Our lapdogs yap from a safe distance

The western world will probably see the absorption of Hong Kong, or Taiwan, as something that affects its national interests, in a way that the fate of Tibetans and Uighars does not.

Just what the west would, or could do, adjacent to Chinese territory is not so clear. One can see the Americans raining a shower of missiles, alongside Taiwan’s if China crossed the Taiwan Strait, but  I cannot see the commitment of its troops to a struggle it could not win. Likewise with any impulse to show solidarity with Hong Kong, other than by grandstanding, sanctions, and willingness to accept refugees, if they can get out. Hong Kong has shown considerable power to resist a political takeover, but it has no military power and would not be helped by foreign troops engaged with Chinese ones.

The world recognises that Hong Kong is a part of China, and for reasons of history can never again be severed from it. Beijing is far from sentimental about the rights it has promised Hong Kong, or about  arguments that anything less than those rights is a breach of human rights. The biggest argument against a takeover is the damage it would do to the Hong Kong — and ultimately Chinese – economy were its central banking system and its legal system to collapse, were there to be a flight of capital, and were there to be a loss of some of China’s best and brightest entrepreneurs.

China has been absolutely indifferent to international criticism of its treatment of the Uighurs, or Tibetans, to its repression of a democracy movement at Tiananmen square. There is no evidence of moderated behaviour in response to such criticism (except during a period of especial sensitivity during the 2004 Olympics). With the support of perhaps a third of the world, including most of ASEAN, it regards what it does to its citizens as a purely internal affair, with which no other country can meddle.

For decades Australia was willing to sever human rights concerns from ordinary matters of trade or diplomatic relations — consigning them instead to an annual, and fairly meaningless “dialogue”. Even now, those warning of the risks of greater Chinese influence, and military power, in the region tend to focus on its being an authoritarian state, controlled by the communist party, and generally oppressing its populations, including with an increasingly sinister mass-surveillance system. Not many garments have been rent with specific internal examples of its beastliness.

Instead the focus on the risk from China has been on its increasing military power, and its open ambition to be able to push the US and its allies to the first island chain. There is a fear of Chinese aggression in the South China and East China sea, but, rather more, worries about attempts by China to dominate and control the area by its general influence rather than by force in war.

Our would-be warriors are willing to put Australian lives at risk rather more from dread interpretations of China’s behaviour than clear intelligence of its sinister intent. Thus China’s arguments with its neighbours about islands in the South China Sea are focused in terms of fortification and extra capacity to project power. Whether in fact China has any right to possess such islands, there is little that it has done that has actually much increased its military or maritime power in the region. It is an inference that it wants to control fishing operations, or oil and gas exploration, or that what it is doing is much of a threat to the peace. China and the US have somewhat different notions about what freedom of navigation means — particularly as to the transit of warships — but there is no evidence that China has plans to interfere with the movement of ships. It is certainly seeking greater influence in South East Asia and the Pacific — more than enough to spark some rivalry from nations such as Australia — but little as we might like it, that does not prove that China is pursuing an expansion of its territory, by force if necessary.

A recent Congressional Research Service paper on US-China strategic competition remarks that China appears to have identified the assertion and defence of its maritime territorial claims in the South and East China seas, and the strengthening of its position in the South China Sea as important national goals. No great surprise there.

“To achieve these goals, China appears to be employing an integrated whole-of-society strategy that includes diplomatic, informational, economic, military, paramilitary/law enforcement and civilian elements.”

“In implementing this integrated strategy, China appears to be persistent, patient, tactically flexible, willing to expand significant resources, and willing to absorb at least some amount of reputational and other costs that other countries might seek to impose on China in response to China’s actions. “

What’s not so clear is whether Australia has anything of the sort of integrated strategy, or the focus and sense of enduring national interest that China appears to have. China and the US are engaged in a trade war, one which threatens to get worse in the short term as Trump manoeuvres to get, or enforce concessions from China in the lead-up to the elections.  Trump has also significantly upped the ante in general belligerent talk about China, in threatening sanctions, in recommitment to alliances, including with Taiwan, and in blaming America’s spectacular Covid-19 mismanagement on China rather than himself.  China, which is said to prefer that Trump be re-elected, on the basis that he is doing serious damage to the western alliance system, is as openly irritated with the White House as it is when it swats Australian politicians baying for war. No one could be more aware than China that our dogs never actually nip at the heels.

Australia is at as much risk of becoming a collateral casualty of this trade war, as it is of getting specific retaliation for its own antagonistic and quarrelsome attacks on China, not least those which appear to presuppose that military conflict is inevitable, perhaps desirable, and maybe imminent. One can take it that newly published strategic assessments, increased and refocused defence spending and attempts to talk up the cyberwar threat are rather more focused at Australian public opinion — and the maintenance of some sort of external crisis as a distraction from the economic slump– than they are of terrifying China to mend its ways. Of course, without much risk to itself,  China can wage economic war against us more easily than it can mobilise the shipping and guaranteed lines of communication which could actually amount to some effort to conquer, or seriously coerce or control us. Whether or not they expect that any confrontation would be with or without a significant American (or Japanese, or Indian, or Korean, French, British or Vietnamese or ASEAN) intervention, a good deal of the Australian baiting of China has the appearance of being from a very safe distance.

Right now that might support a political strategy — perhaps even one creating a sense of “crisis” and threat justifying an early trip to the polls before the economy worsens. It also bolsters an image of a “tough” prime minister standing up to international bullies. Whether the nation as a whole benefits from significantly lessening influence in Beijing, an increased impression that Australia is but an expensive American lapdog barking noisily but harmlessly from a safe distance, or a risk to our export trade is another matter.  A case in point might be Hong Kong’s fate. Honestly are we now in a position to counsel China to be nice, or have we talked ourselves out of the room?

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

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