Because of his blunt and direct manner, there's never any doubt about what Defence Minister Peter Dutton has said. Working out why he says it, however, is often difficult.
Take his accusation last month that Beijing was acting aggressively, and his warning that "the prospect of war [over Taiwan] cannot be ruled out". Why did he go on national TV and ramp up the rhetoric? What was he attempting to achieve?
There's certainly been a sudden, significant uptick in Chinese flights into Taipei's Air Defence Identification Zone, but this is hardly unexpected. An analysis by the Royal United Services Institute points out this normally occurs whenever the US conducts military exercises in the area, and coincides with a hardening of rhetoric from Tokyo identifying Beijing as a military threat.
China responding by sending a mass of jet aircraft sorties into the Taiwan Strait isn't friendly, but it is hardly unexpected. Last year Taiwan spent more than $US1 billion sending fighters up to meet the incursions, but it's worth noting the sorties were limited and directed against the periphery of the zone. China was just bellicosely flexing its muscles, and its actions were immediately followed by President Xi Jinping insisting reunification would be pursued peacefully. Hardly neighbourly, but nothing had really changed.
So exactly why did Dutton wander in, picking unnecessary fights with the country that is still our major trading partner?
Perhaps he was just confused. After all, there's a lot to get across in his job; perhaps he felt ambushed by the cameras and shining lights so, unaware of the detail, became excited. Perhaps, in Washington and after meeting some really important people, he suddenly imagined himself at the centre of events, a well-informed oracle of knowledge capable of unblushingly pontificating about things that in reality he knew little about. Most politicians are capable of brushing aside such questions. Dutton blundered in, talking up the chance of war. Because he didn't back down, his accusation - that Beijing is preparing for war - needs to be taken seriously. If nothing else, it certainly reflects a line the Coalition seems desperate to push onto Australia's strategic establishment.
Why? Not as a warning. Canberra doesn't have the heft or military might to achieve anything militarily. The only might this country has is soft power - using words to shape ideas. The prospect that Beijing would "reconsider" its actions in light of Dutton's words is ridiculous; America's chief can't even remember Scott Morrison's name. So the minister must have been speaking to an audience back home, here. What message was he attempting to get across?
Remember Mike Pezzullo's comments earlier this year about the beating "drums of war"? If the government seriously believed any of this it would be preparing urgently for conflict - but contrast this with what's actually going on in terms of defence preparedness. Oil stocks remain desperately low, and there's been no co-ordinated attempt emanating from this government to build up necessary stocks of essentials. Even the crucial development of mRNA vaccines has been completely left to initiatives coming from the states. Retired Air Vice-Marshal John Blackburn's detailed, accurate and excoriating report for the National Resilience Project ("Australia, a complacent nation") recently catalogued how utterly unprepared for conflict this country is. Nothing Dutton's government is doing addresses any of these deficiencies. In fact, it's doing the reverse.
The decision to abandon the French future submarine project has dismembered the nascent industrial base developing in response to the technical challenges of the project: postponing the decision on the replacement demonstrates the government isn't genuinely concerned about conflict in the immediate future. It's now become apparent this was really a decision to abandon the submarine industry. The government isn't prepared to admit this, for political reasons: it's hanging out the prospect of a future sub to hang onto votes in South Australia at the next election. Don't be fooled. No new boats will ever be built in this country. Dutton's words were completely at odds with his actions in relation to defence industry.
And, for the trifecta, let's look at our immediate defence posture and see if its configuration has suddenly altered. Joint exercises are continuing at their languid pace, and everybody in the services is looking forward to a break at the beach over Christmas. Serious mobilisation is not on the agenda and, instead of existing in reality, the much hyped link-up between Australia, India, Japan and the US only finds form in the febrile imaginations of a couple of academic hawks.
So nothing happening today bears out Dutton's words either, although that doesn't mean they're ridiculous. When warplanes are flying and rhetoric is escalating there's always a very real chance of sudden conflict breaking out - particularly when a previously weaker power (China) begins to challenge the status quo. But this isn't by any means a satisfactory explanation of Dutton's comments.
They seem, rather, to have been conceived with a simple political purpose in mind - bludgeoning Labor into submission and emphasising the Coalition's superiority in defence. The opposition flounders helplessly whenever the agenda turns to China. It's been seeking an effective response to the charge it's weak on national security, but hasn't, however, been capable of outlining (or prepared to outline) an effective way of dealing with Beijing recognising both our differences (China is an authoritarian state) and shared interests (avoiding conflict). Perhaps the ALP thinks if it ignores the issue it will all go away and disappear. And perhaps that's why the government is ensuring the drums keep beating away, subliminally.
Dutton's quite content to keep defence in the news.
He's well aware that since Kevin Rudd departed Labor has faced an insuperable challenge in reconciling the basic approach of its left and right over these issues. It's current incumbents, Penny Wong in foreign affairs and Brendan O'Connor in defence, haven't found an answer. So guess what? China won't go away, and the government will continue suborning our most important economic relationship to its base political needs.
- Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer and a regular columnist.