Playing to the local gallery on crimes in Afghanistan

It’s hard to escape the feeling that most of the heat and light generated by Scott Morrison’s fury at a cartoon by a middle-level Chinese tiger cub was designed for Australian, rather than Chinese, consumption. Regardless, it could be a dangerous strategy. 

Had Morrison wanted any movement in our direction from the Chinese, it is unlikely he would have “demanded” an apology he must have known would never come. Indeed he must have known that the form of his protest could only lead China’s senior leadership to double down.

Could a worsening of the trading relationship — or merging an increasingly tense economic dispute with the US-China tussle over power and influence in south-east and north Asia — be in Australia’s interest?

Only if one had concluded, or knew, war between China and America was inevitable, or that China had determined on a major breach of the regional peace, for example by the invasion of Taiwan, the unleashing of North Korea, or the complete incorporation of Hong Kong.

After any of these, relationships could never be the same again. Anything is possible, I suppose, not least with the Trump legacy in the US.

But it is hard to see why Australia is moving so decisively towards the front. We are not seeing this behaviour from Japan, South Korea or India, let alone by any of those of the nations of South East Asia who view Chinese expansion — if and when it occurs — with trepidation. It is even more difficult to understand our apparent compulsion to spit in the Chinese face.

It is that compulsion, rather than our stout defence of human rights, that seems to have caused China to show its displeasure through trade punishment.  We are, on the one hand, regarded by them as a pipsqueak in international affairs, with little in the way of a moral stump allowing us to lecture them, least of all about human rights. We are also,  on the other, an ungrateful nation that has benefited enormously from privileged access to trade trade with China, in a way that has worked to benefit both countries.

Our recent prosperity has been tied to China’s rise — whether in iron ore, coal and other mineral exports or as a premium destination for Chinese students and tourism. China never initially complained strongly that Australia was closely allied, in defence terms, to the US, though it often chided us for meekly supporting American trade grievances, or posturing in North Asia, as being directly against our own interests.

China has increasingly been signalling its displeasure by arbitrary cuts to trade in particular goods — cuts that hurt Australia far more than China. That might be described as bullying — a little less convincingly as part of a Chinese pattern of dealing with any country that displeases it. It may be one thing to be determined not to be bullied, or to be seen to be bullied. It may also be important that Australia show that it has a continuing concern for human rights and democratic forms of government — concerns it will not lightly sacrifice on the altar of trade. It is another thing altogether to go on picking new fights and inviting fresh forms of retaliation. This is what the Morrison government appears to be intent on doing.

The tweet “meme” — whatever that means — seems to have invited a conga line of loyalty oaths, and claims that “my outrage exceeds thine” from all who engage in such lemming-like activities — including, predictably, the Labor leadership. It seemed to take Labor, in particular, a while to wonder whether over-egging the outrage pudding was really in Australia’s interests.

Meanwhile, Morrison seemed to keep raising the ante. If I were China, I would not have apologised, but congratulated myself on the arrow hitting the bulls eye. Morrison, indeed, seemed to start playing both sides of the fence, calling for a resumption of ordinary trade and of civilities even as he was making it impossible. It was even seeming to dawn on Coalition figures, from the Treasurer down, that the short and medium term of any escalation would be disastrous to the economy.

That’s the risk of unforced error when playing diplomacy in the Twittersphere. If he felt he had to say something, lest he be damned for silence, he should have waited until he could condemn the tweet in more moderate and non-threatening terms, as a comment on a more hysterical response by another.

The past fortnight has seen a good many usually cynical political journalists rally around the flag, understanding at last that the Chinese are beastly, that there is no long term reasoning with them, and that we may as well take the tough medicine — of reducing our dependence on the Chinese economy — sooner rather than later. Perhaps they are getting privileged briefings that have inspired such conversions, but if so, those explanations must be confidential.

John Howard was the first of any number of coalition leaders to understand that Australia did not have to choose between China and the United States — and nothing much has happened over the past five years to materially change that. The idea that we must choose sides, and the notion that China is now suddenly more dangerous to us, is an ideologically led, not evidence-led, conclusion.  The threat is that ideologues, most not open to any form of public account, have an enormous capacity to cause the fulfillment of their own prophecies.

The latest deterioration in the relationship began when prime minister Malcolm Turnbull decided that the Chinese telecommunications provider Huawei could not participate in the 5G rollout, and otherwise instituted a more suspicious and transactional business relationship. The Chinese irritation seemed to be aggravated by a feeling that Australia was playing pig in the minefield for a more general “five-eyes”  isolation of Huawei, and a belief that Australian commercial policy over China was too much influenced by Australia’s perception of a need to march in close step with the United States, even when our interests differed.

The latter perception was becoming more of a problem because President Trump was becoming increasingly protectionist and isolationist, and blaming China’s economic success for the loss of American manufacturing jobs. Trade war, with the imposition of American tariffs, and Chinese retaliatory  tariffs saw both sides posture about the threat from each other if the struggle for hegemony in the western Pacific and the South China Sea, became war. But it has never seemed that war was inevitable, that either nation could “win” or, indeed, that conflict was going to be binary. A growing China was investing in its own defence. So have most of its neighbours. And Australia.

 It is not clear that the worsening has been the horse or the cart, but we have suddenly seen an explosion of folk agitating for action, or pontificating about the new-found dangers of appeasement. Some of these folk have discovered, mostly recently, that China is a totalitarian nation, notionally communist, which oppresses many of its subjects, including Tibetans and Uighurs. Moreover, it has systems of mass surveillance that our Department of Home Affairs envies and plans to copy.

China constantly threatens two of its prodigal provinces, Taiwan and Hong Kong, and gave not-so-secret encouragement to North Korea and Iran. These discoveries, assisted by generous US sponsorship of the “independent” think tanks publishing this research and spruiking war, came generally from scholars hitherto blasé about human rights generally, and still deeply unconcerned by their absence among allies and customers such as Saudi Arabia.

Expect in due course further Chinese journalism on our treatment of minorities, including First Nations people, our international actions in nations such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam, on missions almost impossible to describe, but certainly unachieved. Our history of marching to American military music, after a century of marching to British music. Our history of racism and exclusion of Asians. And other military atrocities, back to Breaker Morant.

None of this may be news to most Australians. Or about anything of which Scott Morrison is ashamed. But wrapped up in a Chinese marketing effort to vilify and discredit Australia to its own population and a wider Asia, it could generate and justify inspired consumer revolts against Australian goods, a turning away from Australian education, and a rejection of any idea that we are a citizen of the region. I think the Morrison government should be more open with its strategy.

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

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