CAVAN HOGUE: Double standards in dealing with China and USA

Why do our government and media apply different standards and rules to China and the USA? We are usually told it is because we share values with the US but not with China. Also, China is aggressive and the US is a democracy which respects universal human rights and the rules based international order.

These are truths based on faith and to question them is to risk being burnt at the media stake and accused of treason by some in Government. Perhaps we should temper our faith with reason?

The COVID app is an interesting example. While some have had the temerity to question the claim that the US Government cannot access information held by Amazon, the Government assures us this is not the case. Imagine the hysteria if it had been given to a Chinese company! I will probably download the app if my mobile is compatible not because I trust the US Government or Amazon – or the Australian Government for that matter – but because all the information I provide and then some is already available through the American firm Google.

The media has excelled itself in hyperbole over Chinese claims that Australia could face sanctions because of the Government’s pushing of a proposal for an investigation into COVID which is clearly directed at China. The only country to come out publicly in support of the proposal is the US where President Donald Trump is blaming China for the virus in an election year to deflect attention from his monumental failures that have given the US the biggest number of cases and deaths in the world. Australia has a long history of following the US into foreign disasters like Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan so is there any validity in the Chinese claim that we are doing this to please Washington? Now Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have come out with confused claims that there is serious evidence the virus began in a Chinese laboratory, a claim which their own intelligence people and independent scientists deny. Will the Australian demand for a commission be linked to this fake news?

It is interesting also that Chinese failure to act promptly on the virus is attributed to its authoritarian system. While this may well be a factor, should we also claim that American failure to do the same thing is attributable to its democratic system where the Administration wants to cover up its mistakes for political reasons? Both President Xi Jinping and Trump stuffed up royally at the beginning but Xi has at least made a serious effort to fix things while Trump continues to flounder. It is blindingly obvious that the virus began in Wuhan and was initially covered up. Why do we need an inquiry to discover this unless it is just a weapon to dump blame on China? Should it also inquire into why the UK, the US and a number of European countries were slow to react thus causing thousands of deaths? Is that not an important lesson?

We are told that threats of economic sanctions by China must be condemned. Fair enough, but what about the imposition of sanctions by the US on countries that displease it? Why do we not condemn both countries equally? Some have pointed out that in China criticism of the Government is severely restricted whereas in the US it is possible to criticise openly. This is true and many of the most incisive critics of American failures are American journalists and academics. In China they would be jailed. The problem is that the critics are not running the country and their voices are too often drowned by the Murdoch press and others condemning their views as fake news. This is not new. The Hearst press back in 1900 was just as ferocious and irresponsible as Murdoch. Senator Joseph McCarthy ran a witch hunt which the CCP would be proud of but he was eventually brought down.

The COVID crisis has brought out serous divisions in American society. There are a lot of people who do not share our values. It is not just Trump. And, in any case, there is no evidence to support the claim that democracies behave differently than autocracies internationally. Our views on human rights and democracy are based on faith which not everyone shares and few countries that claim to believe them always put them into practice. Since 1949, China has invaded Vietnam where it was defeated and has occupied some disputed islands in the South China Sea but that is it except for threats against Taiwan which it sees as part of the Chinese civil war and defence against MacArthur’s move to the Yalu and threats to bomb Chinese cities.

During the same period, the US has overthrown a number of democracies that were not seen as helpful to American commercial or strategic interests and invaded others. Some democracies overthrown were in Guatemala, Chile and Iran which were replaced by more pliant dictators. There have been many more cases of interference in civil wars such as in Vietnam, Nicaragua and Afghanistan or interference in the domestic affairs of others. Outright invasions of sovereign states took place in Iraq and Grenada. The US has flouted the rules based international order especially in economic aspects.

Do we share these values? Do we apply a double standard towards the sins of China and the US? The answer, of course is, that we do because we want American protection from unspecified threats and so must project the image of a loyal ally. President Trump has proclaimed an America First policy. At least he has the decency to admit publicly to what US policy has always been which is the same as that of every other country in the world. However, while the notion of American exceptionalism may still be alive and well in the US, it has taken a beating elsewhere.

For Australia to seek security through its own efforts or with a group of equal partners would be a dramatic change for us. To publicly abandon the American Alliance would bring down on us the kind of threats that we accuse China of making and possibly sanctions. We would lose what we get from the much vaunted Five Eyes Intelligence but how much would we really need? Cooperation against terrorism and child abusers is in everybody’s interests so would that go down the drain? We may in any case be sure the US, like us and everyone else, selects what intelligence it shares with others. However to abandon the Alliance would be a courageous political decision for any Australian Government facing a population that has been submerged with American propaganda and entertainment. Perhaps the shambles that is the USA at present may make this a more possible option but there is no sign of it yet.

Nevertheless it is hard to see the US regaining the position of international leadership it held before and it might be a good idea to think about hedging our bets. We don’t want to seek a new protector in China so how can we realistically achieve a greater degree of independence? Can we resist pressure from the US to toe the American line? Do we really want to give up our great and powerful protector even in the not so brave new world post-Corona? Do we have politicians whose only interest is internal squabbling or can we find statesmen to take us into a changing world? Who knows?

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Cavan Hogue is a former diplomat who has worked in Asia, Europe and the Americas as well as at the UN. He also worked at ANU and Macquarie universities.

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