China is the clear and present danger, Mr Keating, so let us call a spade a spade

The ’s expert panel’s naming of China as a clear and present threat has been underscored by their call for US long-range missiles – potentially armed with nuclear weapons in the most dire of circumstances – to be based on Australian territory and the reintroduction of national service.

They are big calls. It’s more than 50 years since Australia scrapped national service after the Vietnam War and signed the treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. But in the final instalment of Red Alert, our three-day examination of the most pressing national security challenges facing Australia, the five-member panel said the sureties of the past are gone, and we face the prospect of war with China within three years that could involve a direct attack on our mainland and expose the vulnerabilities of our unprepared defence force.

Of course, nuclear is a poisoned chalice for Australian politics. Regrettably, a nuclear-free world is no longer the reality: nuclear weapons “sharing” is a standard part of the NATO alliance; South Korea is considering acquiring the weapons in the face of its neighbour’s brinkmanship.

“History has shown that if you have a nuclear weapons capability, you are less likely to be subject to authoritarian pressure by nuclear states,” says panellist Lesley Seebeck, chair of the National Institute of Strategic Resilience. The panel stressed going nuclear would be an option “only to be considered in the most extreme circumstances”. It would involve basing US long-range missiles armed with nuclear weapons on Australian territory if the US were interested in doing so.

National service may be palatable to an Australia facing conflict. Other nations, including France and Sweden, have reintroduced it. The panel suggested it could build Australia’s national resilience in our economy, society and critical infrastructure, and take both civil and military forms. Neither should it be limited to young people. The Red Alert panellists emphasised that Australia’s critical threshold change must be psychological: “The nation needs to snap out of its complacency and discover urgent effort across society. The coming war would likely be the most consequential since the defeat of global fascism in World War II.”

Our series runs as the Albanese government prepares to publish an agenda-setting report of the Defence Strategic Review, as it also puts final touches to a federal budget that must strike a balance between rising living costs and shrinking wages against huge boosts to military spending. The panel estimates that with the new AUKUS submarines project and other initiatives, defence spending as a proportion of GDP would eventually rise from the current 2 per cent to 4 per cent eventually lifting the defence budget from $40 billion a year to $80 billion.

In publishing the Red Alert series, the Herald believes that discussing Australia’s preparedness or lack of preparedness for war is responsible journalism and important for democracy.

As expected, the discussion has drawn flak, most notably from former prime minister Paul Keating and Australia’s first ambassador to China, Stephen FitzGerald. Both dropped the word “warmongering” and attacked the credentials of panel members in critiques.

Both are men of great achievement with China, especially between the 1960s and the 1990s. Attitudes to China have changed markedly since those years but not theirs, apparently. Red Alert had not completed its three-day serialisation and Keating’s jibes were premature, but he enumerates a position held historically by Australian governments – there is nothing to see here.

But China is clearly the clear and present danger so let us call a spade a spade. The purpose of the series is to identify the threat for readers, discuss our readiness and suggest constructive ways to deal with any eventuality. We make no apology for naming China.

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