One of Australia’s top generals reportedly told troops there was a “high likelihood” of war with China in a leaked briefing last year.
Major-General Adam Findlay gave the candid and confidential briefing to Australia’s special forces soldiers last year, according to a report in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald on Wednesday.
General Findlay, who has since stepped down but still advises the Australian Defence Force, reportedly said that China was already engaged in “grey zone” warfare and that Australia must prepare for the “high likelihood” it could spill over into actual conflict.
“Who do you reckon the main (regional) threat is?” General Findlay asked his troops and officers before answering: “China.”
He continued: “OK, so if China is a threat, how many special forces brigades in China? You should know there are 26,000 Chinese SOF (Special Operations Forces) personnel.”
It comes as Australia’s former chief of operations in Iraq says war with China is a genuine threat – and he warns Australia is not ready for what’s coming.
Writing in The Australian newspaper on Monday, Senator Jim Molan delivered a bleak assessment of Australia’s preparedness for a war that he says is “likely”.
It wouldn’t start as a direct war between Australia and China, but would more likely be a war that Australia could find itself fighting on behalf of its most powerful ally, Senator Molan said.
“Many ordinary Australians, not just those who have personally experienced global conflict, are awakening to the sombre reality that war is not just possible in our region, but likely,” he wrote.
“Armed to the teeth, adversaries are manoeuvring ships and planes around each other, intimidating and threatening, loaded with real weapons of war, forging alliances.”
He said Australia would be making a mistake if leaders do not act now to strengthen a military that is not capable of winning a war against “a peer opponent”.
War ‘should not be discounted’
The comments add to weeks of back of forth between Australia and China – two nations that are doing a lot of talking despite not talking directly.
If you missed it, things really kicked off when Home Affairs secretary Michael Pezzullo, in an Anzac Day address to staff, said the “drums of war beat”. Those comments made headlines around the world.
Defence Minister Petter Dutton told the ABC the same day that war with China is a realistic prospect.
“I don’t think it should be discounted,” he said. “People need to be realistic.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison chimed in, telling Sydney’s Daily Telegraph that Australia will be prepared for whatever comes.
“Our focus is on pursuing peace, stability and a free and open Indo-Pacific, with a world order that favours freedom,” Mr Morrison said.
“Working with the United States, our allies and Indo-Pacific neighbours, we will continue advance Australia’s interests by investing in the Australian Defence Force, particularly across Northern Australia.”
Just this morning, Foreign Minister Marise Payne warned Australia would not take a backwards step to China.
“We do not try to buy influence to advantage our individual countries; rather, we know that a stable, secure neighbourhood of sovereign states, in which we have networks of familiarity and trust, are good, safe places for our people to live and thrive,” she said.
China attacked Australia’s leaders, labelling them “troublemakers” with a “Cold War mentality”. An official newspaper warned of “severe countermeasures” if Canberra resorts to “provocative actions”.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Lijian Zhao responded to Mr Pezzullo’s comments with provocative remarks of his own.
Mr Zhao – the diplomat who last year sparked a furious reaction from Prime Minister Scott Morrison after he posted a doctored photo on Twitter depicting an Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of an Afghan child – said “individual politicians in Australia” were making trouble.
“(They are), out of their selfish interests, keen to make statements that incite confrontation and hype up threat of war, which is extremely irresponsible and will find no audience,” Mr Zhao told reporters on Wednesday.
“These people are the real troublemakers. I have noticed that many people in Australia have expressed disapproval on social media, saying that such inflammatory language are outrageous and extremely crazy.”
Mr Zhao added China “has been a promoter of world peace, a contributor to global development and a defender of international order”.
“As a country long benefited from co-operation with China, Australia is being untruthful and immoral with its false allegation of ‘China threat theory’. This will only end up hurting its own interests. We urge certain individuals in Australia to shake off the Cold War mentality, stop making irresponsible remarks and act in ways that are conducive to regional peace and stability rather than the opposite.”
Opinion piece could inflame situation further
Mr Molan’s op-ed in The Australian is likely to inflame things further. In it, he writes that China “wants to overtake the most powerful nation (the US)” and that Australia should “start planning” for an attempt.
Not to do so, he says, would be a grave mistake.
“To acknowledge a threat generically then return to routine business is, in the great tradition of the 20th century, culpable ignorance,” he said.
“When China acts, it will act decisively, mainly against US bases in the region, as the Commander of the Indo-Pacific Command has indicated, with allies as collateral, at least in the initial stage. If we thought a national vaccination effort was difficult, try mobilising an entire nation.”
China is, right now, poised in the “grey zone”. As news.com.au wrote last week, that is “the space between peace and war”, a place where “coercion, intimidation, propaganda and manipulation are at play.”
Australia’s chief of defence, General Angus Campbell, told a recent gathering he hopes it stays that way.
“Conflict over the island of Taiwan would be a disastrous experience for the peoples of the region, and it’s something that we should all work to avoid,” he said.
“There is a pathway to a future through peaceful dialogue, but it’s a hard path, and it needs to be worked.”
– with Frank Chung and Rohan Smith, news.com.au