There’s a lot of bull in this China shop

Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021

Well, forgetting the bull for the present, there’s a lot of blue water – literally in this case – between the fractious business of managing relations with China and doing the sort of pre-boy on the burning deck routine we’re seeing in Australia from the government and its fellow travellers. There are bogeymen everywhere, if you listen to them. Of course China is a potential problem, though far less for Australia than for others. There’s no argument in favour of telling ourselves scary stories, or for cutting off our nose to spite our face, and we certainly need to nuance our policy. We should make the point that China’s cross-strait bullying of Taiwan destabilises the neighbourhood. We can do that pointedly as well as politely. We should emphasise to China our view that, if it cannot or will not give away its direct claim to the island, it should prosecute its aim of reincorporating Taiwan – to which the vanquished Chinese nationalists fled and set up a rival China when the communists won the civil war in 1949 – by peaceful negotiated means. We need as a corollary to this to understand that Beijing’s rhetoric is not necessarily more than huff and puff and frighten the horses unless someone else does something really stupid first.

We certainly don’t need to join the Jeremiah chorus of armchair generals and recent real ones that’s found a meal ticket in predicting war in the short term between China and the rest. Add to that list the Australian minister for defence, Peter Dutton, who told the National Press Club on November 26 that China was a terrible threat and we should remember that every Australian capital city was or would soon be within striking range of a Xi dynasty nuclear missile. Mr Dutton, who is from the fearless come-outside-and-knee-me-in-the-nuts faction of the Liberal Party, likes to scare people. He thinks it will make them vote LNP. It suits his politics, and undoubtedly his ambitions, to remind us that we should constantly worry whether underneath every bed is a red, a monster, or possibly both. At least his new focus is giving us a rest from his global Islamist conspiracy. He scares me too; but it’s his jackboot tendency rather than his misunderstanding of geopolitics that unfailingly finds my spine and sends a shiver up it.

There is as yet no direct evidence to support the Dutton view that China has an overwhelming preference for subsuming Taiwan by force, or a precise timetable for this event. It’s fairly clear that it could do so if it wanted, though it’s also clear that even if it was only fighting that other Chinese army, the nationalist one on Taiwan, it wouldn’t be doing so in a walkover. Sun Tzu noted that you should fight the battles that you can win. He is of suitably Chinese origin to gain official notice among the mandarins. But Machiavelli does venal politics much better.

Former prime minister Paul Keating’s speech at the National Press Club in Canberra on November 10 was masterly by contrast. It was informed not by funk, as some who accuse Keating of appeasement would like us to think, or (refreshingly) by a political desire to frighten people, but by a substantial comprehension of the facts. He didn’t say that Australia had no option but to kowtow to the mandarins in Beijing. He said that Australia needed to define, develop, and implement its own national policy in regard to China and its latest Great Helmsman.

In other words, we need to take a pragmatic, common sense and primarily Australian view of the relationship from our own perspective. In short, if we daren’t fully abandon our historical bipartisan preference for playing upraised middle finger on behalf of the two apron strings to whom, with the new AUKUS pact, we have revitalised our historical status as auxiliaries to the western empire, we should at least try to look as if we know where we are. A clue: We’re not anchored mid-Atlantic, somewhere between the Scilly Isles off Old England and Nantucket off New England .

And no one is suggesting that supine should replace supreme as a sensible diplomatic or defence posture, by ourselves or any others. We’re not alone in the region in feeling apprehensions over China’s future intentions. India has its own China problem, in which, in a maritime environment, Australian naval power could play a deterrent role. There’s not much we can do about the Himalayas, after all. Japan is also worried. So is South Korea. And so, for a raft of reasons, is America.

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