Donald Trump Xi Jinping
(Image: AP/Susan Walsh)

“The Balkans produce more history than they can locally consume,” Churchill is said to have sagely and hilariously remarked. He didn’t of course. It’s from a rather brutal Saki short story, in which a dullard MP’s one genuinely witty remark in his entire career — though the “more history” bon mot is about Crete — leaves him convinced he has a talent, causing his wife to take an overdose.

This jolly take came to mind while reading the right and centre commentariat’s eructations on the China problem. Or the America problem, depending on your politics. Or, really, the Australia problem, and the double game of verbally committing to the US alliance while ignoring our deliberately chosen dependence on China.

This double game was started in the post-Cold War neoliberal era, and could have continued to this day, if Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 election and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) treaty slid through Congress in Obama’s lame-duck final two months. The TPP’s intent was neoliberal economic encirclement of China — keeping the temperature low, while maintaining US power projection in the region. The foreign policy establishment could still be carrying on with the double game to this day, but Donald Trump’s trade war has made that impossible.

Cleaving economic and political-military power, this major diversion from the neoliberal political program has turned a culture war into a real political one, with consequences.

Now we can’t ignore China’s domestic political shift to a sort of procedural neo-Stalinism — in which high-tech surveillance substitutes for capricious mass violence as a control device — nor its determination to reintegrate Hong Kong, nor the regaining from Western dominance of the South China Sea, nor the extension of influence through the Confucius Institutes, Communist Party control of international students, People’s Liberation Army involvement in international business, etc, etc.

These conflicts are the bell tolling for us — or for the illusory condition we have lived in for decades. What is the response from the foreign policy establishment? Absolutely nothing of consequence. They have no answers to our dilemma. The emblematic article was Tom “Heidi” Switzer’s SMH op-ed “We must waltz with China and the US together“. Switzer, head of the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) isn’t responsible for the headline, but it’s an accurate representation of the stunningly vacuous piece beneath it. True, it’s partly a report of a CIS debate between John Mearsheimer and Hugh White — one in which only Mearsheimer’s contribution is presented — but even so, listen to this:

… like many Australians I have long believed we do not face a choice about whether to go with America or China … we just have had to be more flexible, agile and nuanced. Like riding two horses simultaneously instead of one, it is difficult but it can be done.

Riding two horses at once? Yes, it can be done. For about two minutes. In a circus. This apparently is not self-parody. In The Age, John Pesutto, former state MP for a heavily Chinese-Australian area of Melbourne, was less mad, but no less waffling: “we must maintain goodwill but not be blind to their ambitions”, apparently. Thanks, Metternich. Quadrant has “Your move, President Xi“. The Launceston Examiner warns the Tsar… And in The Australian Andrew Foxall says we must “walk a tightrope” in our relations with the two nations. Strung over Heidi Switzer riding two horses in the CIScus ring, presumably.

There are yards of this stuff, all the same, all of it revelatory of an unwillingness to ask hard questions about the strategic situation we’re in. The endless verbiage is a way of maintaining elite dominance, of interlocking think tanks, institutes, universities, and the ambitious organisation types who move through them. It disguises decades of ignoring hard questions. This is made all the more visible by the treatment of Hugh White’s recent publication, How To Defend Australia, which has been treated as if it were an act of unforgivable gaucherie, for actually thinking out loud about the potential for invasion from the north, the highly provisional reliability of US assistance in such a case, and whether that demands the building up of our forces, both conventional and nuclear.

That proposal has its own problems, to say the least. Quite aside from contributing to nuclear proliferation, the ethical dimension of the proposal assumes we are a purely defensive small-population nation, not a regional bully with our own de facto, increasingly recalcitrant empire.

This sort of thing — addressing our defence dilemmas with real and stark proposals — is simply not done. Defence talk is about reaffirming the US alliance or avoiding the question altogether. Thus the review in the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s — founded as an advice body, part-funded by the Department of Defence, and now presenting itself as an independent think tank — publication The Strategist, has a review that replies to White’s fairly compelling case about US unreliability with the assertion that “it is not unduly optimistic to presume that American pride and its democratic system will help to keep the US engaged in the region.”

Well, that’s a relief. For a moment I thought the establishment was just crossing its fingers and hoping (to be fair the left is yet to weigh in, and when it does it will be about gendered toilets in our missile silos). This will go on for some time. Australia produces less history than it locally requires, and it looks like we will eventually import it.

Peter Fray

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