As published in Independent Australia – 20.5.21
Last week Australian Prime Minister, Morrison, mixed up Taiwan and Hong Kong. They don’t matter to him. He doesn’t care, just as he doesn’t care that Palestinian children are being murdered by the Israeli air force and army. If he cares at all, it is because he thinks believers of the Old Testament are under attack.
China for Morrison is a domestic issue. He demonises the country in the hope that the tradies and bogans will agree that China is a danger to Australia and that they and their drinking mates will vote for him. Otherwise, he knows nothing about China, only that it is positioned north of Australia. It is doubtful that he could name the states that border it, he hasn’t got a clue.
ASPI says we may soon find ourselves at war with China. The source of its information is US right wing ‘think tanks’, funded, like itself, by US arms manufacturers. ASPI has taken to publishing threat assessments by retired US military officers. It is no longer concerned to hide its bias. And as disciples of ASPI, Dutton and public servant Pezzullo slammed another nail in the coffin of the relationship with a recent left field claim that war is imminent. It’s not. China does not, and will not, go to war over Taiwan. The irresponsibility of Dutton and Pezzullo is playing to domestic anti-China sentiment fanned by the Murdoch press for electoral advantage. Sick and stupid.
The only way war will occur is if the US engineers it as they ‘justified’ war with North Vietnam by engineering the Gulf of Tonkin incident. But this time around they are justifiably wary of the considerable military power of the Chinese. But not it would seem ASPI and Australia. Kids on the block.
What ASPI and the Australian defence department have not done is to spell out the reality of Australian participation in a US fostered war with China. One gets the impression they don’t know and don’t want to know. There have been no war projections published. No force comparison in the event of hostilities, no discussion of casualties, targets, supply and resupply, interdiction of supplies and the prospect for the use of nuclear weapons.
It is almost as if ASPI is talking up the prospect of war to promote and aid the sale of US weapons. In any case, from Morrison’s perspective, it helps his prospect of re-election. When it comes to the realities of war Morrison is way out of his depth, lacking the experience and emotional intelligence to get his head around what it might mean. It is a useful tool in his now familiar domestic posturing. Another scare tactic to help herd the mob.
Morrison relishes the notion of being the cop on the block for the US. In 2003 President Bush referred to Australia as the US Deputy Sheriff in Asia. Howard puffed himself up only to have his bubble burst by criticism from Indonesia and Malaysia. Similarly, no one in the region is taking Morrison seriously in this role. In fact, Morrison’s clumsy and inept diplomacy toward both the US and China have alienated him from the region, as increasingly nuanced moves are made to manoeuvre between the edgy superpowers.
There is no explanation for the deterioration in the China/Australia relationship. The government has not adjusted it’s thinking since the departure of Trump, if anything it has become more hard line such as cancelling the MOU relating to the Victorian Belt and Road Initiative with China. Which came exactly twelve months after Morrison accused China of fostering Covid through the so-called wet markets of Wuhan and unilaterally calling for an international investigation. In retaliation for cancelling the BRI, MOU, China suspended the China-Australia Strategic Economic Dialogue. Setting the scene for a further deterioration in relations.
The Wuhan accusation tipped the scales already finely balanced after Australia’s ban of Huawei from building its 5G network, undertaken on advice from US security agencies seeking to protect US intelligence gathering. Trade sanctions followed Wuhan. However, the impact has been hidden from the Australian public by unprecedented levels of borrowing necessitated by Covid. Such is the economic ignorance of the LNP, particularly the right-wing ideologues, that they refer to trade with China as ‘dirty money’ and argue a case that Australia can survive without Chinese trade. They claim that new markets have already been found for barley and wine. Immature and worrying and the ABC has run with it.
Australia has acquiesced to American pressure to increase its defence presence in the Northern Territory. It is considering rescinding a 99 year lease the Chinese company Landbridge has with respect to the port of Darwin. The narrative of Chinese ‘aggression’ toward Australia provides justification for ‘taking on’ China 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 and they gain trade opportunities at our expense.
As a practicing Diplomat for 25 years and student of politics I have never seen such inept, corrupt and bloody minded government. Morrison broaches no criticism. Those around him in government and the public service who seek promotion and preferment mirror his negative and racist anti-China attitudes and statements.
China has reinforced and to an extent justified and legitimised the negativity and paranoia of Morrison and his government with tough trade sanctions, which has assisted his domestic standing on the issue. Fearing the wedge Labor has ducked for cover and run up the white flag. Penny Wong agreed to launch the book of rabid China basher Peter Hartcher on 17 May.
Australia needs help. It is being played by the US. It is suffering a dearth of leadership which is unable to handle climate change, a coherent Covid vaccination response, quarantine regime and a balanced relationship with China, our biggest and most important neighbour.
Bruce Haigh is a monumentally pissed off former Diplomat and political commentator.