China US trade war
(Image: Microstockhub/Getty)

There is great disorder under heaven, and the situation is excellent

– Mao

Upper Volta with missiles

– George Schultz on the USSR

Say what you like about the Chairman, but he had a phrase for every occasion. Andrew Hastie’s 1940 analogy of our position vis a vis China — the futile hope of its liberalisation serving as our “Maginot Line” — is either dopey or artful or both, but it serves to simultaneously focus attention on Hastie ahead of his 2024, or 2021 party leadership bid, and to try and make excuses for what is decades of failure by the right on developing an integrated foreign-relations/defence policy.

For the last 40 years, the Coalition and the right in Labor have pursued a contradictory and incoherent global economic/political strategy that has relied on an implicitly racist underestimation of Asia and sheer mind-boggling stupidity to put us in a position which is now both impossible to maintain and impossible to extricate ourselves from.

Our slavish devotion to US military interests has made it impossible to dispel the image of us in Asia as a colonial hangover policing the region. The destruction of our heavy manufacturing capacity in the name of globalisation has made even the ghost of self-reliance in national defence impossible; and the same process of globalisation, and the demobilisation of state enterprise and capital, has made us dependent on the capital and consumer markets of Asia, the enemy, we are lining up with the US against!

Thus we simultaneously denounce China on Hong Kong, and informally subcontract international student provision and university funding to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). We’ve gone back to being the world’s quarry and farm that left us dependent for decades, and let our military ally lock us out of its markets and steal the ones we’ve developed. And so on.

This is where we are now, a predicament that Hastie presents as being the product of a plan slightly gone wrong. We kept reading Hayek, Hastie implies, and thinking the CCP was too. But all the time they appeared to be reading Marx, they were actually reading Marx!

Hastie’s story about the failed liberalisation of China is designed to offer a myth for the right, to pretend it had thought any of this through. Outside of the classical liberal hotzones — such as Catallaxy Files, the Mom’s-basement of what remains of the Oz blogosphere — no-one believed this for a second. The heady neoliberal decades could maintain this illusion that global trade creates peace and equality only because the unevenness of such — peasant economies “trading” with industrial economies — ensures domination and compliance.

Once underdevelopment is addressed — by a country like China removing itself from the world system for a time to develop — then competition and conflict reappears. Whatever the political system.

Had China become a multi-party system, it may well have gone down the path of India, and handed power to an explicitly nationalist/racist Han Chinese party. In case Hastie hasn’t noticed, it’s “liberal-democratic” India that has unilaterally abrogated a negotiated governance framework in Kashmir, and occupied a state claimed by its rival adjacent nuclear power. It’s the US that has invaded dozens of countries since World War II. China hasn’t occupied Hong Kong or Taiwan (out of self-interest, of course). China hasn’t even invaded China.

Does Andrew Hastie believe the fairytale he played out? Quite possibly, given that he trotted out the usual myths about the post-World War II USSR needing to be “contained”. Except here’s the twist. Hastie and others object not to China’s military incursion — there aren’t any, no-one’s talking about putting Chinese missiles in Fiji, as we are talking about putting US missiles in Darwin — but China daring to invest in Africa and the Pacific.

The hypocrisy is, well it would take another article. We can flog off everything not nailed down to China, and much that is; but if they deal with anyone else its expansionism. We loaded them with debt, built nothing. China loads them with debt, and builds the roads and ports they said they would. We lock brown people in island prisons, scream about African gangs, and wonder why the world doesn’t want to deal with another ex-colony.

Hastie’s speech is more important as a symptom. Presented as some sort of break with a failed tradition of doublethink on the right, it is simply a continuation, a sign that they can’t think outside of their self-justifying myths, even when they can see the situation demands such. They remain caught up in every delusion of white-skin narcissism, the whole Western-exceptionalism-benevolent-imperialism melange from George W. Bush to Niall Ferguson to John Howard, to Tony Abbott.

You can afford to be this stupid when you run the world. Now that seven-eighths of the global population lives in former colonised or dominated states, it might be worth learning how they actually see the world, rather than projecting a slightly redrafted fantasy upon them.

Yes, China is pursuing a Marxist strategy: capitalist development of pre-capitalist states, to create a parallel world system. As Marx notes, and Deng Xiaoping echoed, the first stage of socialism is capitalism. It’s the West that’s trying to enforce illiberal non-capitalist political dependence through military alliances.

Over 40 years we have made ourself into the bonded servant of two bitter rivals. One of them is an efficient totalitarian nightmare, and the other is Alabama with rockets. Decades ago, we should have decided to own our resources, maintain our heavy industry, pursue armed neutrality, and become a voice for global multilateralism.

Now we have to get out of this mess and the first stage of that is real clear thinking about it — not a new round of mythologisation presented as its opposite. Worth knowing, in these situations, whom the disorder is excellent for.

Can Australia actually extricate itself from this mess? Write to [email protected] and let us know your thoughts. Please include your full name. 

Peter Fray

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