Ben Harvey: Is China really ready to invade?

Headshot of Ben Harvey
Ben HarveyThe West Australian
The idea that China wants to invade Australia has sparked debate about whether we should be able to better defend our country.
Camera IconThe idea that China wants to invade Australia has sparked debate about whether we should be able to better defend our country. Credit: David_Peterson/Pixabay (user David_Peterson)

Big week in politics just gone: we “ended” the climate war with the passage of new legislation and immediately tooled up for another battle!

Senior WA minister Paul Papalia says the recently announced review into the Australian Defence Force needs to consider sending troops west.

Paul reckons WA is hopelessly undefended, particularly in the north of the State where the main military force is the Pilbara Regiment.

Before he spent his life attending school concerts as a member of Parliament, Paps was a navy clearance diver. I don’t know which vocation is more stressful.

He is also WA’s Defence Industries Minister. And Police Minister. Paul likes to be in photos holding a gun, usually next to other men who also like holding guns.

We need to consider his view of the world through that prism but, regardless, he makes a valid point that there are very few Defence personnel patrolling a vast area in WA.

VideoWATCH NOW: In Up Late tonight, Ben Harvey reveals why WA’s North West being invaded is more complicated than you think. Subscribe! https://thewe.st/subscribe

To be fair to the ADF, the Pilbara Regiment is not meant to be a fighting force, it’s a surveillance operation. The problem, as Paul correctly points out, is when they see something, there’s nobody around to tell, much less actually do anything about it.

Successive WA governments have argued the iron ore and energy industries in the North West are vulnerable to attack.

They most certainly are, but let’s be grown-ups for a moment and acknowledge from where this threat comes (hint: it’s not the Rebels Outlaw Motorcycle Gang).

The idea that China wants to invade Australia, or at least exert military pressure to make us compliant and send more Penfolds Grange and rock lobster, has sparked debate about whether we should be able to better defend the far-flung parts of our country.

Before we go further, a bit of historical context is needed. Australia’s north has never been properly defended.

In 1942 we acknowledged the obvious with a ropey plan to abandon the vast majority of the continent in the event of Japanese invasion and concentrate on saving the good bits.

The so-called Brisbane Line was never official policy, but there was something to it and it shows that this debate isn’t new.

The difference between 1942 and 2022 is there is now a lot of stuff in the north of Australia that we want to keep. And not just Cone Bay barramundi.

The problem now, as then, is we have neither the manpower nor the budget to repel people who might like to take the good bits off us.

Fast-forward to present day. Let’s assume some FIFO workers in Port Hedland wake up one morning to see a Chinese aircraft carrier off the coast (it may as well have Made In WA stamped on the side, by the way, given we supplied the iron ore to build it, but that’s another column.

And let’s assume China dispatches the carrier to guarantee supply lines of key commodities.

Some politicians are fretting that, in that event, we will end up running around like Patrick Swayze in Red Dawn (or, for younger readers, Lincoln Lewis in Tomorrow When the War Began).

I don’t know what China’s end goal is, but I do know it’s much cheaper for them to buy iron ore and LNG on the open market than it is to invade and occupy the north of Western Australia.

Also, it’s worth noting that they already own a fair chunk of it.

One of the biggest iron ore operations in the world is CITIC Pacific’s Sino Iron operation near Onslow.

Emphasis on Sino. Beijing has financial stakes in all sorts of other WA-based resources companies, as do a lot of other countries.

That’s important to understand because the Chinese, should they want to muscle up, wouldn’t be picking a fight only with Australia.

The Gorgon and Wheatstone LNG plants are owned by Chevron, which is one of America’s biggest companies.

The INPEX gas project is owned by Japan. It keeps the lights on in Tokyo.

BP (that’s British Petroleum) has a big equity stake in the North West Shelf.

The Prelude LNG facility off the Kimberley coast is owned by foreign company Shell, which counts a firm called KOGAS (that’s short for The Korea Gas Corporation) as a partner.

My point is, I don’t think we will all be forced to eat Chinese food any time soon.

And when it does happen, we’ll probably just call it food.

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