Prime Minister Scott Morrison has claimed Australia faces the “most dangerous security environment in 80 years” in a speech focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and strategic threats posed by China.
In his address to the Lowy Institute on Monday, Mr Morrison suggested a global “arc of autocracy” posed more danger to Australians than post-war conflicts in the region, or even global nuclear threats during the Cold War.
Two decades after the “axis of evil”, his claim that Australia faces a new and more immediate security threat has drawn a mixed response from experts.
Mr Morrison also spoke of bolstering national defence, with a future nuclear-powered submarine fleet and growing missile and cyber warfare capabilities “to keep Australians safe”.
“A new arc of autocracy is instinctively aligning,” the Prime Minister said via video link.
Blunt and crude
James Der Derian, the director of the University of Sydney’s Centre for International Security Studies, said the speech oversimplified world affairs.
“A little nuance would help,” he said.
“China is much more interdependent on a global economy than Russia. To pretend that you can just substitute one autocrat for another and make it your foreign policy is rather blunt and crude.
“We have our own issues in the Indo-Pacific, but they really don’t, I think, elevate us to the worst crisis in 80 years.”
Professor Der Derian said Mr Morrison was not the first leader of a political party to make an opportunity out of a crisis, but the focus at the moment should be on Ukraine.
“I think that this is a time for a bit more steadfastness and introspection rather than thinking that every lesson is already out there. Ukraine is an unfolding, highly dynamic situation,” Professor Der Derian said.
“For people who pretend that this is 1939 or 1917, or 1914: This is a new world and a new configuration of power that we have to figure out.”
Mr Morrison said that China was disturbing regional prosperity and stability.
“We’re concerned at the militarisation of disputed features in the South China Sea, where international law should apply as it does, everywhere else and we’re concerned about ground tensions in the Taiwan Strait,” he said.
The Prime Minsiter said that the invasion of Ukraine was a “moment of choice” for China, which he called on to use its leverage on Russia to push for peace, but also crucial for security in the region.
Need to be prepared
Retired Lieutenant-General and director of the University of Canberra National Security Institute, Peter Leahy, said the speech was an expansion on themes identified in the 2020 defence department strategic update.
“I think it is one of the more consequential national security statements in its breadth, depth, and vision we have seen from the Liberal Party in quite a few years,” Professor Leahy said.
“It recognises the changing nature of the security environment. It’s also correct in pointing out in stark terms that any concept that we’ve had previously of advance warning time on security threats has pretty well gone away.
“This is going to be a ‘come as you are’ war, if there is war, and we need to be better prepared.”
Mr Morrison used the speech to confirm that the government would soon build an east coast base for a yet-to-be-built fleet of nuclear-powered submarines in either Brisbane, Port Kembla or Newcastle.
But he overruled a statement made the day prior by Defence Minister Peter Dutton that suggested an announcement on the design of the new submarines would be made in coming months.
Hours after the Prime Minister criticised China for not doing enough to lobby Russia, its Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters the country was willing to act as a mediator in Ukraine and would send it emergency aid.
China and India abstained this month from a United Nations General Assembly resolution deploring Russian aggression in Ukraine and calling for an immediate resolution.
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