When is it right for Australia to deploy military force?
By: Charbel Kadib
The latest Lowy Institute data has shed light on changes in public sentiment toward Australian military intervention, especially with regards to potential instability in our own backyard.
Particularly evident is the stark shift in perceptions about the military threat posed by China under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, who has overseen a ramp-up in aggression through the use of both hard and soft power mechanisms.
Of the 2,006 Australians surveyed from across the nation, three-quarters (75 per cent) said a military threat from the CCP-led regime is either “very likely” (32 per cent) or “somewhat likely” (43 per cent) in the next 20 years.
In comparison, less than half (45 per cent) of surveyed respondents shared this sentiment in 2018, when the results were last published.
But a direct threat to Australia is not the only way respondents envisage a confrontation with China, with the majority (51 per cent) justifying Australian military intervention in the event of a US response to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
This represents an 8-percentage-point increase from the previous survey published in 2019, up from 43 per cent.
Unfortunately, this scenario seems increasingly probable, with Beijing making no attempts to hide its ambitions to absorb Taiwan under the rule of the CCP-led mainland.
Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe recently warned the West not to come to the aid of the embattled island-nation in the event of Chinese military action.
The minister is on record stating, “We will fight at all costs and we will fight to the very end. This is the only choice for China.”
Such verbal threats have been followed up by continued military intimidation across Taiwan’s Air defence Identification Zone (ADIZ).
Most recently, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defence issued a report revealing 29 Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) aircraft breached its ADIZ during a single operation.
The Chinese contingent reportedly included Shenyang J-16, Sukhoi Su-30, and Shenyang J-11 fighter jets, as well as a Xian H-6 bomber and Shaanxi Y-9 electronic warfare aircraft.
In response to the incursion, Taiwan deployed combat air patrol aircraft, issued radio warnings, and deployed air defence missile systems to monitor the PLAAF fleet’s activities.
This was one of the largest reported breaches this year, following continued incursions since January 2021.
Taiwan’s Foreign Minister, Joseph Wu, said the incident demonstrates China’s military is “more serious than ever”.
“But there’s no way Taiwan will cave in & surrender its sovereignty & democracy to the big bully. Not a chance!” Wu said on Twitter.
In addition to backing an ADF response to a direct Chinese military threat to Australia or in support of a US response to an invasion of Taiwan, surveyed respondents said Australia is well within its rights to assert its presence in the region.
A majority of Australians (60 per cent) are in favour of freedom of navigation naval operations in the South China Sea and other disputed areas claimed by China.
This comes amid an increase in disruptive Chinese manoeuvres targeting Western forces engaging in bilateral or multilateral defence activities in the region.
Earlier this month, a PLAAF Shenyang J-16 strike fighter intercepted a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) P-8 Poseidon conducting “routine maritime surveillance activity” in international airspace over the South China Sea.
During the incident, which took place on 26 May, the fighter jet cut across the nose of the Australian surveillance platform, releasing a “bundle of chaff” ingested into the RAAF aircraft’s engine.
On the same day, a Chinese platform confronted a Canadian military aircraft enforcing United Nations sanctions along the border with North Korea, failing to adhere to international air safety norms.
These incidents came just days after Chinese and Russian bombers flew over the Sea of Japan and East China Sea during the Quad leaders’ meeting in Tokyo.
According to the Lowy Institute research, a greater majority of the Australian public would support ADF intervention to ease unrest closer to home.
Three quarters (75 per cent) of respondents said the ADF should be deployed to “restore law and order” in a Pacific nation.
However, this represented a slight decline in support from the last survey in 2019, down from 77 per cent.
Australia’s role in the South Pacific has come under intense scrutiny in recent months amid China’s growing presence in the region.
China recently struck a security deal with the Solomon Islands, which reportedly includes Chinese commitments to deploy “police, armed police, military personnel and other law enforcement and armed forces” personnel to the Solomon Islands.
This would build on existing security ties between the nations, with China recently sending liaison officers and anti-riot equipment to train the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force in public order.
The security agreement also reportedly provides China with greater maritime access to the island nation by facilitating, with the consent of the government, ship visits, logistical support and stopovers.
China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi had also proposed the “China-Pacific Island Countries Common Development Vision”, which offers intermediate and high-level police training for Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, the Cook Islands, Niue, Vanuatu, and the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM).
This was accompanied by a five-year action plan, which calls for ministerial dialogue on law enforcement capacity and police cooperation.
This included the provision of forensic laboratories, cooperation on data networks, cyber security, and smart customs systems.
The plan also advocated for a “balanced approach” on technological progress, economic development and national security – backing a China-Pacific Islands Free Trade Area and joint action on climate change and health.
However, Beijing reportedly withdrew its proposal after it was met with resistance from some Pacific Islands leaders.
Meanwhile, the Lowy Institute research found that most Australians (57 per cent) would not support ADF intervention to “fight against violent extremist groups” in the Middle East.
Just 41 per cent of respondents would be in favour of restoring an Australian military presence in the region.
This comes almost 21 years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, which triggered prolonged support for a large-scale Western presence in the Middle East.
However, last year’s US withdrawal from Afghanistan signalled a marked shift in the West’s geostrategic priorities, with the Indo-Pacific identified as the new region of interest.
But the Taliban’s return to rule in Afghanistan, and the continued threat posed by other Sunni extremist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda, and Iranian-backed Shia groups like Hezbollah have sparked fears the withdrawal was premature.
Rallying against Russia
The Lowy Institute polling has brought to light the extent of Australian support for military action against Russia as its war against Ukraine rages on four months after the invasion.
Most respondents (58 per cent) said they would not be in favour ADF intervention if Russia “invaded one of its neighbours”.
Despite broad support for Australian military and non-military aid to Ukraine, just 40 per cent of respondents would support direct military involvement.
Most recently, Australia gifted 14 M113 armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and a further 20 Thales-built Bushmaster Protected Mobility Vehicles (PMVs) to Ukraine, announced by the former Morrison government prior to the federal election.
This built on the 20 Bushmasters, including two ambulance variants, initially delivered to Ukraine following a request from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, taking the total number of PMVs gifted to the country to 40.
The total value of this latest support package was approximately $60.9 million, with the 14 APCs costing an estimated $12 million and the 20 PMVs $48.9 million.
This took the total value of Australia’s contribution to Ukraine’s resistance to $285 million.
Responding to crimes against humanity
Notably but unsurprisingly, polled respondents were most in favour of Australian military action to “stop a government from committing genocide and killing large numbers of its own people”.
An overwhelming majority (79 per cent) would back ADF intervention to prevent crimes against humanity.
This poses interesting questions given known human rights violations, including suspected genocide, in many parts of the world.
The governments of China, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia are among a number of regimes accused of either genocide or human rights violations against their own people.
One of former US President Donald Trump’s last acts in office was to formally condemn Beijing’s abuses against local minorities.
According to a statement released by then secretary of state Mike Pompeo, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has “dramatically escalated” a long-standing “campaign of repression” against China’s Uyghur Muslims and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups, including ethnic Kazakhs and ethnic Kyrgyz.
The State Department’s “exhaustive documentation” of Beijing’s treatment of minorities in Xinjiang since March 2017 identified what has been described as “morally repugnant, wholesale policies, practices, and abuses”, designed to discriminate against and survey ethnic minorities; restrict travel, emigration, and school attendance; and deny other basic human rights of assembly, speech, and worship.
The Trump administration went further, accusing the CCP of committing crimes against humanity, long suspected by the international community, which include:
- forced abortions and sterilisations;
- torture of a large number of those arbitrarily detained;
- the arbitrary imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty of more than 1 million civilians;
- forced labour; and
- the imposition of draconian restrictions on freedom of religion or belief, freedom of expression, and freedom of movement.
As such, the US Department of State determined Beijing, under the direction and control of the CCP, has “committed genocide” against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang.
Former secretary Pompeo directed the US Department of State to continue its investigation and collect evidence relating to the identified abuses in Xinjiang.
The State Department was also instructed to make evidence available to appropriate authorities and the international community.
The Biden administration has continued this investigation since assuming office.
But as with all the aforementioned scenarios, public sentiment toward military intervention would need be considered along with the potential ramifications of military intervention.
Most would agree decisions to deploy military force should not be left to popular opinion, but gauging general sentiment certainly offers important insight into the ever-changing attitudes of an increasingly polarised public.