No war with China, cold or hot

Aug 7, 2020

Australia must say no to any war with China, cold or hot. We must not follow US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in characterising US-China relations in Manichean terms, such as “freedom and democracy against tyranny”.

Pompeo’s insistence on total condemnation of the Chinese Communist Party aims at regime change, and threatens China. The Joint Statement released on 28 July at the end of the AUSMIN talks in Washington was replete with hostility directed against China, some of it direct, some of it couched in terms that could cover any country.

What was remarkable was the following half-hour “press availability” by Pompeo, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Australian Ministers of Foreign Affairs Marise Payne and of Defence Linda Reynolds.

I watched the press conference in full, gaining two strong impressions. The main one was the strident anti-China rhetoric of the Americans, especially Pompeo, which was lacking from the Australian side. The other was the reference to shared values and long-term friendship by all four, but with the Americans praising the Australians more than the other way around.

In his California speech of 23 July, Pompeo charged Xi Jinping with being “a true believer in a bankrupt, totalitarian ideology”, which “informs his decades long desire for global hegemony of Chinese communism”. He claimed the People’s Liberation Army’s purpose was to “expand the Chinese empire”. He said that “securing our freedoms from the Chinese Communist Party is the mission of our time” and called on the world to end any policy of engagement with China. He also claimed that the “biggest lie that they [the Chinese Communist Party] tell is to think that they speak for 1.4 billion people who are surveilled, depressed, and scared to speak out”. In effect, he called on the Chinese people to help the US overthrow the CCP.

The same kind of poisonous and outdated rhetoric was evident in his comment at the AUSMIN press conference. He talked of the “Chinese Communist Party’s malign activity in the Indo-Pacific region, and indeed all around the world”. He praised the Morrison government “for standing up for democratic values and the rule of law, despite intense, continued, coercive pressure from the Chinese Communist Party to bow to Beijing’s wishes”. Pompeo seems to me to be completely out of touch with reality, almost as if he lived on another planet. The revival of the image of China bent on imperial expansion and global hegemony would be ridiculous were it not so dangerous.

What was striking to me was that the contributions both of Payne and Reynolds were completely lacking in the kind of hyped-up attacks on China that Pompeo and Esper favoured. Although it is true that they talked of expanding partnerships aimed against China, there were very few direct attacks. They made no attempt to divide China or the Chinese people from the CCP, a theme pushed hard in recent pronouncements of both Americans, especially Pompeo.

After the introductory comments, one reporter asked Payne whether Pompeo’s “admonition” of 23 July “to help the Chinese people change the Chinese Government” was either possible or wise. Payne dodged the question altogether but commented:

“We don’t agree on everything. We are very different countries. We are very different systems, and it’s the points on which we disagree that we should be able to articulate in a mature and sensible way …. As my prime minister put it recently, the relationship that we have with China is important, and we have no intention of injuring it, but nor do we intend to do things that are contrary to our interests, and that is the premise from which we begin.”

This was a reasonably direct disagreement, made stronger by the fact that she looked at Pompeo quizzically as she spoke, as if deliberately digging against him.

On the other hand, my second major impression of the press conference was that both sides were keen to emphasize shared or common values and close and long-term friendship. Esper commented on a shared sacrifice that had seen the two countries fight “shoulder-to-shoulder in every major conflict since World War I”. Both men praised Australia for actions and policies they had adopted against China. Esper said that “we applaud Australia for pushing back against the CCP’s brazen economic threats and coercive behaviour and increasing risk of retaliation.”

Despite Payne’s disagreement over China, the general impression was of two subservient women trying to please two rather domineering men. Australian leaders are not as hawkish against China as American, but they are moving too far and too quickly in that direction.

It is crystal clear that the Trump Administration is launching a new cold war against China and the possibility that it will turn hot cannot be ruled out. If the Democrats win the November election, there could be a policy change, but there’s no guarantee of that. The United States has become an extremely divided society, but if there is one issue that unites the Republican and Democrat leadership, it is hostility to China.

Will Australia join in? It looks as if it might, but it is not a foregone conclusion. Pompeo’s black-and-white implication that the Chinese people are ready to join a US-driven rebellion against the CCP seems very far-fetched to me, as a frequent visitor to China. What is true is that the extremism we see in the Trump Administration has strongly stoked anti-Americanism among the Chinese, especially the intelligentsia.

As Marise Payne says, Australia should begin from the premise of doing things favourable to its national interests. I can’t think of anything less in our interests than taking part again in a war, cold let alone hot, with China. It is by far our largest trading partner. Before COVID-19, there were more students and tourists in Australia from China than from any other country. If we want to make them think more actively about staying at home or visiting some other country, the best way to do that would be to take part in the US-inspired cold war

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