Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 00:59 | SYDNEY
Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 00:59 | SYDNEY

Top Gunners: Navy firepower and China


Graeme Dobell

7 September 2010 10:40

Previous posts in this series were on Canberra measuring China's rise, China lessons from the Rudd era and a review of Hugh White’s Quarterly Essay

Television seeks high drama and vivid pictures, not to explain high strategy. So it was that Channel 9's 60 Minutes presented the China challenge as a story about naval warfare.

The yarn was called Firepower and does for the Australian Navy a bit of what Top Gun did for the flyers. In the words of Justin Jones, then commander of the frigate HMAS Newcastle (and now Navy Fellow at the Lowy Institute): 'It's the ultimate computer game.'

The footage was built around the world's largest maritime exercise, Rimpac, and what the program called 'an imaginary rogue superpower'. Not so hard to imagine, because in the telling of the story, it was all about China. Here's how Michael Usher introduced his report:

Where do you think the next great threat to world peace will come from' Iran perhaps. Or Iraq' Maybe a cave somewhere in the Afghan mountains' Well, there are some who believe that China, the newest superpower on the world block, is the country to watch. And if they're right, Australia better be ready.

Commander Jones was more polite: 'China is certainly building up its defence force and its navy. I don't know whether you necessarily draw the long bow between our capability enhancements in the Australian Navy and China. You could just as easily look at the Korean Peninsula now and raise an eyebrow.'

The Navy would love the pictures even at the expense of offending China — the 60 Minutes site links to the Navy's home page as a recruiting service to all young would-be naval war gamers and gunners.

The Usher piece is good tabloid current affairs. And to be clear, this is a straight compliment. Good tabloid journalism is high degree hackdom, requiring superior technical skills and an ability to grab the audience in the shortest, sharpest manner. To take an example that still rankles with the Navy, think of that classic bit of tabloidese: 'DUD SUBS'. This was the way the Daily Telegraph skewered the Collins class with an 80-point front-page headline on 8 October, 1998.

Another way to define the genre is the classic advice offered by Gerald Stone, which is part joke, part philosophy. The first head of Australia's 60 Minutes said that, if faced by the coming of a biblical deluge, the ABC would do a story on flood mitigation, while Channel 9 would do a personality profile of Noah.

The point of tabloid hackdom is to do serious stuff in a cut-through manner – great pictures and sharp words. This brings us to the serious point. On Sunday night, the Australian TV viewers were introduced, vividly, to the idea of China as the military enemy. The target of the high tech missile launched by Newcastle was a vessel sailed by that not-so-imaginary regional rogue superpower.

60 Minutes used Hugh White as its expert talent. But the telling of the story didn't entertain for a moment the White Quarterly Essay musings on Australia having to choose between China and the US. In Oz tabloid land, if the US Navy goes to war, so do we.

Expect such portrayals of the China challenge to feed the ambivalence that Lowy surveys have identified. This year, almost three quarters (73%) of Australians agreed China's growth had been good for Australia, but 69% also agreed China's aim was to dominate Asia (up nine points since 2008).

Photo courtesy of