Culture works like a camera obscura. The image is predicted upside down, and there’s a blank and blind spot right at the centre, by the very nature of the mechanism. Take our commemoration of World War I, for example. For the next four years we are condemned to a moment-by-moment recreation of this appalling conflict, which plunged Europe and its resistant colonies into three decades of blood and turmoil.
Yet the one thing we will not see discussed is the central point of the war — that it hid in plain sight, that the European powers were edging towards it for years and hiding from themselves the ample evidence (from the US Civil War, for example) that the conflict would be total and consuming. Such apocalyptic imaginings were contained in a slew of novels and cheap serials, while the official discourse was one of enlightened self-interest between powers.
So, to 2014, and Australia and China. It is obvious to anyone that not this decade, not the next, but in this century, there will be a reckoning between East and West, between the former imperial powers and the former colonies — including once-subject nations such as China. Such a conflict has nothing to do with race or cultural difference — though that may become attached on both sides, as motivating propaganda — but simply to do with the still uncorrected imbalance created when the European powers began colonising Asia in the early 19th century.
At its “best”, this encounter will be resolved with the crucial withdrawal of the United States from the Asian sphere of influence — the final acknowledgement of the end of its sole superpower status. The world will then be a multipolar place once again. As China and India become dominant global powers, other powers rise to second-tier status. The “worst” outcome would be a war, or series of wars, as the US and its NATO partners refuse to give up a dominance inherited from colonial-era imperialism.
Everyone knows this, every nation plans for it, and it governs a series of alliances and decisions. Yet it cannot be spoken of. In Australia this split mindset is total. The political-media elite who have been disturbed by the arrival of the unruly crossbenchers, enforce an absurd double act, in which we talk of China as our great trading friend, etc, etc, while at the same time strengthening a US alliance –- with the placement of 2000 combat troops in Darwin –- whose principal object of attention is the expansion of Chinese influence in south-east Asia.
Now Palmer and Jacqui Lambie have said what many people say between themselves outside the hushed halls of Parliament and News Corp — that it is obvious that this is the major question we will have to deal with over the next half-century and beyond (if Australia continues as an entity beyond). Palmer’s Chinese menu of contradictory assertions is simply designed to misdirect away from embarrassment around his alleged fast and loose use of funds from a holding company for his election campaign. The treatment of Lambie’s comments, though, is a grimly hilarious thing to watch — the worst thing to say, apparently, is that large states have interests, that geopolitical war is not a thing of the past, and that the West might not always be the most powerful agent in the exercise of such.
So the argument is that what will really sour Australia-Chinese relations is the remarks of one Senator once — and not the escalation of the Australia-US alliance to a whole new stage by the hosting of a troop base in our north. Apparently, this is something the Chinese won’t notice — just as presumably they won’t notice the West’s attempt to curtail their economic and diplomatic extension into Africa and Latin America, the attempts to enforce global currency settings of advantage to the West, copyright and IP regimes that raise Chinese business costs, a renewal of imperial encirclement by strengthening our alliance with Japan, and pushing for an end to the constitutionally guaranteed neutrality of the Japanese military — no, shhhhh, they never noticed any of that.
You don’t have to agree with Lambie’s solution to this — rearmament and our own missile systems, presumably nuclear — to see that once again, because of the new Senate arrangements, a conversation is being had that the political-media elite don’t want the country to have. This is an example of the strange somersault that has occurred in Australian life since the 2013 election. For years, the right-wing media elite — the wired-in “power intellectuals” who saw their role as doing the bidding of the Coalition, the US-Australia alliance, NATO and the West — bemoaned the rule of the elites, by which they meant, ordinary professional middle-class people of a left-liberalish tinge.
The “power intellectuals” — the Paul Kellys, Greg Sheridans, Nick Caters, etc — purported to speak for ordinary Australians against that. Well, the ordinary Australians are here now, in the Senate, albeit by a complex and contradictory process, and what do you know, they’re going off the script. In response, the right-wing media elite has slowly dispensed with its pseudo-populism. Suddenly, government is not something everyone can do, since what is required for government is the rigorous not-having of conversations about the most obvious global processes and array of powers.
Yes, there is little chance of a major geopolitical earthquake in the coming years. But you would have to be wilfully ignorant to not believe that the course of the century is not merely a strategic question for Australia, but an existential one.
This has nothing to do with “yellow peril”, or some sort of deep cultural drive for dominance, but simply with the same imperative that drove the First World War — if you jump first, you get an advantage. Competition for resources, economic crises, a rightward shift in the US, an upsurge of chauvinist nationalism in China, and elsewhere — all of these could create a situation in which China, or a wider alliance of powers, decide that it is no longer wise to tolerate a white-originated settler-capitalist nation-continent as a US outpost in their neighbourhood.
For years, we have been fed a degree of bullshit about how oriented to Asia we are, how integrated we are, how much they accept us. This fiction can only be sustained by our moronic refusal to understand the impact of European imperialism on Asia — the century of racist subjugation, free-market holocausts (which gave Chairman Mao’s worst mistakes a run for their money) and needless late imperial military slaughter we foisted on them. Yes, no one’s going to let that get in the way of business — the Chinese are as adept as Clive Palmer at switching from global capitalist smoothness to neo-Maoist rhetoric in a heartbeat — but no one’s under any illusions about what sort of power we represent.
We remain the last European colony in Asia — we simply colonised a people who didn’t have a unified state and society capable of throwing us off, and restoring their own autonomy. The only way we will ever have a real relationship with Asia is to repudiate the US alliance, remove both the new military bases, and the listening posts at Pine Gap and elsewhere, hand in the deputy’s badge. Compared to that, stray remarks by senators are of no import. But most likely we’ll stay in the shadows of the camera obscura, convinced that the US would come to our aid should there be a major re-alignment.
They wouldn’t of course, and really, if China and other Asian powers want us, they will take us — at some point 25 million people sitting on the world’s greatest mineral trove through sheer low density of population, need to get a bit real. There’s a point at which it is cheaper to just come and take it, rather than buy it — the minerals, the mines, and the temperate eastern lands which could host a lot more than five million rural Australians. Indeed, at some point, we may simply have to give up the continent to entirely new political arrangements.
That was how we were created in 1788 — there’s no reason to suppose it won’t happen to us in 2088, or 2056, or 2035. And there sure as hell is no reason not to talk about it, in full view, without the tricks of the light of a power elite, who would, unquestionably, welcome our new overlords, whoever they might be.
Guy Rundle is Crikey's correspondent-at-large. He was co-editor of Arena Magazine for 15 years, and has written four hit stage shows for Max Gillies, two musicals, numerous books and produced TV shows including Comedy Inc and Backberner.