Dancing With the Dragon

I am constantly shaking my head when I read the papers these days, especially when it comes to the way China is reported.

Australian politicians, military and intelligence chiefs, the tabloid media and other commentators all seem to be falling over each other to warn about potential war with China – our biggest trading partner.

Why are they doing this?

What madness compels them to antagonise the Dragon when our ongoing security is dependent on their goodwill and our prosperity is contingent on them continuing to do business with us?

We’ve seen any number of ignorant outbursts from Dutton, Payne and their ilk, and just this morning, an Australian General got onto the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald by predicting an existential catastrophe of Terminator 2 proportions – a “valley of hell”.

This is absolute lunatic behaviour.

Even if you genuinely did harbor such fears, what on Earth is there to gain by airing them in the press? This is like a Sydney Silky yapping at a Rottweiler from behind a fence – but if that fence is the ANZUS treaty, then god help us. One day the Rottweiler will get sick of the yapping and realise the fence isn’t actually there at all.

Of course, none of this is to suggest that China is blameless when it comes to matters such as human rights, political rights, expansionism, environmental neglect and cyber-espionage. They are not, but neither is any other major power in the history of international relations.

Neither are we particularly blameless when you look at the totality of human rights in our own country. (But that’s a blog for another time.)

Why are we so shrill regarding China’s excesses when we’ve hardly made a peep (diplomatically) about American intervention in the Middle East or Asia; First World domination of global markets; the decimation of the environment or any number of other legacies of the old colonial world – from which we’re still receiving dividends?

In particular, what is it about the Liberal Party and their fellow travellers that inspires them to lecture China (when we’ve never lectured anyone else, except New Zealand) while simultaneously urging them to buy our products?

And sulking when they don’t.

This is megaphone diplomacy of the most deluded and chaotic variety. It’s one thing to stand up for your principles but you have to be consistent. If you condemn one country but ignore the same behaviour in fifty others, what does that really say about your principles?

And, almost worse in an era of Realpolitik, what does it say about the professionalism of your political class and media?

If you’re going to deal with China then first of all you have to understand China, to the extent that any Westerner truly can. China has risen from the most abject poverty and humiliating exploitation to become (just about) the most powerful nation on the planet.

China’s current power and prestige would have been unthinkable at the end of the Opium Wars in the mid-C19 when Britain forced the Chinese to legalise (and buy) opium to redress the balance of trade. (Yes, that is a massive over-simplification, but accurate enough for today’s purpose.)

Around the same time they went through the Taiping Rebellion (with the greatest loss of life in the history of warfare, as many as 70 million), further Western predations, revolution, the Japanese invasion, another civil war and revolution, and finally some manner of stability after Mao Tse Tung’s victory in 1949.

They’ve had 250 years of profound disruption and now they’re taking steps to make sure that doesn’t happen again. In any First World culture we’d find that laudable – even noble – but when it comes to China we disapprove.

I hate playing the race card but I genuinely have to wonder: is that what entitles our politicians to yap so loudly? A post-colonial sense of superiority over those we dominated centuries ago?

If we really felt that strongly about China’s record on human rights or expansionism then surely we would refuse to trade with them at all, but that would cost us big time. So what is worth more to us: our principles or our strong economy?

Australia’s relationship with China needs to be managed so carefully. We have nowhere near the military power needed to rattle sabres with them so we need to influence them (if that seems like a good idea) in other ways: through trade, cultural ties and exchanges, and above all: intelligent and strategic diplomacy.

The very last thing we should be doing is nailing our colours to America’s mast and presuming to lecture China on their behalf (which is what we were doing when Trump was president). If Australia had the respect of both the Chinese and the Americans we could play a really important role as an arbiter – helping to find common ground and pathways to peace.

Instead we posture like amateurs – like some pisshead with little man syndrome trying to pick a fight in the carpark.

China is not perfect, but the reality is: the Dragon is here to stay and we have to live with it – especially if we want to do business.

It’s time we started behaving the same way towards China that we do with America, Britain, Europe and Japan. They’re not perfect either, after all.

And neither are we.

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