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Published: ABC Drum Unleashed

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The stable doors are open. The horses have bolted; black, white, red and pale are on the move. The United States with all the careful deliberation that pertained to the invasion of Iraq has decided to contain China.

A week of significant change has largely gone unnoticed by a star and bangle-struck Australian media. Still, perspicacity is not a strong point of a greying and self-satisfied Fourth Estate, more concerned with the state of the property market than the state.

Just in case it has escaped notice there is a race on to tie up resources – oil, mineral, land and water. Africa is being carved up once again and from Mongolia to Mauritius mining companies are exploring. More ominously major corporations are buying up water worldwide, including Macquarie Bank and in this they have the backing of suspect World Bank, charged with US-backed private enterprise zeal.

China is concerned to diversify and protect its supply of raw materials. Trade and security walk hand in hand for them; as it does for the United States.

Forget AUSMIN, something happened inside the US Administration six weeks ago. A god almighty brain freeze, that saw all other foreign policy issues shrink in importance, a sudden panic that saw matching and containing China of more importance than Afghanistan and the messy and ill-fought war on terror.

Taken for granted by members of the A Team for years, even though we have turned up for all their games, we couldn’t believe our ears when Hilary Clinton came to sound us out; Yes, yes, we are ready for closer co-operation. Anything you want, anyway you want it.

Never mind that team captain Obama was chatting up Indonesia and India at the same time and their Australian Ambassadorial team runner was telling us on national television that the people of Fiji are important and need nurturing, for in them lie the seeds of democracy; that was a first, I cannot recall an American diplomat in Australia mentioning the importance of a stable and democratic Fiji.

Being described as democratic or on the path to democracy, is the new US code for ally or potential ally. Note Obama referred to India as democratic and Indonesia as having achieved significant democratic reform.

Make no mistake, a truly 19th century grab for influence, resources and power is underway between the US and China and we have just been co-opted onto the side of the White Horse of the Apocalypse.

Canberra academic, Hugh White, made a courageous and, as it turns out, belated attempt to generate debate on the foreign policy alternatives available to Australia, squeezed as we are between the ambitions of China and the fears of America. Writing in the last Quarterly Essay, ‘Power Shift, Australia’s future between Washington and Beijing’, Hugh White sets out options for Australian policy makers to consider. He summarised this paper in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, on November 8, “Striking a new balance”, which read more as a plea for commonsense and national interest than the dispassionate paper he produced for Quarterly Essay before a predatory US came stalking.

Nothing of any substance was announced at AUSMIN. Closer defence, space, storage, supply and home porting drifted to the ceiling like so many party balloons, but no details. In fact US defence secretary Robert Gates said he was going home to work them out.

In addition to aircraft, trucks and armoured vehicles, will Australia be asked to store nuclear, chemical and biological weapons? Will we be asked to host facilities that can launch these weapons?

Once again we have been launched as USS Australia; the first launching was in 1942. The US views us as a food and minerals-producing aircraft carrier. The lines are being drawn for the war in the Pacific. Hilary tried to spin, in part, what appears to be a non-negotiable package as a cooperative effort to meet natural disaster in the region, just don’t mention New Orleans.

China has been securing its own bases. Having helped fund the Sinhalese to defeat the minority ethnic Tamils in a bloody civil war, China is building a major naval base in Sri Lanka and to support its territorial ambitions is propping up a corrupt Sinhalese government that shows every sign of moving to a one-party state. It is also building a naval base in Burma and two in Pakistan, all with the aim of protecting trading routes.

The middle ground that Hugh White was urging we look for appears to be fading fast.

The United States has shown in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan that it is prepared to do whatever it takes to secure its interests with, amongst other things, the extra judicial incarceration of individuals deemed dangerous enemies of the state. China has a similar single minded approach to enemies of the state which are a lot more numerous on her home soil than the US has to contend with – for the moment.

China recently flexed its muscles in the area of vital supply, cutting Japan off from heavy metals over an island territorial dispute. Reaction was swift. Japan backed off and the US and other states looked for alternative suppliers which as it transpired are few.

The G20 has served to highlight the economic tension between the two, with China holding the whip hand in terms of cash and the US in terms of assets, both material and skills. But as Hugh White notes both need each other, they do not need to go down the path of confrontation, but at this point in its history the US seems to understand no other.

It is to Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd that we look for leadership and this last week both disappointed. On ABC’s The 7.30 Report, Kerry O’Brien asked Rudd on 8 November:

“Former senior Australian Defence official Hugh White wrote today that, ‘China’s rise presents the US with a serious challenge to its leadership of Asia for the first time in decades and presents Australia with an impossible choice between our traditional alliance and our economic future.’ Now, has Hugh White got that wrong?”

Rudd responded: “Yes, he has. And the reason is that skilful, careful diplomacy is able to manage a whole range of different interests which we have at any one time…”

But that begs the question, how does the Foreign Minister propose to handle the conundrum posed by Hugh White and articulated by Kerry O’Brien? He cannot hide behind the diplomats of his department; the decision is his to make. Will Australia have the wit, wisdom and courage to find and follow the middle ground?

Forget it; Gillard and Rudd have caved in. Weak governments make weak decisions, they seek the easy road, but I am not sure that all the way with the USA will be easy for Australia in the longer term.