The tenth of October (or double 10) marks National Day in Taiwan (Chinese Taipei), and yesterday marked the 110th anniversary of the uprising that led, eventually, to the fall of China's last Qing emperor. The day is celebrated with one of those huge parades through the city. Successive throngs of similarly attired civilians, smiling and waving flags follow stern soldiers, their eyes glaring ahead to scare off potential enemies, showing off their latest items of military equipment.
The parade is a huge thing in Taipei and that's why, a couple of years ago, I found myself sitting on a dais near President Tsai Ing-wen, watching the march-past
. What deeply etched itself into my memory, however, wasn't the missiles or armour, it was a unit of frogmen, sitting to attention on the back of a truck. They wore flippers and rubber suits below the waist but the top half of their wet-suits had been peeled back to reveal massive rippling biceps in what was almost a moment of accidental, homoerotic fantasy.
Then, suddenly, I realised these elite soldiers were flexing their pectoral muscles in time with one another as they were driven past. It was, for me, a moment of culture shock.
These occur when you're confronted with something that you've never experienced before; something so unexpected it had remained - until that moment - un-thought and impossible to conceive of, let alone understand.
I understood the logic of a big parade with its over-awing display of military equipment. I could comprehend the message this was calculated to send to observers, one of power, might, and determination.
The eventual translation of this message as it had worked its way down from the island's President to the special forces soldiers tightening and relaxing their muscles in front of me as they paraded past became emblematic of something I could never understand: the deep and massive complexity of life.
Culture is at the very essence of strategy: the choices society makes about the way it will interact with others. This is why it's such a hugely problematic activity: certainly not the sort of issues where anybody should be blundering around, distributing opinions with the sort of blithe disregard for regional sensitivities that Tony Abbott offered from Taipei.
Last year Malcolm Turnbull addressed the same forum with no headlines. Last week, in the midst of a record number of armed fighter sorties from the mainland, Abbott effectively shirt-fronted Beijing with the insouciance of an opinion columnist, informing it to back off.
No doubt it all made strategic sense to him just as watching yesterday's parade, all those years ago, made made perfect sense to me. Nevertheless, and regardless of however vaulting anyone's rhetoric, it's completely irrelevant to what happens in the real world.
So let's examine Australia's relationship with China, because this is effectively the biggest strategic choice this country has ever made. The key think tank focusing in on these issues is undoubtedly ASPI - the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
Established by John Howard back in 2001, the inaugural head was (now) ANU Professor Hugh White. A former Defence Department secretary, (Strategy) he established a tight and brilliant team who, for the first time ever, placed the forces strictly military decisions under sustained and critical focus. The bigger questions were always there in the background.
ASPI's efforts, however, focused particularly on the how. Suddenly, for the first time, we had a small, devoted and knowledgeable group of real experts (naming any is invidious, but Mark Thompson and Andrew Davies became fixtures in the media) reaching into the services obscure and arcane justifications and exposing the arcane reasoning used to justify waste and inefficiency.
Under his successor (former general Peter Abigail) the institute unsurprisingly further developed this focus while also examining - with a light touch - the organisational military detail.
This meant when Peter Jennings (another former department strategy secretary) took over in 2012 there was an opening for a change of focus. Slowly he commenced a gradual transformation of the organisation, including a five-fold expansion and a critical reshaping to focus on the why of strategy. It's these changes that have attracted both intense praise and criticism, depending on exactly where the observer stands ideologically.
Just take the Xinjiang Data Project. This focuses on the "mass internment camps, surveillance and emerging technologies, forced labour and supply chains, the 're-education' campaign, deliberate cultural destruction and other human rights issues" of Uyghurs in western China.
ASPI argues understanding what is happening here is vital to an understanding of Beijing's hidden motivations and way of going about things today. ASPI's critics assert other institutes (like the ANU's China in the World centre) are better placed to carry out this sort of analysis.
Why, they ask, is this organisation concerning itself with these specifics when a far broader lens needs to be used to understand such complex issues?
Others accuse ASPI - like the War Memorial - of becoming vacuous mouthpieces for defence companies. They say it's lost a strongly needed degree of independence from the "global weapons industry" resulting in publications verging on advertising, like journalist Chris Master's recent work on the Steyr, "troubled past produces a superb weapon".
The problem with such ideological arguments is that their end point is always predetermined: where you finish depends on where you begin. Think the rifle's crap and you will junk the book; believe China is the enemy and you will urge an immediate alliance with Taiwan, ignoring the minor complexity that both the island and the mainland believe they are the same country.
After transforming ASPI and challenging our view of strategy, Jennings has now announced he's leaving. Having uttered his thoughts, Abbott has similarly moved on from Chinese Taipei. In their wake the government's strategic direction appears fixed, completely unchallenged by a quiescent Labor.
Defence spending will rise to four per cent of GDP and Australia will acquire nuclear (powered) submarines from the Anglosphere. We're happily muscling up to Beijing while frogmen twitch their biceps in Taipei. Interesting choices.
Perhaps some deep strategic thought is necessary after all.
- Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer and a regular columnist.