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.