Stone the crows! Last week Clive Palmer dug his own political grave with the commentariat in an extraordinary outburst on Q&A:

The Chinese Government wants to bring workers here to destroy our wage system … they want to take over our ports and get our resources for free. … they’re communists, … they shoot their own people, they haven’t got a justice system and they want to take over this country. [i]

The next morning, his offsider Senator Jacqui Lambie dived six feet down with an equally overstated outburst against China. While Beijing is not actually planning to invade Australia now, Senator Lambie had her own view:

If anybody thinks that we should have a national security and defence policy, which ignores the threat of a Chinese communist invasion — you’re delusional and got rocks in your head …The communist Chinese military capacity and level of threat to the western world democracies is at an unprecedented and historical high. They come at a time when Australian military spending and capacity is at historic lows.[ii]

Perhaps she was trying to draw fire from Mr Palmer. Perhaps she was playing the Pauline Hanson – appealing to vestigial racism. Or maybe she was reflecting what close to half respondents to a recent Lowy Institute poll think, that China is likely/very likely to become a military threat to Australia in the next 20 years.[iii]

Not that China is ever likely to have the ability or inclination to invade Australia – but Beijing will project power to assert its authority and protect its own supply lines. As Ross Babbage puts it:

In efforts to protect energy, trade and other key interests in distant theatres, selected force projection capabilities will probably be strengthened over time so that Chinese forces can operate more frequently and for more extended periods far from the homeland. In consequence, selected surface combatants, submarines and probably some aircraft might be expected to deploy more frequently into the Indian Ocean, the Eastern Pacific and possibly elsewhere.[iv]

China protecting its own interests could easily mean interfering with ours. As Defence Minister David Johnson argues, we have to keep our exports moving – and not just to China, to Japan and Korea, as well.[v]He could have added we need to secure the supply of the 80 per cent of our oil we import.[vi]

And we could well find ourselves in strife with China if the US asked us for support in a standoff. While optimists argue we can navigate a path between the two nations and faux realists suggest the US alliance is not in our best interest the reality is that unless Australia wants to spend an astronomical amount of money on defence, we need the Americans.

While the Defence Department Issues Paper, meant to inform next year’s White Paper attempts to argue all is well now, in the same paragraph it accepts trouble could be ahead:

The government does not accept the view presented by some analysts that Australia faces a difficult strategic choice between promoting an alliance relationship with the United States or an economic relationship with China. …While the United States and China have a very close economic relationship, it is clear that China’s growing power makes for a more complicated strategic relationship between the two countries.[vii]

A stronger China means more money spent on defence.

It is all very well to argue that the Coalition commitment to increase spending to 2 per cent of GDP is symbolic (from 1.8 per cent or $29bn next year), that we need to address specific needs rather than just commit more money. [viii] But there is a big gap between the promise and the air and maritime power we need to pull our weight in the US alliance, let alone look after our own sea-lanes.

Whatever we do has to be enough to convince the US we will not free ride forever.[ix] As Crispin Rovere points out, a 2 per cent GDP target is less about defence planning than alliance management. As for enemies of the alliance, one of the strongest arguments for our own submarines is that they give us independence from the US.[x]

The only argument you will get out of Senator Lambie on increasing defence spending is by how much – she wants to double annual outlays to $60bn.[xi]

But she does not have to work out how to pay for it. Australia has not spent two per cent plus of GDP on defence for 20 years.[xii]  And the Vietnam era mentality continues – that defence spending is somehow an immoral allocation of public money better spent on health and welfare. “Most voters are far more concerned with employment and living standards, health services and education than with defence. The Medicare card is of greater importance to the security of most Australians than increased military spending,” political scientist John Langmore suggests.[xiii]

Sadly, plastic cards do not sink submarines or shoot down missiles.

Senator Lambie isn’t much help here – she does not want to cut spending on health or higher education. So from where is the extra $30bn a year for defence to come? Senator Lambie told the ABC’s Sarah Ferguson that this is what the banks make in profit and that they should pay more tax.[xiv]

With defence budget plans like that the Chinese do not have much to worry about from Australia’s defence forces.

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[i] ABC TV, Q&A, “Class cooling and corruption,” August 18 @ recovered on August 23

[ii] David Crowe, “ ‘Prepare for Chinese invasion,’ says Jacqui Lambie,” The Australian August 20

[iii] Lowy Institute, 2014 Poll @ nd recovered on August 23

[iv] Ross Babbage, Australia’s strategic edge in 2030, Kokoda Papers, 15 (February) 2011 38 @ recovered on August 23

[v] Brendan Nicholson, “Defending sea lanes ‘a priority’ says Defence Minister,” David Johnston, The Australian, September 20 2013

[vi] John Blackburn, “Australia’s liquid fuel security”, NRMA February 28 2013 @ recovered on August 23

[vii] Department of Defence, Defence issues paper 2014: a discussion paper to inform the 2015 Defence White Paper

@ recovered on August

[viii] National Commission of Audit, “7.8 Defence,” February 14, @ recovered on August 23

[ix] Christopher Joye, “Richard Armitage: why the free rise on US must stop,” Australian Financial Review, August 19 2013

[x] Paul Dibb and Richard Brabin-Smith, “We need submarines not subservience to the US,” The Australian, January 19 2012

[xi] Daniel Meers, “Rogue senator Jacqui Lambie aims her missiles at China,” Daily Telegraph, August 20

[xii] Mark Thomson, “2 per cent – can we, should we, will we?” The Strategist September 2013 @ recovered on August 23

[xiii] John Langmore, “What is the right level of defence spending for Australia. The Conversation, December 30 2103 @

[xiv] Sarah Ferguson, “Tax the banks says Palmer United senator-elect,” ABC TV 7.30 Report, May 20 @ recovered on August 23