The chair of parliament's powerful security and intelligence committee has warned Australia against underestimating China, pointing to the experience of Europe in the face of an aggressive Nazi Germany.
Federal Liberal MP Andrew Hastie says Australia will face its biggest democratic, economic and security test over the next decade as China and the US compete for global dominance.
The West once believed economic liberalisation would naturally lead to China becoming a democracy, just as the French believed "steel and concrete forts" would guard against Germany in 1940.
"But their thinking failed catastrophically. The French had failed to appreciate the evolution of mobile warfare," Mr Hastie wrote in an opinion piece published on Thursday in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
"Like the French, Australia has failed to see how mobile our authoritarian neighbour has become."
The former SAS captain said Australia had ignored the role of ideology in communist China's push for influence in the Indo-Pacific region.
"We keep using our own categories to understand its actions, such as its motivations for building ports and roads, rather than those used by the Chinese Communist Party," he said.
Mr Hastie noted western commentators once believed Josef Stalin's Soviet Russia was the "rational actions of a realist great power".
"We must be intellectually honest and take the Chinese leadership at its word," he wrote of President Xi Jinping's speeches referencing Marxist-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought.
Australia faces a delicate diplomatic balancing act with the US, the nation's closest strategic ally, and major trade partner China, going toe-to-toe in a trade war.
Mr Hastie said it was impossible to forsake America or disengage from China.
He said almost every strategic and economic question facing Australia in coming decades would be viewed through competition between the two superpowers.
"The next decade will test our democratic values, our economy, our alliances and our security like no other time in Australian history," the Liberal backbencher wrote.
After debate over a Chinese company having a 99-year lease on Darwin's port reignited during the week, Mr Hastie said there were broader issues to consider.
"Right now, our greatest vulnerability lies not in our infrastructure, but in our thinking," he said.
"That intellectual failure makes us institutionally weak.
"If we don't understand the challenge ahead for our civil society, in our parliaments, in our universities, in our private enterprises, in our charities - our little platoons - then choices will be made for us. Our sovereignty, our freedoms, will be diminished."
Australian Associated Press