The drums of war are beating, Home Affairs bureaucrat Mike Pezzullo says. But for whom, and to what rhythm? Do they beat as a challenge to foreign powers? Or as a warning to Australians who haven’t had the threat of war in this part of the world in many of our lifetimes?
Do they beat as a performance from a new defence minister and an aspiring defence bureaucrat keen to put on a good show? Or do they beat impatiently, like the tapping of feet, as military hawks demand more cash on shiny new missiles, jets and guns?
In the eyes of veteran Canberra observers, perhaps it’s all the above.
“When we talk of war, which definition are we using? If you think about cyber war, we’ve been under attack for some time. It’s not a shooting match at this stage, but things are pretty contested,” John Blaxland, professor of international security and intelligence at the Australian National University, told The New Daily.
“I think Pezzullo is saying, ‘this is serious, we Australians need to talk about war’. Maybe there’s an international dimension to this, but my sense is he’s talking to Australia, telling people ‘wake up, the good old days are over’.”
Talk of war this week felt not so much a drumbeat, but more a hammer beating Australians over the head. On Sunday, Anzac Day, defence minister Peter Dutton “I don’t think it should be discounted” when asked about prospects of Australia being drawn into a war with China over Taiwan.
“People need to be realistic,” he told the ABC.
Michael Pezzullo, secretary of the Home Affairs department – Mr Dutton’s old beat – told staff in an Anzac Day address “the drums of war beat”. The ominous message, warning of “a world of perpetual tension and dread”, was later published in The Australian newspaper.
That a bureaucrat would make such strong remarks outside his own unrelated portfolio, and that they would be publicly aired in an op-ed, was described as extraordinary by many. It comes at a time when Mr Pezzullo is said to want to switch to secretary of defence, joining old boss Mr Dutton.
By Wednesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was in the Northern Territory for an army training base photo op, talking up renewed ‘war game’ training exercises with the United States.
Who’s the drummer?
Australia’s own disputes with the Asian superpower, over trade and COVID and human rights, are well-known. But against the wider context of China muscling up in the South Pacific, making strategic diplomatic and military moves and inching forward claims around Taiwan, Australia tensions with China are not unique.
So if the drums are indeed beating, then who is the drummer?
“I think it’s a bit of coincidence, a bit of a common story being told, plus a bit of bureaucratic positioning and messaging,” Professor Blaxland said of the week-long military marketing exercise.
“I don’t want to sound paranoid or over the top, but we’re facing a more contested environment than we have in generations … they’ve used these words as a wakeup call.”
Michael Shoebridge is director of defence strategy and national security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. It’s an independent think-tank which receives funding from Australia’s Department of Defence, the U.S. departments of Defence and State, and defence industry companies.
Mr Shoebridge viewed Mr Dutton’s Taiwan warning as being about “injecting a sense of urgency” into implementing recommendations of the federal defence strategic update. Announced last year, the plan called for new investment in military assets and a boost to funding, and proponents want its progress accelerated.
“[Dutton] is trying to get more momentum behind implementing the government’s strategy,” Mr Shoebridge said.
“Overall, all these statements are about not just military strategy, but about what can be done to deter China from using military force in the region, most obviously around Taiwan.”
Professor Blaxland also linked the war talk to the strategic update.
Am ‘OMG’ moment
“The update gave more money to defence than we have done for some time, but there’s growing talk that’s not enough,” he said.
“We’re seeing them saying ‘OMG, we’ve got a defence force designed for when USA called the shots and we didn’t have to do much heavy lifting’. Now, post-Trump and post-pandemic, we’re seeing a sense of disruption, that if we want to protect our neighbours and our interests, we need to muscle up.”
Some noted with interest that when Mr Morrison was asked about Mr Pezzullo’s comments, he did not distance himself, and instead spoke about his commitment to spend more money on defence.
Former Howard government advisor Terry Barnes wrote it was unlikely Mr Pezzullo was “freelancing”; that the PM “would almost certainly have been consulted”, even that Mr Pezzullo may have been “quietly encouraged”. The Mandarin, mused whether the comments were “sanctioned”.
Former Labor leader Bill Shorten said Mr Pezzullo was “pretty switched-on” but had overstepped the mark in “editorialising”.
Former foreign affairs minister, Bob Carr, claimed Mr Pezzullo and Mr Dutton were “itching for a showdown”, while former PM Kevin Rudd complained it was the government – not China – “beating the drums of war”.
China’s foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, slammed “selfish” Australian politicians who “incite confrontation and hype up threat of war”. He blasted Mr Pezzullo’s statements, which made front-page news as far away as London, as “Cold War mentality” and “untruthful and immoral”.
“This will only end up hurting its own interests,” he said.
But Mr Pezzullo himself was unfazed, even surprised at reactions.
“It was a lament for peace,” he claimed.
“Constantly searching for peace in a way that’s vigilant as to the risks.”
Mr Shoebridge said much focus had been on the words of Canberra officials, but claimed the rhetoric should be seen in the broader context, as a response to China’s provocation – not as provocation from Australia alone.
“The last few weeks have been about diagnosing the direction of Chinese government action. The focus on words in Australia, Dutton or Pezzullo, is kind of missing the point,” he said.
“The single biggest logical trap is to characterise this as a bilateral issue between Australia and China, when this is a multilateral issue between many countries and China. They’re saying that we have deep common interests with others in dealing with the China challenge, and they we’re not alone.”