Poking the dragon. Prominent intellectual and Australia’s first Ambassador to China Stephen FitzGerald has penned a stinging criticism of Australia’s foreign policies in relation to Asia, saying Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Immigration Minister Scott Morrison are “so untutored in foreign relations and diplomacy, or so deaf, or both”, that they don’t understand that “something has snapped in Jakarta”.

FitzGerald says the words used by the PM and the Immigration Minister and the “lecturing, patronising and racist attitudes they convey” have fundamentally altered our relationship with Indonesia, our closest neighbour:

“A strong, independent, democratic and regionally influential Indonesia is not going to put up with that any longer and relations are never going back to the way they were before.”

At the same time, Australia’s relationship with China (our biggest trading partner) has been damaged with potentially disastrous consequences, he writes. These high-handed attitudes, together with remarks by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop about the long-running Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute (Australia has backed Japan’s claim to them over China’s), have greatly displeased the Chinese government.

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When Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Li met with the Australian Foreign Minister in December, he said publicly:

“What Australia has said and done with regard to [this issue] has jeopardised bilateral mutual trust and affected the sound growth of bilateral relations. This is not what we desire to see.”

FitzGerald says Bishop’s words sent a message to Beijing that on important matters, “we stand with a particular US view that doesn’t want to accommodate Chinese power”.

All of this could come back to haunt the Abbott government, he writes:

“What will happen, if the Indonesian government turns to China to supply or even directly assist its navy in the protection of Indonesia’s sovereign borders? And China obliges? And they turn to Abbott, Bishop and Morrison and say: ‘you, of all people, ought to understand’?”

If you meddle in someone else’s issues by taking sides when you’re not a party principal, can you really believe they might not meddle in yours?”

Horses for (art) courses. One of the most interesting parts of the Chinese New Year celebrations — an exhibition of Asian Australian contemporary art — has opened at the Sydney Town Hall. Crossing Boundaries: A Celebration of Contemporary Asian Australian Art is an exhibition of paintings, sculpture, photographs and installations that reflect upon “individual journeys taken, boundaries crossed and new territories explored”, according to curator Catherine Croll. Many of the works contain references to horses, as 2014 ushers in the Year of the Horse.

Some of the most arresting works have been created by Hong Kong-born, Tasmania-based artist Gregory Leong, who has produced a series of works criticising the government’s policy of selling off assets to Asian buyers. In Coveting Thy Neighbour’s Cash (The Asian Century Series) (pictured below), he depicts Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd as auctioneers disguised as “Asia-friendly” Beijing opera singers.

Coveting Thy Neighbour's Cash

The smiling Chinese or Japanese tycoons wielding fistfuls of money have arrived not in wooden boats but in wooden horses, he says. “If major prime real estate and businesses have to be sold to foreign buyers, what does that say about where our economy and national pride as a country are heading?”

Other artists include Korean-born photographer Soyoun Kim (image below), who says she is reflecting on the horse “as the symbolic image of crossing boundaries and journeys. I see myself as a horse, an expatriate who is crossing cultural boundaries and an artist who is going through a long journey.”

Melbourne-based multimedia artist Nikki Lam has produced a fascinating series of videos called Two Minute Affair(s), in which she sits in a public space, like a train carriage, covers most of her face with a black mask and holds up a digital device on which she has written things like “I feel different, like you do”.

The exhibition is on until February 9.

Mind your interrobangs, period. For those of us who think that correct punctuation is one of the cornerstones of modern civilisation, a recent article in New York Magazine entitled “The 5 Best Punctuation Marks in Literature” is pure delight. Writer Kathryn Schulz’s first example is the parentheses  in Nabokov’s Lolita:

“My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three …”

Schulz says that “like the lightning inside it, this parenthetical aside is swift, staggering, and brilliant. It is also Lolita in miniature: terrific panache containing terrible darkness.”

The ellipses in T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock are another example.

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go, and make our visit.

What is that overwhelming question? Clearly, it is either the meaning of life or something more mundane, Schulz says.

The fourth is the The colon in the first sentence of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol:

“Marley was dead: to begin with.”

Schulz writes that this sentence has “death, a dangling participle, and a wonderfully garrulous narrator with some kind of unmentionable Victorian-era disease: wandering colon. It is great.”

My favourite piece of punctuation is the interrobang, which I discovered by reading the punctuation blog of Keith Houston. According to shadycharacters.co.uk, this useful symbol is the combination of a question mark and an exclamation mark — and why isn’t there a key for that on my Mac keyboard?!

The interrobang, em-dashes and the difference between the colon and the semicolon; it’s a pedant’s paradise.