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Chinese President Xi Jinping (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Peter Hartcher dedicates his new book, Red Zone, “to Australia, a life raft of liberty in a rising tide of tyranny”.

Dedications tend to be saccharine and indulgent. But Hartcher’s teases at a broader issue that plagues an otherwise excellent, often riveting tale of the Chinese Communist Party’s mendacity in a volatile world.

A wise foreign policy head once told me that international relations is fundamentally amoral. Red Zone is eager to depict the broken relationship between Canberra and Beijing as a morality play, a battle of freedom against repression, an approach that obliterates nuance and shades of grey.

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Hartcher, political and international editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, has had a long, storied career as a gallery journalist. This background produces some of Red Zone’s finest moments. The access is excellent — we get exclusive interviews with Scott Morrison, Malcolm Turnbull, Peter Dutton, Kevin Rudd and ASIO chief Mike Burgess.

In an early chapter, Hartcher takes us behind the scenes of the tortured decision to ban Huawei from Australia’s 5G network, made during a melodramatic week of Liberal Party leadership spills.

As a writer, he’s at his peak churning out a series of elegantly crafted, newsy vignettes designed to illustrate the rising power and ruthless ambition of Xi Jinping’s China, a nation that will stop at nothing to get the world to bend to its will.

There’s Joe Hockey being confronted by a Chinese minister who wants to buy Rio Tinto. Businessman Peter Mason’s eerie lunch with a spook. Former SMH China correspondent John Garnaut’s visit to billionaire Chau Chak Wing’s palace. Garnaut again playing hot potato with the envelopes of cash CCP officials try to bribe him with.

In one particularly illuminating sketch, Hartcher takes us to Xi’s childhood. The son of a one-time Mao confidant who fell from grace, Xi was exiled to a cave in China’s hinterland during the Cultural Revolution. The boy who would become the most powerful man in the world responded by becoming “redder than red”, giving us some insight into the psychology of Xi, a man who built a cult of personality to rival Mao, and a dictator whose ruthlessness is matched by profound anxiety and insecurity.

But the over-reliance on these vignettes can make Red Zone a sometimes disorienting read — the book lurches through time and geography without a coherent overarching narrative.

The intention is to create through a kind of journalistic Pointilism a very scary picture of modern China. It’s a country with boundless imperial ambitions, intolerant of dissent both internal and external, hell-bent on making Australia and the world kowtow and ignore its horrific human rights abuses.

But because Red Zone is a morality play, there were always going to be blindspots in the picture. One is around imperialism. Hartcher correctly identifies China’s imperial ambitions, but mystifyingly draws little comparison between the other great imperial power of the modern world, the United States of America.

Superpowers do repugnant things. The US — with CIA death squads, regime change, crippling sanctions and foreign invasions — has been particularly so. China sends swarms of fishing boats. The US drops bombs. Other than a vague reference to the US being more transparent about its economic sanctions, there’s little comparison between the two forms of aggressive empire.

None of this is whataboutery, merely an illustration that foreign policy is amoral. We stand with the US not because its actions in the international sphere are moral and good (although plenty engage in mental gymnastics to frame them as such) but because of a thicket of historical and cultural ties we share. We do not share those with China.

Hartcher’s Manichean view of the relationship also paints Australia as the plucky country, brave enough to open its eyes and stand tall against Chinese bullying. Here, the access approach helps and hinders. Morrison, Turnbull and co provide fascinating insights into how the government’s thinking evolved. They also have a vested interest in lionising their actions towards China. At one point, Hartcher even compares Turnbull with Homer’s hero Odysseus.

But Australia’s handling of the relationship has, to some, been brazen, foolish and reckless.

Labor’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong said as much when launching Hartcher’s book this week, arguing discussion on China was often “frenzied, afraid and lacking context”, driven by Morrison’s impulsive approach to domestic politicking.

Hartcher does not engage much with calls to get smarter on China. In fact, beyond endless metaphors about Australia reasserting sovereignty and rejecting the narcotising allure of Chinese money, Red Zone offers few solutions to our current deep-freeze.

On politics, he calls for tighter donations laws and better integrity mechanisms. After 300 pages of bluster, there’s an incongruity between the relatively minor scale of such reforms and Hartcher’s dire warnings about the weakness of our democracy to a hostile Chinese takeover.

Other answers, like taking more Chinese migrants from Hong Kong instead of mainland China, and tying citizenship more closely to a “values test”, are troubling. On the economy, there is vague talk of “reform” to ease our reliance.

Therein lies the problem with the morality play. Painting China as uniquely evil, rather than a superpower doing what superpowers do, means his talk about threats to our sovereignty sometimes seems overheated. Most Australians do not feel like our democracy is slipping away.

It also leaves us with little clarity about the future. Full economic decoupling would impoverish Australia. Any military confrontation would destroy our region.

Foreign policy isn’t a morality play. The good guys don’t always win. And Australia’s future will, for better or worse, always involve dancing with the devil.

Hartcher does an excellent job at showing us what the devil looks like, giving us a microscopic view of his horns. But he cannot answer the big question, which is, to quote Lenin (as he does, liberally): “What is to be done?”

Would you buy this book? Write to letters@crikey.com.au. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say section.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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