"Pap" is a terrific African word. It describes mealie, the corn or potato starch or porridge that adds bulk to a meal, providing its filling qualities. Such mass adds little by way of nutrition, but makes it feel substantial.
Speechwriters and politicians regularly fold exactly this sort of pap into their utterances. If anyone ever bothers, later on, to think about what's actually been said, it rapidly becomes obvious the spoken words are nothing more than empty padding. But that's irrelevant - the space has been covered and the stream of phrases makes it appear as if something worthwhile has been contributed to the conversation. It hasn't.
Take, for example, that ridiculous phrase "rules-based global order".
Although the idea might be comforting to those tucked nicely into bed by Mummy each night, there is, unfortunately, no rulebook - and no amount of continual repetition of this trite formula will create one. The words warp our worldview, because they suggest something exists when it doesn't. This derails our international engagement and sets us on the path to failure.
When the basic premise of your engagement is wrong, anything that goes right is completely accidental. It's only by recognising that things have changed, that this fundamental aspect of the canon of international relations is broken, that we can return to successfully engaging with the world.
China is busily scrapping every premise on which any (Western-designed) "global order" might be built. Perhaps more importantly, however, clinging on to the idea of universal values works against an understanding of what's actually occurring.
Take Xinjiang, the largely Muslim westernmost province of China. It's impossible to know what's really occurring there because access has been so restricted. It is, however, possible to understand what Beijing wants to accomplish - just not from within our framework of human rights.
By continuing to push against all its neighbours, Beijing has, bizarrely, managed to bring them together.
The capital is understandably nervous about this huge, far-flung and under-developed region becoming influenced by a fundamentalist religion and becoming restive. Its chosen way of dealing with this is, apparently, throwing enormous sums of money at the province, encouraging migration from the east, breaking down traditional ethnic, family and religious bonds, and boosting "development".
This is the polar opposite to the way Australia deals (now) with, for example, Indigenous affairs. Instead of recognising the right of individuals to choose a traditional lifestyle, China is encouraging (forcing) people to assimilate with mainstream culture - whether they want to or not. The way one thinks is part of that, and Beijing believes that if some people just refuse to get on board with the national project then they need to be re-educated until they do.
On the other side of the country, events in the East China Sea are playing out with the same disregard of "universal" concepts. Any suggestion there may be some sort of "correct" way to behave is being disregarded as the country pushes ahead with asserting its national control over formerly international waters. China is playing its game by its rules, written in Beijing. If international airlines such as Qantas want to transit the area, they have to acknowledge Chinese air traffic control - so they do. Neither China nor the US recognises the international law of the sea. The difference is that Washington generally - not always - accepts its strictures; but then again, it's had centuries to ensure that these pose no particular problems to American dominance. Beijing feels hemmed in by such rulings and is simply ignoring them, pushing the envelope in an apparent attempt to see how much more it can seize.
The tempo of such operations has increased dramatically. There are daily provocations, with armed fighters overflying disputed territory, forcing continual responses from Japan and Taiwan and ratcheting up the tension.
Almost a month ago a fishing fleet, consisting of some 229 vessels, occupied Whitsun Reef, roughly midway between the Philippines (which claims these particular rocks), Vietnam, and Malaysia. The fleet was, Beijing insisted implausibly, sheltering from a storm - which never arrived. The assumption is that this was intended as some sort of "test" for US President Joe Biden. He's mobilised a huge fighting fleet (including the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and assault ship USS Makin Island) while a separate detachment of four Philippines vessels, including two new missile corvettes, has also been sailing to the islands to force the Chinese fleet to move.
By continuing to push against all its neighbours, Beijing has, bizarrely, managed to bring them together. Washington and Manila last week revived a defence pact, while relations between the US and some ASEAN counties like Vietnam and Indonesia have continued to develop. Myanmar and Cambodia, which are continuing to become heavily enmeshed with China, are increasingly appearing out of step with other countries in the region.
What makes these continual provocations such a high-stakes game is the danger that an accident could suddenly create a flashpoint for a sudden exchange of missiles. Precision means the side that fires first will hit and destroy its opponent, and this ensures hair-trigger reflexes but - unlike during the days of the Cold War - there are no established procedures to de-escalate conflict. It isn't in Beijing's interest to implement these, because its entire strategy consists of continued pushing until it gets its own way.
A detailed timeline by Elena Collinson and Thomas Pantle of the Australia China Relations Institute at UTS offers critical insights into the manifold dimensions of what's going on. Retaining a detached, informed view will be absolutely critical if we're to ensure this country doesn't become drawn into a sudden cataclysm, originating from a silly mistake by a junior officer on a fighter or warship.
It's vital the Australian government begins charting a new way forward, rather than simply outsourcing policy on this issue to Washington. The brinkmanship is becoming omnipresent; the dangers too great. Relying on non-existent rules will bring failure.
- Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer and a regular columnist.