Avoiding a century of humiliation for ourselves.

The “Century of Humiliation” is indelibly imprinted in the psyche of modern China. Australia’s current position towards China is inviting our own century of humiliation as we ratchet up tensions alongside a United States whose hegemonic power is rapidly collapsing.

It is difficult to imagine a foreign policy that could be more counter-productive than that of the Australian Government’s towards China. Its recent Defence Strategic Update is the worst of both worlds; unnecessarily antagonising and adding further strain to bilateral relations whilst offering nothing that would make any significant difference in Australia’s ability to succeed in a military conflict involving China. Unbalanced, intellectually dishonest, and hypocritical are apt descriptors.

In crafting a Defence and Foreign Policy that has a decent chance of succeeding, particularly in turbulent and rapidly changing times, requires balance and an honest appraisal, both of our own situation, and that of the key actors. There is no place for ideology in such an appraisal. Unfortunately the Update, following on from its predecessors, does not take this approach. Rather it ignores the impact of both our own actions and that of the United States whilst highlighting those of China as being the source of instability and rising tensions. A prime example is the unbalanced coverage of the militarisation of islands in the South China Sea by China. Whilst we may strongly disagree with these Chinese actions, an objective assessment would suggest that it is largely an understandable response to the hundreds of military bases that the United States has encircling China, the controversial freedom of navigation operations of the United States Navy and an increasingly adversarial policy of strategic competition.

If the assessment of China’s actions in the South China Sea are unbalanced, then the coverage of so called grey-zone operations, actions that aim to coerce countries in ways that seek to avoid military conflict, is blatantly dishonest and hypocritical. The discussion is firmly targeted at China, whilst ignoring the actions of the world’s leading exponent of grey-zone operations, the United States. The United States has supported dozens of coups and ‘colour revolutions’ over the decades. Even as countries suffer under the COVID-19 pandemic the United States has continued its grey-zone operations against countries such as Venezuela and Iran. This includes illegal unilateral sanctions that have directly resulted in tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths through limiting access to basic medicines. Much of the recent instability in the world, from Syria, to Ukraine and even Hong Kong can be attributed to the United States application of grey-zone operations through organisations such as the CIA and the ironically named National Endowment for Democracy. By ignoring the questionable and often illegal behaviour of our allies, Australia undermines its own legitimacy when dealing with countries such as China. A cynic might suggest that human rights and the ‘rules based global order’ are only important when they further the Western world’s geopolitical agenda.

The whitewashing of the United States role in generating instability around the world is matched by a total failure in the Update to even consider the uncertain future of the United States. There seems to be a consensus that the current ills facing the United States will pass, that post Trump and the COVID-19 pandemic, it will regain its economic and political feet. For someone who has considered a Soviet Union style collapse of the United States a realistic and likely possibility for more than a decade, such an omission appears to be highly irresponsible. I have described why this is the likely fate of the United States elsewhere in detail (see here , here (pdf, pp. 11 – 22) and here for examples). The United States has from healthcare to education and the military industrial complex to the prison system become a ‘racket of rackets’ where the financialisation of virtually every aspect of life has led to structural inequality and the ongoing destruction of the middle class, political divisions are now so deep that they are irreconcilable whilst the countries institutions have become incompetent at all levels. Prudent risk management would suggest that we do not put all of our eggs in the United States’ basket at a time when the ability of the United States to offer the ‘security’ that we crave is rapidly diminishing.

Deepening our alliance with the United States, as repeatedly mentioned in the Update, at this time is arguably the greatest act of folly that the Government could take. An increasingly erratic and desperate United States is likely to continue its belligerence towards China (and other nations nation’s such as Russia, Iran, Syria, Venezuela and North Korea) in the months and years ahead, as a distraction from domestic woes, which could very well spark conflict. It is difficult to see how this could benefit Australia. Whilst an independent foreign and defence policy offers the best approach to ensure Australia’s security at this juncture, at the very least we should be hedging our bets as the future of the United States hangs in the balance.

If the United States collapses Soviet style, then Australia having ‘deepened’ its alliance will find itself in an extremely weak position with regards to China. Depending upon how events unfold, particularly if tensions rise further which seems likely, or worst-case military action ensues, Australia’s current position towards China may result in a prolonged period of humiliation for our nation, with detrimental impacts for our prosperity, sovereignty and security. This is a largely avoidable scenario but requires a substantial change in the Government’s current blinkered approach to both the United States and China.

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Cameron Leckie served as an officer in the Australian Army for 24 years. An agricultural engineer, he is currently a PhD candidate.

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