Being driven to war with China by government folly. How to change course?

May 20, 2021
Great Wall feature
(Image: Unsplash)

Essays by Max Suich on 16, 17, 18  and 19 May 2021 in the Australian Financial Review have unearthed the dreadful path of mismanagement of Australia’s relations with China since 2017, entrapping us foolishly in a path to war. We have to end this folly. Machinery of government is bung, leadership is out of control. Change is almost certainly dependent on the election of a different government, a government fearless and clear-minded and persuasive. I am not hopeful, but we have to work on it.

In the 1970s, an era in which ideas flowed, a jewel of Fairfax publishing was the National Times— a remarkable weekly provocative and entertaining thing eagerly anticipated, with everything worth reading. At the helm for many years was Max Suich, who was a tireless example of investigative reporting, setting an example for us all today in this world of citizen-journalism dominated by blurt and opinion rather than grunting research.

Max has now penned a series of essays on the trashing of the China relationship by the Turnbull-Morrison regimes and the devastation of our capacity for sensible national strategy policy development. He focuses on the heightened risk, of our own creation, of involvement in another unwinnable war.

The fourth essay rounds up discussion in the previous essays and reaches a demanding conclusion:

“A bleak but realistic view is that if the hawks of Washington and Beijing are not stifled, if compromise is rebuffed, war will be the consequence, a disaster for Taiwan and the combatants and a disaster for the rich and growing economies of our region.”

I find that statement to be sober and sensible.

Suich also makes clear that the conflict orientation of ‘policy’ towards China goes back to Rudd and Beazley. Beazley earning the nickname of ‘Bomber’ when defence minister long ago, Rudd the endorser/architect of sweeping new defence acquisitions, most notably a small swarm of very expensive submarines: a project sinking, a prospective date for acquisition being a time when they are likely to be useless. Constantly we run with mind frames from past wars. Beazley had no entitlement to advise the US as he did when Ambassador to Washington that we would be committed if there was war over Taiwan, because of ANZUS. The text of the ANZUS treaty is here. Articles III and IV oblige us to consult and “act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes.” Beazley’s actions, doubtless on direction from Canberra, show flagrant disregard for constitutional process – if we consider that to mean something more than a secret decision by government and a Hail Mary pass to the Yanks.

In fact, the war drumbeat agitation, the choice of militancy over positive engagement with the region is arguably a breach of Article I of the ANZUS Treaty:

The Parties undertake, as set forth in the Charter of the United Nations, to settle any international disputes in which they may be involved by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security and justice are not endangered and to refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force in any manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations.

I wonder how many ministers and their advisors have read the treaty, let alone the Charter of the United Nations. The UN Charter, abused but important, was drafted in the last days of WWII, at a conference in San Francisco. It is time we dragged ourselves back towards these fundamentals of decent conduct. We need to end the strategic weasel-sneak, as evident in climate negotiations, of “why should I do better than those people over there”. Exemplary conduct has to be led. Only by exemplary, non-racist, equal-terms, communicative and collaborative conduct will we earn respect in the region. I wrote about that here. We are as the Chinese Global Times dismissed us in a recent editorial, just running dogs of the US. The United States of course has less than full commitment to the UN. Trump did this; we did not speak up. Biden restored commitment to the WHO, the Human Rights Council, and climate process; but the US hostility to the International Criminal Court remains steadfast.

Suich’s essays need to stand as fundamental reading for anyone wanting to manage and hopefully change the disastrous course we face internationally. Central to the story is that the Australian government has moved ahead focused on saying things prompted by its right-wing and the intelligence community, bogeyman things, without sensible forethought.

Also read this December 2019 article by Laura Tingle about the collapse of policymaking in the Australian public service and the shift to demands that the public service be focused on implementing and delivering services, diminishing its policy advisory role.

It is clear that Suich’s work is very well-sourced. He summarises:

“Our new approach did not define some new relationship to pursue with China or any new strategy – other than bureaucratic shorthand phrases that became transformed into slogans: ‘push back’, ‘call out’ and ‘out in front’.”

That does not add up to foreign policy. Suich also makes the point that in contrast to the US, Japan and others, there has been a lack of discipline and an excess of ill-thought utterances from different members of government. Thus things crashed.

There is a broader context in the government’s adoption of a defence strategy released on 1 July 2020 as a national strategy about which I wrote here. A defence strategy addresses fighting capability and thus focuses on finding threats. A national strategy should be something much wider, with war as a last resort and dangerous, with national security seen as making the nation advanced and confident and a worthy contributor to a vigorous region. There has been no serious debate about this government decision, no fuss over the planned price of $270 million in defence force development. No questions have arisen in the national debate about relative advantages to Australia’s security of such expenditure on physical, social and economic infrastructure, taking up challenges in energy and climate, to make Australia into a worthy participant in regional affairs.

Search in this essay (first of the three links above) for ‘1930’ to see several comparisons made with that era. My apprehension is that this era in Australian public life, with timid Labor opposition and self-marginalising performance by The Greens, bears more comparison with Italy in the 1920s, when moderates were rolled up, mistreated and left behind in the rise of fascism. Fascism as a term is on the nose. Fascism as actuality is on the rise in Australia, adopting this definition:

“[A] form of political practice distinctive to the 20th century that arouses popular enthusiasm by sophisticated propaganda techniques for an anti-liberal, anti-socialist, violently exclusionary, expansionist nationalist agenda.” – Robert Paxton

But of course, it’s not limited to the 20th century. Fascism is on the rise in the dis-United States. Suich notes the way Australia rushed to endorse Trump policies and get ahead of them. He also refers to the hostile and violent (violent language and physical intimidation if not physical violence) pursuit in Australia of individuals with alleged dangerous connections with China; plus the intimidation of the Chinese Australian community and their apprehensions about participation in public life.

Suich informs us of the electrifying effect on thinking in Canberra of Chinese sanctions on South Korea (Republic of Korea/ROK) in 2017. Let’s look at the facts. In 2017, in the early shouting and weapon-shaking phase of Trump’s dealings with North Korea, there was domestic political upheaval in South Korea with the ousting of a conservative president on grounds of corruption by popular referendum. Then there was the election on 10 May of a new and current president, Moon Jae-in, on the back of mass demonstrations calling for reform.

In the run-up to that election, the US secured agreement of an interim caretaker (still conservative) government to the installation in South Korea of THAAD missile systems, notionally for defence against the north but actually not very good at short range work while possessed of advance capacities for radar cover of China. That action precipitated China’s sanctions. It is noteworthy that the sanctions came to an end with sensible management of the China relationship by President Moon. The relationship resumed and continues to grow apace politically and economically, though impeded by US sanctions on trading with China. South Korea is actually a sensible model or study for us. Though scarcely known here, South Korea has a GDP approximately the same as Australia’s, leads the world in the production of memory chips and is second only to Taiwan in the production of microprocessors.

The ROK finds its way diplomatically as well as geographically between China and Japan, North Korea, the US and Russia. (It will be interesting to see the outcome of the Biden-Moon summit in Washington on Friday 21 May—as an indicator of the ability of a progressive government in an allied country to achieve support for its regional role rather than the American tendency to go over their heads, not just on policy towards North Korea but also perhaps with preference to manoeuvre to enhance the prospects of Moon’s replacement with a conservative president in 2022—presidents serve one five year term only.)

Suich writes of what the Morrison government has done:

“The costs are:

  • We have no option, if Washington or Beijing risks war, other than to be deeply involved in the conflict;
  • There is no hedge, if domestic circumstances in the United States force a compromise or even a Nixon-like U-turn and American power in East Asia declines;
  • The policy flexibility of Singapore, Japan and New Zealand, who retain dialogue with China, is foregone;
  • We confront a costly deep freeze in relations with China that could, come an inevitable commodity price downturn, send our economy reeling;
  • We have cast a deep shadow over the lives of the Chinese-Australian community.

How unnecessary was this?”

It was not necessary at all, of course, other than to feed simplistic chauvinist fascistic desires to grab the vote for as long as possible and damn opposition.

The bigger question is how to find a new direction? How do we shift public thinking? It won’t work, won’t persuade just to say “junk the alliance” as is said from time to time in this blog. It won’t sell politically because we are immersed in American culture. Look at what is popular on TV, where programs are sourced. Inspect the magazines that no longer litter waiting rooms. See what’s currently popular on Netflix. Concentrate on the feasible and be conscious that those to be convinced are not reading here. There’s little time.

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