The elephant and the mouse

China is much more powerful than Australia and no amount of criticism from us will change this. In a fight with China, we must lose. Calm analysis must replace jingoistic hot air. Why are they really attacking us and what can we do about it now?

China’s Twitter photoshop was presumably seen by the Chinese as a cartoon rather than pretending it was real. Whether it was any worse than Charlie Hebdo’s cartoon about the Prophet Mohammed is a moot point but both were in very bad taste and had a negative effect on those the cartoon satirised.

Australian politicians and media have responded predictably with domestically oriented hysteria about bullying and how we will stand up to protect our sovereignty. Just how we will do this is not stated. Public support from the US and UK can only suggest that our sovereignty has already been handed over to others.

As a number of people have pointed out, Australia will inevitably be the loser in any conflict with China. We may not like this but we cannot pretend otherwise.

There is much to be criticised about China today but Australia has gone out of its way to unnecessarily annoy China. We started it with our ill-advised attempt to please Donald Trump by calling for an investigation into the origin of the COVID virus – something that was already known. We have also implemented a number of “national security” measures clearly directed against China and Chinese firms. We have harped on Chinese actions against Hong Kong and Xin Jiang but ignored equally bad actions by other countries.

Why focus on China? This is not to defend things China is doing that I and many others don’t like but did we really think China was going to take any notice of us? There are various versions of the perhaps apocryphal newspaper headline:” The Launceston Examiner warns Mr Hitler” and a similar one about the Kaiser but the message is relevant. The USA will support us verbally and encourage us to support American attempts to turn back the Chinese tide but that is all.

Unlike far too many journalists and politicians with little knowledge of the world outside Australia, I leave it to others better qualified to analyse Chinese motives and possible avenues of reconciliation. The only thing that seems important and obvious to me is China’s humiliation at the hands of those who now criticise its human rights record.

If I were Chinese, I would not take these criticisms seriously and it looks like the Chinese don’t. I used to teach University courses in Intercultural Communication where one of the basic lessons is that, like it or not, you must understand the culture of the others and not interpret what they say or do in terms of your own culture. Far too many commentators on China would have failed the course.

The basic problem then is clear. What are we going to do about it?  What can we do that will have any effect on China? What are their aims? It is no use blaming China and telling them they are wrong because they don’t seem to care. Nor should we kid ourselves that they need us as much as we need them.

Yes, it would be nice if China tried to understand us and our culture but powerful empires are not noted for being kind to the weak. Perhaps China is a bully but bullies succeed if they are more powerful than the bullied and China is much more powerful than us. I don’t pretend to have the answers but we need realistic analysis from Australians who understand China and less mindless chest-thumping.

We need less hot air and more cold reason.

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Cavan Hogue is a former diplomat who has worked in Asia, Europe and the Americas as well as at the UN. He also worked at ANU and Macquarie universities.

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