Scott Morrison, in Tokyo, to warn China would start war with ‘bits and bytes’ not bullets

Key points

  • Former PM Scott Morrison will warn that in the event of war Beijing would first disable networks through cyberattack.
  • Morrison will speak alongside former UK prime minister Liz Truss and former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt in Tokyo.
  • Truss will say Taiwan should be given greater international standing and backed economically and militarily by allies.
  • Verhofstadt will repeat his calls for a European Defence Union.

Former prime minister Scott Morrison is warning that any war started by China would begin not with bullets but with “bits and bytes”, and that Beijing would first disable military systems and civil infrastructure.

Morrison’s comments will be made at the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China in Tokyo on Friday – a gathering of MPs from more than 30 nations that also features former British prime minister Liz Truss and former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, who is now a member of the European Parliament.

Scott Morrison in Tokyo in 2020, when he was prime minister.Credit:Adam Taylor

The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have seen copies of speeches by all three former leaders.

In his speech, Morrison says that Russia, Iran and China lead the world in state-sponsored cyberattacks, meaning that in any war, conflict would begin by taking down civil infrastructure and military systems.

“The first shots fired in any war will not be bullets, but bits and bytes, disabling your military systems and civil infrastructure,” Morrison says.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies Global Military Balance this week found that China’s increase in military spending in the past 12 months was its largest ever in absolute terms.

While Morrison says he is pleased that China has resumed dialogue with Australia following the election of Labor at the last election, he warns that Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s government “must be careful not to change our posture or resolve, or give the impression of such a change”.

Morrison says China has still not adjusted to the Australian and Japanese approach to be “clear-eyed and resolute” about China’s threats and behaviours, while at the same time being pragmatic about shared opportunities and interests.

“Together with Japan, as well as the United States and India, we pushed back against China’s assertiveness. We have not been intimidated,” Morrison says.

Morrison also calls for Labor to consider sanctioning Chinese officials responsible for human rights abuses in Xinjiang, where many international human rights organisations have confirmed the genocidal treatment of the Uyghur population.

“While it would be naive to believe that targeted sanctions of Chinese officials in Xinjiang or higher up would lead to the elimination of such abuses, this argument alone does negate the merit of such sanctions,” Morrison says.

He acknowledges that this could lead to reprisals against Australian citizens being held in China, but says: “one argument that should not prevail is that we would not progress such sanctions for fear of political, trade or diplomatic reprisals from the Chinese government.”

Truss, who like Morrison is now a backbench MP, says in her speech that Taiwan should be given greater international standing and be economically and militarily supported through an expanded “Pacific alliance” to help Taipei withstand China’s attempts at reunification.

Former British Prime Minister Liz Truss says Taiwan should be given greater international status. Credit:AP

“In my view that [China’s unification] would be disastrous,” Truss says, adding that the free world needed to learn the lesson from failing to stand up to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, speculating that the current war in Europe may have been averted if Ukraine had been admitted to NATO.

“We should be doing all we can to strengthen our ties with Taiwan; we know that doing more now will help prevent tragedy later,” Truss says.

She argues for an economic version of NATO’s Article 5, which pledges all NATO countries will come to the aid of any other that is attacked. She also calls for an audit of all infrastructure ownership, warning that “we cannot have a situation where Beijing has the power to turn off the lights”.

“We should rush to the defence of any nation that is picked on by targeting their trade,” she says.

Truss also backs Taiwan being admitted to the World Health Organisation, saying its absence had cost the world valuable insight that would have helped to manage the outbreak of COVID-19, which originated in Wuhan, China in late 2019.

Governments that had agreed with China to block Taiwan’s diplomatic status should rethink those moves, Truss says.

“The world has changed since then and some of these arrangements are being rethought,” she says. “We should find ways to elevate Taiwan’s status that reflects its global value.”

Verhofstadt, a passionate supporter of the European Union, repeated his calls for a European Defence Union.

“Whatever your ideas on Brexit, don’t let them undermine our common interests: in today’s world democracies need to be united, undoubtedly and unconditionally,” he says, referring to the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.

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