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As published in the China Daily – May 2021

In October 2003 US President Bush referred to Australia as the Deputy Sheriff of the US in Asia. At first prime Minister John Howard seemed pleased with the descriptor, however following criticism from Indonesia and Malaysia, he sought to distance himself from it.

However, the term stuck, particularly in light of the fact that Australia had just followed the US into war in Iraq when it had no good reason for doing so. The perception persists that Australia remains in that role, it has not taken much pressure from the US to hold it there. In fact, under the Prime Ministership of Scott Morrison it would be fair say it has become an even keener Deputy Sheriff.

The actions Australia has taken in recent times with respect to China should be seen against the background of this role and the emotional connection that conservative Australians have toward the US, particularly the ruling LNP and particularly after Trump became President.

Otherwise, how can the actions of Australia toward China be rationally explained. They defy common sense. The ruling LNP have not adjusted their thinking post Trump. If anything, they have become more hard-line such as The Federal Government cancelling the BRI, MOU between the Victorian Government and China exactly twelve months after Morrison accused China of fostering Covid19 through the so-called wet markets of Wuhan and unilaterally calling for an international investigation.

In retaliation for cancelling the mutually beneficial Victoria/China BRI, MOU, China suspended the China-Australia Strategic Economic Dialogue. That set the scene for a further deterioration in relations.

The Wuhan accusation was the trigger on a gun already loaded by Australia’s ban of Huawei from building its 5G network, undertaken on advice from US security agencies. Trade sanctions from China followed, however the economic impact has been hidden from the Australian public by unprecedented levels of borrowing brought about by government stimulus in the face of Covid.

Anti-Chinese sentiment amongst the Australian public has been fanned by the Murdoch press, which owns 70% of the media in Australia. In light of Australian government negativity toward China other media outlets have felt constrained to follow suit.

Australia has acquiesced to American pressure to increase its defence presence in the Northern Territory and is considering rescinding the 99 year lease the Chinese company Landbridge has with respect to the Port of Darwin. At the moment there is no domestic counter balance to the negativity being fostered within Australia toward China. China is feeding this with a response to what it no doubt perceives as rude ignorance toward China’s motives and intentions.

Nonetheless Chinese ‘aggression’ toward Australia feeds the narrative of the Australian Right Wing and makes them feel justified in ‘taking on’ China. A veritable Catch 22. And the US is happy enough to encourage the Deputy Sheriff to swing the lead. A no-lose situation for them. We do their dirty work, they lose nothing, in fact they have gained trade opportunities at our expense.

Some say that China bashes Australia as an example to the rest of the world of what will happen to other countries if they do not show respect to China and acknowledge China’s achievements and its place in the world. Heaven help if they have governments as ignorant as the Australian government. However, it is a tactic with limitations. It amounts to bullying. And bullying amounts to a threat.

Those engaging in bullying as a means of coercion and change reduce their own standing and dignity and with it influence. It is a sign of weakness to bully. There is no wisdom in bullying, it is a short-term game. It is something the Americans have engaged in for the past 70 years. Does China want to stoop to those levels? Isn’t China better than that? Many of us think so. The world is looking for leadership and statesmanship. Making a fool of fools is a demeaning undertaking. Leadership requires a broadness of spirit, vision and morality.

The world knows what America stands for; it is driven by, money and power, not morality, not empathy and not compassion. China can be different; it does not have to reflect American norms and ways of operating internationally. It can write new rules and deploy new forms of behaviour. It shouldn’t be defensive. It should take the lead, with confidence, real confidence, a confidence which is not yet apparent.

China is a great country and will become even greater. It will be a force for good. It should behave as such. China must rise above the petty games dictated by the US if it is to realise its full potential.

Crushing the Australian gnat may give short term satisfaction, but whatever victory results, other slights and insults in the future will not be similarly resolved. What is obvious is that the world is looking for leadership and sitting on Australia is not providing it.

Bruce Haigh is a former Diplomat and political commentator.