Australia Minister Peter Dutton’s China Rhetoric

On November 26, Australia’s Minister for Defense Peter Dutton stepped up in front of the National Press Club and proceeded to make a speech that suggested China’s rise was a growing threat to the world that would likely cause conflict. Specifically, he stated that the current times ‘have echoes of the 1930s’ – an obvious allusion to Nazi Germany – and dismissed nuanced approaches to the growth of China as ‘acquiescence or appeasement’ that would leave Australia vulnerable. His speech prompted criticism from Senator Penny Wong, former Prime Minister Paul Keating, and the Chinese embassy for simplification of Chinese foreign policy, unnecessary antagonism of a crucial trading partner, and ‘desperate political tactics’.

This is not the first instance where Minister Dutton has deployed fearmongering tactics – he has also played a significant role in portraying vulnerable populations as threats to Australian lives, society, and culture. In 2018, Dutton took a few incidents of crime among the youth population of Sudanese descent and strategically transformed the issue into a narrative of African gangs seeping into Australian communities, claiming people were afraid to go out for dinner – prompting counteraction from the Melbourne public as they posted photos of themselves eating out at restaurants.

Despite Dutton’s provocations, Australian voters must be able to concomitantly hold two ideas in their minds. While China has been taking a more expansionist approach in the Asia-Pacific region and asserting its role as a geopolitical superpower, a challenge that brings forth legitimate concerns, China still relies heavily on healthy and prosperous trade relationships with key exporters in the region, such as Australia. Furthermore, not only is Dutton’s rhetoric a direct contrast to Australia’s pride as a multicultural nation, but his language is also detrimental to Australia’s foreign policy interests – Australia’s economic success and international security will be greatly protected if the region remains calm, harmonious, and cooperative. Strategies attending to these interests are difficult to maintain if you publicly overstate the threat of Chinese intentions, a crucial export partner and power with the second-largest military capabilities in the Asia-Pacific region.

Why has Minister Dutton chosen this moment, when federal election campaigns are beginning to kick-off, to make a speech about the Chinese threat, when tension between China, Taiwan, and the United States has been at an escalated point for over a year? In light of a looming election, Dutton’s strategy is transparently simple: he wants to stoke fear over an external threat to the voters’ security and values, before positioning himself as the best solution to the threat.

This “securitization” tactic is not new, as we have seen it in the United States with Donald Trump’s ‘build the wall’ and Tony Abbott’s ‘stop the boats’ campaigns. However, this tactic is especially problematic when notions of Chinese threats to Australian security exacerbates racial prejudice against Australians of Chinese ethnicity – a group that makes up roughly 1.2 million people. While Australia should maintain effective defense preparedness and capabilities, aggravating a key trade partner and global power for domestic political gain is short-sighted and creates a greater threat to Australia’s security than there otherwise would be.