Where are the grown-ups? The talk about China and war is dangerous

May 3, 2021

“So what’s the plan?” asked an investor after I had spoken at the Lonsec Symposium about Australia-China relations. Days earlier, Defence Minister Peter Dutton talked war over the Taiwan Strait. His former department head said our “warriors” were ready to go fight.

The Foreign Affairs Minister announced she was tearing up two anodyne memorandums of understanding between Victoria and China over the Belt and Road instead of letting them gather mould in Daniel Andrews’ cabinet. The government hinted at a take-over of the Port of Darwin – in reality a wharf, and over which Canberra in any case enjoys total control. Not even in Washington is there talk as loose as this.

“There are no grown-ups,” a priest once told French novelist Andre Malraux.

What’s the plan? Truth is, there is none. Not for resuscitating the bilateral relationship – say, to the level that other United States allies such as Japan or the Europeans manage with China.

Nor for salvaging the lost markets. Since December 2019, barley has been totally lost. Coal is down 98 per cent, wine 97 per cent, crustaceans 89 per cent and beef 47 per cent. But as Professor James Laurenceson has demonstrated, the share of China’s markets enjoyed by other Five Eyes countries has expanded.

And US sales of food and beverage to China have risen. As another Frenchman, General Charles de Gaulle, put it, great powers are “cold monsters”.

What threat to our sovereignty was averted by the showy diplomacy that accompanied Australia’s exclusion of Huawei – a phone call to Donald Trump from then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull boasting the decision, a leak from our security agencies to let the world know we were campaigning to have the ban adopted by the all other Five Eyes nations? An alternative line was to say we’ve made a decision to protect resilience and security in our network and left it at that.

The international inquiry into the handling of COVID-19 might have been secured without our Foreign Affairs Minister’s flamboyant talk of “weapons inspectors”. Martin Parkinson, former head of the Prime Minister’s Department, asked: “What whiz kid dreamt up those talking points?” Did a Young Liberal plop that zinger into the minister’s notes and sit back to watch the explosion? Parkinson also said the contest between China and the US presented us not with a question of choice but of balance.

Diplomacy was invented so we could pull off challenges like this one: managing an alliance with the US in which we host bases, buy its F-35s and send troops to its “forever wars” while negotiating a booming trade with China, which soon will be the world’s biggest economy, pulling 850 million of its citizens into the middle-class, able to buy our beef and wine from their supermarkets and come here as our biggest-spending tourists.

Working at the balance, and not being fixated on the choice, wouldn’t have required us to moderate our language on China’s repression of Uighurs or the extinction of legal autonomy in Hong Kong. But Canberra gives the impression it wants to turn day-to-day management of a bilateral relationship into an existential crusade, urged on by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a think tank partially funded by the US, from which commentary on China has become more and more blood-curdling.

When hardliners like those in ASPI say we are on the eve of a war over Taiwan, they won’t concede participation is still a choice for Australia. As they see it, in the words of the 1915 recruiting song, Australia Will Be There. Japan’s not making that mistake, nor Canada nor New Zealand nor the ASEAN states.

The Cold Warriors don’t acknowledge former Liberal prime minister Robert Menzies deliberately steered us away from commitment and Alexander Downer said in 2004 that, on Taiwan, the ANZUS Treaty did not apply. And the Cold Warriors never define how they see the war being won. Nor do the hawks in Washington who want to see the first explicit security guarantee made to the island.

Professor Hugh White asks if America is prepared to lose Los Angeles in a nuclear exchange – even as US missiles reduce Shenzhen and Shanghai to hot, radioactive rubble.

Henry Kissinger warned in November of “a catastrophe comparable to World War I”.

Nationalists in China and the US need to understand that a horrendous war fought over which political order prevails in Taiwan is not worth this price. The issue will solve itself in 50 or 100 years without a blood sacrifice of millions and near-ruin of half the planet.

Australian diplomacy ought to be identifying the off-ramps that will avoid this nightmare. Former prime ministeer Kevin Rudd, writing in Foreign Affairs last month, advanced ideas for enlarging co-operation between China and America, for example, on North Korea, global financial stability, pandemic management and climate. He also urged the kind of crisis communication that the US and the USSR set up after the near-death experience over Cuba in 1962.

Promoting this through quiet diplomacy would cast Australia as creative middle power edging forward our own interest and the world’s.

Lawrence H. Summers, former US treasury secretary, said of China relations: you can be strong and resolute without being imprudent and provocative. Getting China wrong, he said, “is the greatest threat to America’s national enterprise over the next quarter century”.

There may be no adults. There will be no winners.

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