading its naval fleet, expanding the army and establishing a cyber warfare unit.

The US would be “comfortable” with either a Coalition or Labor government, but would watch Albanese closely on defence issues if he won, Fullilove said.

“If Albanese is elected prime minister, the Biden administration will want to see how forward-leaning he is on China,” he said.

Charles Edel, Australia chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think-tank, said security and foreign policy were playing a larger role than in any Australian election since the 2001 vote held in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US. 

“If Labor wins, we’re likely to see a difference in tone and rhetoric on China as Labor leadership has critiqued the Coalition for what it deems overly assertive and ideological language,” he said. “The general orientation of Australia’s policies, however, are unlikely to shift even if there will be changes in emphasis, funding-levels, and specific initiatives in both south-east Asia and the Pacific.”

In February, Morrison was accused of weaponising national security for political gain after he called Labor’s deputy leader a “Manchurian Candidate”, or foreign agent.

Australian opposition leader Anthony Albanese speaks in Perth on Tuesday
Morrison has sought to portray opposition leader Anthony Albanese as soft on China but analysts say a Labor victory would probably not result in a significant shift in Australia’s security strategy © Luas Coch/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The jibe was an attempt to paint the opposition as vulnerable to Chinese influence, but it triggered a rare intervention from Mike Burgess, head of Australia’s intelligence service, who said politicising security issues was unhelpful.

The prime minister has continued such attacks during the election campaign and has also sought to highlight his government’s strengthening of military alliances including Aukus, which was last month expanded to include co-development of hypersonic weapons with the US and UK.

Coalition defence minister Peter Dutton has ramped up the rhetoric, telling Australians: “The only way you can preserve peace is to prepare for war and be strong as a country, not to cower, not to be on bended knee and be weak.”

Last week Dutton accused Beijing of committing an “act of aggression” by sailing a Chinese spy ship within 50 nautical miles of a Western Australia naval communications base.

But while Dutton and Morrison argue the opposition cannot be trusted on defence, Labor’s shadow defence minister Brendan O’Connor has accused the government of “inadequate oversight and focus” on security.

Morrison’s national security credentials took a huge hit when China and the Solomon Islands signed a security agreement that Canberra fears could allow Beijing to establish a Pacific Ocean naval base.

“They’ve turned on its head the Teddy Roosevelt maxim ‘talk softly and carry a big stick’. In fact, they shout from the rooftops, but they don’t deliver the stick needed,” O’Connor said.

At a campaign stop in a Tasmanian cheese shop, Morrison was confronted by Trevor Sofield, a former diplomat to the Solomon Islands, who told the prime minister: “We have lost the plot in the South Pacific”.

“The news from Honiara of a security pact between China and Solomon Islands exploded in the middle of the campaign. It enabled Labor to point to a gap between the government’s rhetoric and the reality,” said Fullilove.

An Australian submarine arrives in Hobart
Under the Aukus pact, Australia will build nuclear submarines with the US and the UK © LSIS Leo Baumgartner/Australian Defence Force/Getty Images

Labor has pledged to spend A$525mn ($370mn) more in overseas aid in the Pacific over the next four years, but analysts do not expect it to seek major change to policy toward the region.

Lisa Curtis, head of the Indo-Pacific programme at the Center for a New American Security, said: “While some conservative Australian groups may try to scare Australian voters into equating a vote for Labor as a vote for a softer China policy, I don’t think that is necessarily going to be the case.”

Albanese could have an early opportunity to make his foreign policy mark. A meeting of the Quad — a security grouping of the US, Australia, India and Japan — is due to take place in Tokyo only three days after Saturday’s election, with US president Joe Biden set to attend.

Albanese is preparing to join the Quad meeting if he wins a clear majority; Morrison would likely go in a caretaker capacity if the election result remains uncertain.

At the Indo Pacific Expo, a defence industry event in Sydney last week, naval leaders from nine countries including Australia, the UK, Japan, India and France, shared the stage to affirm a unified response to what they regard as the maritime threat posed by China and Russia.

Asked on the sidelines of the event about the potential impact of a change of Australian government, Admiral Samuel Paparo, commander of the United States Pacific Fleet, said it would make “no difference” to naval co-operation to counter China. “They abhor our partnerships,” he said.

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