28 September 2023

Did Penny Wong really just suggest China is an ‘existential’ threat?

by David Spratt, first published at Pearls&Irritations

Poster and cover of Cold War comic book, 1947

The Australian Government has a big problem with its security narrative. Preparing for a putative war with China is the nation’s top security priority, while the government’s knowledge of the growing existential threat of climate disruption and their security consequences remains a closely-guarded secret.

It is embarrassing for the government that it will not share in any meaningful way the assessment of climate–security risks delivered to the Prime Minister’s Office last November by the Office of National Intelligence (ONI), even in a declassified version. As our allies have done. Nor has it outlined any substantial policy responses.

The ONI report, if it ever sees the light of day, will likely portray climate disruption as the greatest threat to Australia, the region and its peoples, both in terms of likelihood and impact.

So how can the government square the ledger? Elevate China to become an existential threat, too? Preposterous as that may seem, this appears to be the purpose of Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s speech  to the UN General Assembly in New York on 23 September. 

Take a close look at the words spoken by Wong:

“Even as we face the existential threat of climate change… The world faces another existential threat… And that is the risk of conflict between great powers.
“[T]he modern arms race forever transformed the scale of great power competition, and pushed all of humanity to the brink of Armageddon. In 1962, one of those close calls spurred the construction of conflict prevention infrastructure between the US and the Soviet Union: guardrails that responsibly managed Cold War competition and kept it from careering into conflict.
“The Indo-Pacific is home to unprecedented military build-up, yet transparency and strategic reassurance are lacking. Tension is rising between states with overlapping claims in the South China Sea, and disputed features have been militarised. And North Korea continues to destabilise with its ongoing nuclear weapons program and ballistic missile launches, threatening Japan, the Republic of Korea and the broader region.
“When you add dangerous encounters in the air and at sea, including between nuclear powers, we are faced with a combination of factors that give rise to the most confronting circumstances in decades.”

So her story slides from existential climate risks … to existential nuclear risks … to an unprecedented military build-up due rising tensions “between states with overlapping claims in the South China Sea”.

Note the passive voice, as if Australia were a bystander rather an active participant in this militarisation. 

What is being said here?  There are three possible interpretations. 

The first is that confrontation with China may lead to nuclear war. I am not sure that most Australians understand that the government thinks that AUKUS and the US-led confrontation with China may end up in the use of weapons of mass destruction, nor would they be happy about such a prospect. 

The second is that the Foreign Minister is simply saying that nuclear war is an existential threat, which would be a statement of the obvious well recognised for three-quarters of a century.   

Or is there a sleight of hand here, a thinly-disguised imputation that any regional conflict involving China is an existential threat — shorthand: “China is an existential threat” —  without weapons of mass destruction being involved?  If that were the case, wouldn’t China’s primary opponent and provocateur — the United States — then also be an “existential” threat?

If so, that is an Orwellian redefinition of the term “existential”, and a case of false equivalence. Civilisation wrecking climate disruption is now a realistic end-game; nuclear war with China is low odds.

The Stockholm-based Global Challenges Foundation (GCF) produces an annual assessment of catastrophic risk. Their most recent is Global Catastrophic Risks 2022: A year of colliding consequences, in which the risks are divided into three categories.

  • Current risks from human action: Weapons of mass destruction — nuclear, chemical and biological warfare — catastrophic climate change and ecological collapse. 
  • Natural catastrophes: Pandemics, asteroid impacts and supervolcanic eruptions are known to have caused massive destruction in the past. 
  • Emerging risks, including artificial intelligence (AI). It notes that while AI  might not seem like an immediate source of concern, “we should remember that challenges widely recognised as the greatest today — climate change and nuclear weapons — were unknown only 100 years ago, and late response — as in the case of climate change — has increased the risk level considerably”.

“Catastrophic” is a wider term than “existential”. As the report notes, an existential risk strictly defined is one “that threatens the premature extinction of Earth-originating intelligent life”, but there is also a “weak” existential risk that may contribute to the “destruction of humanity's long-term potential". It is this latter definition that more readily applies to climate disruption and to most of the risks analysed by the GCF. 

In Global Catastrophic Risks 2022, China is mentioned (along with other nuclear powers) in the section on weapons of mass destruction, and in sections relating to climate disruption and population and fertility. There is no discussion of a regional war including China or anyone else being existential in and of itself. 

Then there is the question of likelihood.  The world is this decade charging past 1.5°C degrees of climate warming on the way to 2°C before 2050 given the continuing global political failure to reduce emissions, which are still rising. Potsdam Institute Director Johan Rockström warns that getting to 2°C means 3°C is likely: “If we go beyond 2°C, it’s very likely that we have caused so many tipping points that you have probably added another degree just through self-reinforcing changes.”  

And 3°C is close to existential in that coastal cities and nations will be under metres of water, over one-third of the planet around the equatorial regions will be uninhabitable due to extreme heat, and water availability will decrease sharply in the lower-latitude dry tropics and subtropics, affecting almost two billion people worldwide and making agriculture nonviable in the dry subtropics.  US national security think-tanks concluded that 3°C of warming and even a 0.5 metre sea-level rise would likely lead to “outright chaos” and “nuclear war is possible”.

If the Foreign Minister is drawing an equivalence between this scenario — which is probable — and conflict with China, because both are “existential”, that sounds like an amateurish attempt to disguise the dissonance of the government’s security narrative.