JACK WATERFORD. Spies and non-combatants rehearsing war dances

It is becoming fairly obvious that there is a significant group within the Australian government that is spoiling for a major confrontation, perhaps to skirmish level with China.

Or which regards one as inevitable because of things China will do, and therefore wants us ready for action. Ostensibly, it is at the moment because we think that they were beastly in letting the Coronavirus get away. For many ringing the tocsin, however, that is at best a convenient, if illustrative excuse for taking the relationship to a different place. We might do business with them — but they are not our friends.

I hope that things do not go as the Australian hawks seem to want or expect, and not only for their own sakes, reputations and perhaps lives, but also for my own and my grandchildren’s. We can take it for granted that Australians do not want to live under the domination or complete shadow of a Big brother surveillance state, whether under the control of Xi Jinping or Peter Dutton. That does not demand an Australian war of independence, nor membership of a coalition intent on keeping China in a box. Nor should it involve going out of our way to annoy or insult China and its leaders over matters in which we have no great stake, playing pig in the minefield for propaganda battles designed to humiliate, or, busily, imagining our armed forces in displays of repudiation of China’s position as the big economy, and customer, in our region.

Only one of the examples of current hostilities involves biting China on the leg about the need for a searching, and searing investigation, into Chinese mismanagement of the Covid-19 outbreak, if that is what it was. That has certainly served the purpose for which it was designed, first, of seriously irritating the Chinese leadership. And focusing their anger on Australia. But it sits alongside a steady drumbeat of Australian analysis, and commentary, and advocacy reminding ourselves that China is a deeply authoritarian country, very nasty to many of its minority populations, and paranoid about the extension of freedoms to its citizens, whom it keeps under constant and ubiquitous surveillance. It is violently repressing and “re-educating” its western Uighur population, and has been, over the past year, in active conflict with the citizens of Hong Kong over their desire to control their own affairs, even if under the Chinese flag.

For those drawing up the bill of indictment, the list of reasons why China is a menace includes its marked increase in official bellicosity from Beijing directed at Taiwan, and the risk that this could lead to a major war. There’s China’s militarisation of the South China Sea, including the occupation and development of contested islands, now operating, in effect as forward aircraft carriers. There are the tensions with Japan over islands both claim. There’s China’s development of an effective ocean-going navy, and its stated intention of pushing the United States navy back beyond the first island chains, well away from Chinese shores. Then too are the tensions with the United States, first over trade and tariffs, but also about a discernible American retreat from playing the enforcer of peace and its general will in the area. As America retreats, China intends to fill the space. Add in also the instabilities of North Korea, including a possible succession crisis, and failure to resolve arguments about nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles, and its relationships with Japan and South Korea. These may not be China’s fault, but they are factors making the area more dangerous and unpredictable, with active distrust of whether China will be peacemaker or covert encourager of the mischief.

Throw in the effect of economic paralysis among its neighbours because of Covid-19, and the effective collapse of American world leadership caused by America’s seeming lack of will and capacity to play the world citizen. American domestic government is itself in chaos, of course, but that is a different thing, other than for the fact that President Trump is seeking to blame China to distract attention from his own mismanagement of the Coronavirus pandemic.  America is right now weakened, and in certain respects disabled, by lockdowns. But the presidential election timetable and Trump’s own personality threaten a premature re-opening of the economy in a war that worsen the effects of the pandemic.

China, the critics say, is trying to take advantage of American distractions by playing both bad guy – an ill-tempered bully, especially in its own immediate neighbourhood — and pretend good guy, not least in helping other countries with access to the health hardware and drugs with which to fight the virus. It is, of course, one of the ironies of the pandemic that the first world, with its dominance of scientific discovery and drug patents, had largely vacated the field of actually manufacturing and maintaining supplies of them, leaving China with a whip hand. But those cunning folk have been making them available to all comers, a diplomatic coup when, apparently, we ought to be angry at them for allowing the virus to jump species in the first place.


John Waterford AM, better known as Jack Waterford, is an Australian journalist and commentator.

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4 Responses to JACK WATERFORD. Spies and non-combatants rehearsing war dances

  1. Avatar Anthony Pun says:

    Despite the doom and gloom of Australia aligning herself with US in this new Cold War and the possibility of talking ourselves into a hot war & MAD, I hope the love of money$$$ does have a silver lining, as I have illustrated in a commentary to the South China Morning Post.
    Coronavirus: a contrarian view on why not all hope is lost for US-China ties
    First Observation: This article reminds me of the “good cop” & “bad cop” roles where criticism on both sides let fly by the ‘bad cop’ Pompeo & the some senior Colonel in the Chinese armed forces, whilst Trump and Xi remains the “good cops” Whilst the underlings battle, the bosses are on “friendly’ terms with each other. Second Observation: Whilst the Cold War of words clouds the Atlantic, the capitalist of both world continue to trade merrily. This reminds me that Money$$ makes the world go round and this old Chinese expression 有錢可以讓鬼推車 (have money will allow the devil to push the cart for you) never fails. These 2 observations, if continued, will support the article’s sentiments.
    Sanity returns when all the hot air is expelled and the man gets hungry. He has to eat and when he sit down for dinner, he would have forgotten what rhetoric bullshit he just said as it is more important to satisfy his stomach. It takes money to eat!
    Trump wants to show his political base that he has allies to back him up to call China a baddie/bogeyman – and the man goes and win his election at your expense.

  2. Avatar George Wendell says:

    Thank you Jack. As usual you have it in one, and you are always a reminder of what decent and balanced journalism is. A rarity in Australia’s increasingly narrow band of shallow and pro-US sycophant media.

  3. Avatar Andrew Glikson says:

    Claims of “moral superiority” of one country versus the other fail the test of history. The underlying and true factors for international tensions and ultimately wars are power struggles and economic intersts, which the current short-termism and journalistic bias can hardly hide. Australia is clelarly caught in the middle of the global power struggle bewween China and the US, Xi and Trump, neither being morally superior in any sense of the term.

  4. Avatar Teow Loon Ti says:


    Your article is among the reasons why I love P&I.

    Since becoming President of the United States Donald Trump has provided a number of clues that are revealing of the underlying agenda in his dealings with China. In one of his earlier speeches, he said that the United States had not won any wars in recent years, moderating it by continuing that even in its trade with China, they had not won. He intiated a trade war against China hoping to win but I believe it did not turn out the way he anticpated. The US had overspent and found themselves indebted to China to the tune of above a trillion dollars and the balance of trade was tilted strongly in China’s favour. It was obvious to everyone that the trade war was meant to address the deficit.

    Then, to everyone’s surprise, he cultivated the friendship of Putin of Russia and even Kim Jong Un of N Korea. While it may be true that he has a liking for “strong” leaders, I read it as an initiative he has taken in another attempt to contain China. His initiative to be friends with Putin, leader of a major world power to the north and west of China reminds me of Nixon’s initiative to contain the Soviet Union in the days of the Cold War by establishing friendship with Mao’s China. The same could be said of his apparent “liking” for Kim Jong Un (although he looks nothing like Melania Trump). North Korea is China’s buffer against South Korea which is a strong US ally. It looks like a clever but improbable strategy.

    When the Covid19 pandemic struck, it gave him another opportunity to get the better of China. He called the disease the Wuhan virus or the China virus. By playing the blame game, he had hoped to deflect blame from his poor management of the problem. Blaming China for the delayed warning to the world of the disease sounded hollow when he delayed taking any decisive action to contain the virus weeks after the WHO had declared it a pandemic. The US navy also punished a ship’s captain for alerting his superiors to a Covid19 outbreak on his ship. Trump not only dithered but gave contradicting messages to his people by declaring a shutdown and at the same time encouraging dissidents to demonstrate against his own order. The other unconscionable thing that he did to divert attention away from his own poor handling of the problem was to blame the WHO for being pro-Chinese and denying the organisation of the much needed US funding.

    His other initiative is to call for an investigation into the cause of the pandemic. I see two dimensions to this call for inspection. Firstly, there is the biomedical dimension, a scientific interest that is wholly justifiable. For this it would be easy for China to comply seeing that the Chinese have been very proactive advocating in joint scientific research. The other dimension is a political one designed to embarass the Chinese government. Unfortunately, the Trump government has been very sucessful in using Australian politicians as the “cat’s paw”.

    The lastest Trump antic is the call for China to pay compensation for the damage it has done to America and the world. This seems to tie in neatly with what I read on CNN news yesterday that some members of the US government had suggested writing off their debt to China. The reason that Trump is reluctant to do this is that it would weaken the strength of the US dollar. There was also the threat of downgrading of the US’s credit rating. If this is how the richest and strongest country in the world behaves and what the Australian government seeks to emulate, the light at the end of the tunnel will soon be extinguished.


    Teow Loon Ti

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