By Colin Chapman
There is little doubt that Donald Trump is spoiling for war with China. Whether this is merely an election ploy ahead of America’s November presidential vote or a real military threat is a matter for conjecture. What is significant is that last Wednesday Australia’s prime minister, perhaps for the first time, distanced himself from the belligerent Trump and his international trumpet major, secretary of state Mike Pompeo.
Hard on the heels of remarks by foreign minister Marise Payne and defence minister Linda Reynolds, pushing back at Pompeo after the AUSMIN meetings, Scott Morrison has made it clear Australia will not buy into a US-China military conflict.
In a speech to the Aspen Security Forum in the United States, delivered by video-link, Morrison chose not to take sides in the escalating US-China trade dispute, despite repeated threats from Beijing against Canberra and being described by Chinese state media as a “poodle” of the US. Rather, he argued strongly in favour of Trump and China’s president Xi Jinping settling their differences by negotiation. He recalled the advice of a legendary ANU scholar, saying:
“Together, China and the US have a special responsibility to uphold what Hedley Bull described as the common set of rules that build an international society, That means respecting international law and the peaceful resolution of disputes. It means a commitment to rules-based economic interaction. Neither coercion nor abdication from international systems is the way forward.”
Though little publicised, this was a wise and statesmanlike intervention by the prime minister, coinciding with a timely debate in Sydney on how Australia should deal with China. I had anticipated a clash between the protagonists, former PM Tony Abbott (Liberal) and former Labor foreign minister and NSW Labor premier Bob Carr. But it was an interesting and civilised exchange with a wide measure of agreement between the two, especially over the risks of a military confrontation over Taiwan, which both agreed would be catastrophic.
Abbott was careful to draw a distinction between the Xi government and the Chinese people who did not have an authoritarian gene in their bodies. He argued that Australia’s problem was less about dependence on exports to China but rather too great a dependence on Chinese imports, which dominate Australian supply chains.
Carr argued strongly for more diplomacy, saying prime ministers Hawke, Keating, Fraser and Abbott had negotiated successfully with China, including securing a trade deal, and that should be the route forwards.
Abbott disclosed that in his final days as prime minister, he considered actions to counter Chinese incursions in the South Chinese Sea. “I want to see the strongest possible relationship with China, but I don’t think we should be bending over backwards to accommodate a very powerful and at times intimidatory competitor to the West.” For his part, Carr applauded Morrison, Payne and Reynolds for rejecting Pompeo’s ‘Kansas charm’ and saying Australia would pursue its own China policy. Both Abbott and Carr ridiculed suggestions made by academics that the large Chinese diaspora in Australia might be a force supporting Beijing. You can listen to the full debate here.
Some will argue the idea that Trump is spoiling for war is an exaggeration. However, the American president’s latest moves to impose sanctions on Hong Kong and Chinese officials, including Carrie Lamb, Hong Kong’s chief secretary, are seen in that light. Trump is also barring American companies from doing business with high profile Chinese technological groups.
Hong Kong said the sanctions were “blatant and barbaric interference” in the affairs of the People’s Republic of China by using the territory “as a pawn in its ploy to create troubles in [the] China-US relationship”.
For Evan Medeiros, chief White House adviser on Asia to president Barack Obama, Trump’s actions are ‘entering the Twilight Zone of US-China relations. “It appears the Trump administration is actively trying to engineer a strategic confrontation and Bejing is saying ‘can’t we just try and get along”, he told the Financial Times.
I find it hard to believe Trump really wants to go to war with China. He is a bully-by-tweet. Having failed to deal adequately with the coronavirus – or, as he calls it, the Chinese virus – and having seen the US economy seriously damaged, he seems to be desperately appealing to the nationalism of his supporters. In other words, it is a ploy.
And it may work. I think I am right in saying that in my lifetime the U.S. has been in more wars than any other advanced nation. Australia runs close, but certainly does not want a war with China.
I will conclude with an extract from Dr George Friedman’s latest book, The Storm before the Calm, to be published in Melbourne later this month. Friedman says America is a warrior culture. He writes, “There are approximately 25 million men and women either serving in or veterans of the US armed forces. That is a staggering number, but it does not capture the whole picture. A soldier is not alone in war. Parents, spouses, children and other relatives all experience war through servicemen and women, sometimes while they serve, and sometimes afterwards through their memories. They are affected by war almost as much as the warriors.”
Dr Friedman assumes that on average the lives of four people are shaped or reshaped by someone’s service, that would mean about 100 million Americans have had their lives shaped by war, or the possibility of it – almost one-third of the country’s population.
Wars are part of American life and, looking back over the last century, there have been more years than not when the United States has been in conflict. So a war against China to Americans may not be quite as hideous a prospect as it would seem to Australians and Europeans, and most Asians. Food for thought, and confirmation that the recent interventions by Morrison and others are timely, and wise. Even wiser would be for Beijing to ease up on its campaign against Australia and try to reignite the bonds of friendship that prevailed in pre-Trump days.
Foreign Affairs magazine: Kevinn Rudd on how to avoid a US-Xhina war.
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