If I were a major superpower wondering which political party of an unfriendly country I would prefer won an election, I doubt I would choose the one most likely to be friendly or nice. I think I would choose the party I judged to be most likely to act against its national interests. And that could well be the Liberal and National Parties, able to see Australia's interests only through the prism of a western alliance that may be unable or unwilling to help us at critical moments.
Australia can assume China is fairly irritated with us at the moment, particularly in our apparent eagerness to be more hostile towards them than China's major enemy, the United States, or any number of other nations more powerful than Australia, who view the new China with deep foreboding and suspicion. Japan, say. Or South Korea. Vietnam. Indonesia. Singapore. France, and perhaps Britain if it ever, as it vaguely promises, came east of Suez again. Maybe also Russia if one discounts the idea that the interests of the two countries have suddenly reversed themselves and become aligned again.
Australia may be spoiling for the war that it does so much to predict, if so little to prepare for. But China is not going to war with Australia. Or not Australia alone. One could imagine it going out of its way to swat the Australian fly, but it is not going to cross three major waterways to attack Australia by itself. If Australia is to be engaged with China, it will be as an ally of the United States and other western powers. That might be brought on by a Chinese miscalculation - for example in taking physical control of Taiwan or crushing Hong Kong. Or by a physical and planned collision of eastern and western forces not far off the Chinese coast. It may occur if China attempts to move beyond the area it has always dominated, and seeks to extend the land and the territory it claims falls naturally under its sovereignty.
Whatever happens, it seems the conflict which develops will involve the whole world, or at least all of the nations of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. There may be a gentleman's agreement, for a time, that the conflict be confined to a particular space, or a particular type of war (non-nuclear, we would hope) but where parties are playing for keeps it is difficult to set the bounds, particularly if things go badly for one of the parties.
But no matter what the scenario, it seems unlikely that Australia will figure very much in the calculations. Not the calculations of China, nor, except as a base in the World War II sense, of the United States. Australia has a sophisticated navy and air force, well able to hold its own against anyone but China and the United States. But it would be well extended operating anywhere near China, and be unable to make any decisive difference, even operating alongside western alliance ships, submarines or aircraft. Operating by itself, it would be unlikely to last more than a few hours of battle.
Australia's army and its special forces would likewise find it very difficult to make any difference, least of all on Chinese soil. Our army has a lot of useless American equipment, such as heavy tanks, but it is unlikely we could deploy them, or support them in operation, in any theatre likely to be involved in a conflict with China. And even if we could do both, and alongside US Cavalry, it is by no means certain our combined forces would last very long against Chinese armour, missiles, and artillery and their short lines of communication. No doubt the tanks would be of some slight use in the event China could safely traverse our sea lines and the air to land and sustain its troops on Australian soil. The chance of that happening, at least before the total defeat of the west, is fairly remote; Australia would by then have been completely defeated and isolated. Along, probably, with Indochina, and Indonesia.
Many observers of China, here and abroad, see a new belligerence coming from China, and an impatience about minding its manners while other nations, particularly the US, taunt them. China has experienced enormous growth in recent decades, and it has more citizens among the middle classes than America, India, France and Australia put together. It wants to take its place in the world, and to be recognised for what it is - a superpower with enormous resources and capital, an educated and technologically-oriented workforce, and a nation with the right to define and defend its own interests, including its borders. Apart from its fortification of some islands it has always claimed, it has not expanded its borders, but it now is unembarrassed about wanting a blue-water navy capable of pushing back against the US Navy, which often, provocatively, sails right past its shores so as to make some threatening point about freedom of navigation.
We can assume China has a formidable intelligence-gathering capacity, including with satellites and active espionage agents. But it does not really need a large clandestine operation because Australia, like many of the other countries in the western alliance is an open and democratic country, which conducts a good deal of its politics, and defence and foreign affairs thinking in debates, newspapers and magazines readily accessible, even to our enemies. Our diplomatic relations have been fairly open and frank for 50 years, despite the relative freeze of recent years, and foreign Chinese have been able to study in Australia, travel its length and breadth, and buy farms and businesses here. On most of our perceptions of the world, and most of our policies, the Chinese can see where we are coming from, and the various pressures and levers that make things happen.
China has always been content that Australia sees itself in the general western alliance, and recognises the neurotic Australian wish to have a great friend, once Britain, now America, able to help out if we get into particular need. China, in short, has never wooed or attempted to coerce Australia into its orbit, let alone insisted Australia see the world through a Chinese prism. It has sufficed that we both understand each other, and that neither of us has any intention of seeking to breach the peace.
China says it is puzzled by the way so many Australian defence and intelligence experts have tended to see all matters within their domain only through American eyes, as though their primary loyalty is to America. The US is a great and powerful friend - we hope for a long time - but it judges its interests by its own needs, rather than with obligation to Australia. The most we can hope for, sometimes, is Australia be excepted if it was not the primary intended target of some measure, such as sanctions on Europe. Australia's geography, its proximity to Asia, its history and its culture are different - and it may well be that cultural differences, particularly religious ones, are increasing. We compete with the US, and with many of our military allies, for access to Chinese markets. We cannot have failed to notice that when China has closed some of its markets to Australia, as "coercive punishment" for strong criticism of China, the US and some other allies have not hesitated to snap them up.
I was once talking to a very senior political appointee from the US State department, and made a sardonic reference to the "special relationship". He commented he had heard this phrase recently, when Margaret Thatcher, then the British prime minister had been in Washington, asking for some favour under the Old Mates Act. One of the Americans to whom she was speaking had said, "Mrs Thatcher, you talk of a special relationship, and we get it. World War I. World War II. A common language and all that. You are our friends. But when we sit down to decide where our interests lie, we think of the needs and interests of Great Britain as often as you, in the British Cabinet, while working out your own national interests think of the particular needs and interests of the people on the Isle of Wight."
If this were true of Britain, what did it say of Australia? China could understand both the principle and its implications, but says it remains puzzled that we seem unable to be more assertive of our own interests, and needs, particularly when they diverge from America's. Our close friendship, and the fact Australia was usually America's most reliable ally gave us some moral credit in the bank. On China, in particular, our own mineral trading relationship gave us insights into Chinese thinking and interests that would not normally have occurred to analysts in the US. When, sometimes, we wanted American favours, we were asking little more than the sort of favours being given to particular special interests in the US - and without the loss of any American skin.
Our mateship, moreover, might have enabled us to act as a go-between when relationships between China and the US were dominated by spite or long-standing grudges. Our interventions could be disinterested - simply helping two of our partners to see a way through a conflict - or interested - in attempting to broker a compromise which also served our own interests. All the more so given the triangular nature of the trading partnerships, whereby Australia supplied China with raw materials (at a net profit to us), which China manufactured into goods it sold to the US (with an export surplus to China), while we spent much of our surplus in buying American intellectual property.
MORE JACK WATERFORD:
I do not doubt Australia has diplomats and analysts of skill who understand very well the difference between Australian national interests, the American national interest, and the broad interests of the western alliance. But I fear their more calm, cautious and sober voice is being drowned out by a more hysterical element positively slavering for more tension in the relationship, perhaps to the point of armed hostilities. Some of the hysterical soolers can be described as lobbies and cults, out to identify and punish Australian deviants who cannot see just what has objectively changed in recent times. It is not new that China is authoritarian, and ruthless in suppressing domestic consent. It is not necessarily true that the tone of threats to Taiwan has recently increased. It is true that China's conduct in persecuting Uighurs is disgraceful - perhaps genocidal - but Australia and the west was (still is) long indifferent to the fate of Tibetans, or democracy activists, including once, those in Tiananmen Square, now in Hong Kong.
Shrill as such lobbies are, they are more than matched by government politicians, particularly in recent months. The noise is orchestrated by the Minister for Defence, Peter Dutton, who has long been attempting to ramp up a national security emergency as one of the most important election campaign points. Dutton is not merely promoting his own personal interests here; he is trying to save a government, not least given Morrison's ineptness with most of the planned campaign points. As Morrison's strategies have foundered, Dutton has become even more unbalanced in the way he is pushing the issue, more or less by insisting only his government is hairy-chested to stand up to China. By comparison, Anthony Albanese and his side would be wimps - even appeasers, he says.
There is a convention, of sorts, that political parties do not seek to divide the nation on broadly similar foreign policies lest the divide weaken the country, and its resolve over its national interests. Sometimes that convention is extended to saying politicians should not criticise their own country's foreign policies while abroad. I'm not sure either is an inviolable principle - one that should be regarded as more important than the interest in a robust public debate, one in which the public is embraced within what consensus emerges.
Labor's foreign policies are, on most matters, identical to those of the Coalition. This is not because of a meeting of minds. Labor has been largely excluded from the debate, unable to introduce other facts and perspectives. Not unable because it is stupid, but because it believes it will be "wedged" as "unpatriotic", or "wimps" or treasonous if it says anything not in lockstep with the government. So scared is Labor of this that it assents to hard-line policy positions coming from the extreme right without subjecting it to its own analysis. That a number of Labor spokespeople - including Penny Wong and Kimberley Kitching - are fiercely anti-China helps with this hostage situation. Likewise, Labor has its own home-grown authoritarians comfortable with the development of the illiberal surveillance state, and happy to adopt any rationale whatever for it. Yesterday's terrorist as today's paedophile. For tomorrow the threat to the state will come from anti-vaxxers without masks.
Labor's policies on China are not more dangerous for Australia than those of the Coalition. Neither is likely to influence the approach China takes, although an Australia more determined to engage might well find that we gained in both influence and reputation, including among neighbours as flabbergasted by our role as American messenger boys as China is.
But if China wants to wage ideological war on Australia, or to use this nation as an example of a nation suffering for not adapting to change and to geographical and military fact, it might well prefer it be confronted with a country as reactionary, obdurate and inflexible as possible. For much the same reason Donald Trump preferred to deal with dictators than democratic countries where policy had to follow political process and general consent. With corrupted public administration, and increasingly less transparency over public and private transactions - more and more like China, in fact.
This might not put Australia at greater risk of invasion; that would still probably not be worth the effort. But it might make Australia's decline and ultimate collapse, of its own failings, more inevitable.
Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times.
Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times.
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