Commentary: When is it right for Australia to deploy military force?

2 Jul 2022

The latest Lowy Institute Poll has shed light on changes in public sentiment toward Australian military intervention, especially with regards to potential instability in our own backyard. Here are extracts from it as reported in Defence Connect by Charbel Kabid News Editor – Defence and Security, Momentum Media

Particularly evident is the stark shift in perceptions about the military threat posed by China under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, who has overseen a ramp up in aggression through the use of both hard and soft power mechanisms.  

Of the 2,006 Australians surveyed from across the nation, three-quarters (75 per cent) said a military threat from the CCP-led regime is either “very likely” (32 per cent) or “somewhat likely” (43 per cent) in the next 20 years.

In comparison, less than half (45 per cent) of surveyed respondents shared this sentiment in 2018, when the results were last published.  

But a direct threat to Australia is not the only way respondents envisage a confrontation with China, with the majority (51 per cent) justifying Australian military intervention in the event of a US response to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

This represents an 8-percentage-point increase from the previous survey published in 2019, up from 43 per cent.  

Unfortunately, this scenario seems increasingly probable, with Beijing making no attempts to hide its ambitions to absorb Taiwan under the rule of the CCP-led mainland.

Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe recently warned the West not to come to the aid of the embattled island-nation in the event of Chinese military action.

The minister is on record stating, “We will fight at all costs and we will fight to the very end. This is the only choice for China.”

In addition to backing an ADF response to a direct Chinese military threat to Australia or in support of a US response to an invasion of Taiwan, surveyed respondents said Australia is well within its rights to assert its presence in the region. 

A majority of Australians (60 per cent) are in favour of freedom of navigation naval operations in the South China Sea and other disputed areas claimed by China.

This comes amid an increase in disruptive Chinese manoeuvres targeting Western forces engaging in bilateral or multilateral defence activities in the region.

Pacific intervention

According to the Lowy Institute research, a greater majority of the Australian public would support ADF intervention to ease unrest closer to home.

Three quarters (75 per cent) of respondents said the ADF should be deployed to “restore law and order” in a Pacific nation.

However, this represented a slight decline in support from the last survey in 2019, down from 77 per cent.

Australia’s role in the South Pacific has come under intense scrutiny in recent months amid China’s growing presence in the region.  

Rallying against Russia

The Lowy Institute polling has brought to light the extent of Australian support for military action against Russia as its war against Ukraine rages on four months after the invasion.  

Most respondents (58 per cent) said they would not be in favour ADF intervention if Russia “invaded one of its neighbours”.

Despite broad support for Australian military and non-military aid to Ukraine, just 40 per cent of respondents would support direct military involvement.

Responding to crimes against humanity

Notably but unsurprisingly, polled respondents were most in favour of Australian military action to “stop a government from committing genocide and killing large numbers of its own people”.

An overwhelming majority (79 per cent) would back ADF intervention to prevent crimes against humanity.

But as with all the aforementioned scenarios, public sentiment toward military intervention would need be considered along with the potential ramifications of military intervention.

Most would agree decisions to deploy military force should not be left to popular opinion, but gauging general sentiment certainly offers important insight into the ever-changing attitudes of an increasingly polarised public.