The Mad World of Manipulative Mendacity

How The Australian’s breaking news website portrayed China’s response on Mar. 14.

The boys are about with their tin drums again. They’re dressing in uniform and singing marching songs. The Australian’s breaking news service popped up this colourful fear-maker yesterday asserting that the Chinese have said we’re a target. They haven’t, and won’t, short of an actual hot war instead of just the megaphone blasts of hot air coming from the Anglo Club.

What Beijing has said is that because of our accession to the AUKUS triad – the Chinese know all about triads, we should remember – Australia is now factored firmly into Chinese war assessments. That’s some distance back from the locked-on with live missiles threat Murdoch’s pamphleteers would like us to think is the situation. But it would be juvenile to suppose that rattling the fence and shouting that we’re the Black Knight and we’re with our pals Last Stand Custer and Flashman Redux, and we’re inviting the Chinese to come out so we can bite them on the knees, will force them to rethink their strategy.

Paul Keating got it right when he said signing up to the AUKUS hoopla was the worst decision a Labor government had ever made. That partisan point is for ALP consideration and is valid. But it’s not only paid up, rusted on members of the ALP who are astounded by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s decision to sign up, or the carefully orchestrated two-finger salute the announcement in San Diego this week gave to China.

The Americans want us to think that China is an existential threat to their country and therefore to our own. It isn’t, short of catastrophic miscalculation on either side of a politically created divide. But China is a probable threat to Taiwan and the world should persuade it politically not to try to force reunification. China as an economy is certainly a threat to America’s desire that it should remain the preferred global destination of foreign remittances. But unless you’re a fascist or a madman, the natural relative decline of terms of trade are not a casus belli.

So to put AUKUS in a perspective not favoured by the Anglo cheer squads: America wants to stay on top; the British, having lost two empires and lately their relevance to the European mainland, want to create another empire (though this time virtual); and we’re happy to tag along because then we get to play with the big boys, are allowed access to some of their toys, and can fool ourselves that they’ll protect us from the bad guys if everything goes belly up. It would be risible were it not so painfully stupid.

It might elude all manner of politicians, though it surely does not evade capture by diplomatists, military realists, even naval types with submarine envy, or most importantly of all the business community, that Australia has strategic priorities very different from those of the UK and the USA. We live right in the middle of the archipelagic and oceanic Indian and Pacific regions that relatively declining America and plainly rising China are now contesting. We can’t just go home if the play goes against us. This is our home. I don’t think that for all their rhetoric, Joe Biden or Rishi Sunak fully comprehend that. Unless they’re fooling themselves or are being disingenuous.

To play our proper part in the sort of loose alliance that we should promote as a means of playing dominoes with the Chinese, we certainly need submarines. These need to be fully sovereign boats (the nuclear sub option will never give us sovereignty on or below the waves) and they need to be affordable.

As opposition leader Peter Dutton notes, we can’t cannibalise the entire Australian Defence Force to pay for this indulgence. It’s a pity he didn’t go on to say that successive governments have penny-pinched defence in just about every area of otherwise useful expenditure, to the extent that under-equipped RAAF planes cannot fly into high-threat areas (not even C-17, C-130 and Spartan transports, to say nothing of electronic surveillance aircraft and strike fighters). But never mind: Dutton’s in opposition; used properly, it can be a very good thinking space.

Nonetheless, the opposition is in lock-step with the government on AUKUS. Because flags, uniforms, funk, not necessarily in that order. So we shouldn’t expect too much in the way of a Reformation from the Liberals and Nationals. It’ll still be All the Way if the Big Boys Play.

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