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  • Writer's pictureMike Lyons


China has become more aggressive. Its leader, Xi Jinping is more assertive.

According to John Menadue[i], the US is “grounded in aggression, both at home and abroad. Since 1776, the US has been at war for 93% of the time (about 227 out of 245 years) and it has launched 201 out of 248 armed conflicts since the end of WWII. It maintains 800 military bases around the world, including in Australia and has a massive deployments in Japan, Korea, and Guam. US warships patrol the Chinese coast.

Menadue adds: “Just think of the US frenzy if China had a string of similar bases in the Caribbean or their ships patrolled the Florida Keys.” Recently, at the age of 94, former President Jimmy Carter described US as “the most warlike nation in the history of the world”.

The last time China fought a war was against neighbouring Vietnam in 1979. It lasted a few weeks (not 20 years). China has one offshore naval base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.

Time and again, Australia has been drawn into Imperial wars, firstly with the UK and later the US. President Biden recently announced that “America is back” to which Menadue responds, “That means perpetual war, the overthrow of supposedly unfriendly governments and the promotion of insurrection.”

Australia’s Role in Taiwan

Australia’s Defence Minister, Peter Dutton recently announced that if the US committed forces to defend Taiwan, it would be “inconceivable” that Australia would not join in the military action. China’s Global Times newspaper responded that “it is unimaginable that China won’t carry out a heavy attack on [Australia]” and Australia “better be prepared to sacrifice for Taiwan and the US.” Nevertheless, Dutton maintained that backing the US to protect Taiwan was “vital to leave Australia in a global position of strength” – really?

Hugh White[ii] describes Australia’s plan to buy nuclear powered submarines as deepening Australia’s commitment to the US military confrontation with China which “has little chance of success and carries terrifying risks.” According to White, Washington wants Australia to do much more to support the US in a war with China. He adds that it “is far from assured” that America could win in a contest against China, and the “US faces an immense challenge in confronting and containing China in its own backyard”. White suggests that Australia needs to step back from following Washington’s policy. Australia is now, for the first time facing a future in which the region’s most powerful state is not Anglo-Saxon.

Some History

Thirty years ago, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating said that Australia had no choice but to stop looking for our security from Asia and to start looking for it in Asia.

Before Australia rushes to join America in challenging China’s claim to Taiwan it is worth recalling that Taiwan was annexed by China in 1683. It was more than 160 years later that America annexed Texas and then California from Mexico. As recently as 2008, the KMT nominee was elected Taiwanese President, campaigning for better ties with the People’s Republic of China. In 2016, Tsai Ing-wen was elected President of Taiwan and as recently as 2020, she called on the international community to defend Taiwan’s democracy. It seems rash to launch a potential nuclear world war over such a recent claim, bearing in mind that the KMT (which does not call for independence) is not long out of power, having won 34% of the vote in 2020.

White reminds the reader that what China is doing in Asia is precisely what rising powers have done throughout history (consider the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the British Empire, and the American Empire).

Australia’s “National Interest”?

The big question for Morrison and Dutton is how committing forces to support America in a conflict with China is somehow in “Australia’s national interests”. More importantly how much blood and treasure is Australia prepared to lose. How many young Australians has this Government budgeted will die in such a quixotic adventure? What number of Australian deaths do Morrison and Dutton consider “acceptable”? As Hugh White says, both sides would lose many ships and aircraft and suffer many casualties. The cost in both blood and treasure would be almost “unthinkably large”.

It was shocking to read Greg Sheridan’s fulsome support in The Weekend Australian for Dutton’s increased militarisation of Australia. Sheridan went further calling for greater “real, physical, actual weapons” for Australia which are “capable of kinetic effect” and he talked about Dutton’s recent speech as an “effective contrast” to the “kowtowing” to China by Paul Keating. While demanding greater investment in weaponry, Sheridan complained that Australia’s ability to strike any enemy, to inflict any serious military harm, and to sustain any effort in combat against a military which has first-world equipment, is currently pitiful.

In response to Dutton, Kevin Rudd tweeted “Dutton is like a petulant teenager, spoiling for war with China because he thinks it makes him look tough.”

Earlier in November, the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley acknowledged that the years of US domination may be over and that the world was reshaping into a tri-polar configuration with US, China, and Russia being the “Great Powers”. Milley recognised that Beijing may now be ready to challenge the US, at least at a regional level.

Yes, China is aggressive, and yes, its leader is assertive, but China has emerged with extraordinary speed as a global superpower. The vast majority of China’s 1.4 billion people are proud and supportive of their government and its successes. Their living standards, health care, and education have all risen to levels which were unimaginable only two decades ago.

The Virtual Summit

Shortly after the Biden- Xi virtual summit on 15 November, the Asia Times reported, optimistically that the dysfunctional phase of the US-China relationship may be ending. The meeting was a recognition that both sides believe that their previous hostility was not working for either. Biden said it was the responsibility of both leaders to ensure that “competition between our countries does not veer into conflict”, while Xi pointed out the need for the two nations to “increase communication and cooperation” saying that China was ready to work with Biden to build consensus and move China-US relations forward in a positive direction.” Xi also said that “In the next 50 years, the most important thing in international relations is that China and the United States must find the right way to get along.”

However, Xi drew a firm red line on Taiwan saying that China would strive for peaceful reunification, but that encouraging Taiwanese independence was playing with fire. Biden reaffirmed the US government’s long-standing “One-China” policy adding that the US did not support “Taiwan independence”. Although Biden has put out many confusing and conflicting messages, it seems that both sides, in their own separate ways back maintaining Taiwan’s “status quo”.

The South China Morning Post recently wrote that Xi Jinping is the strong leader of a still weaker nation while Biden is the weak leader of a currently more powerful country. However, the mass appeal and support for the CCP is at a historic high amongst ordinary Chinese, whereas President Biden’s popularity has hit a new low.

[i] John Menadue A.O. is a respected former Australian public servant and ambassador to Japan. In 2013 he established his Public Policy Journal, Pearls and Irritations, which now has more than 6000 subscribers [ii] Hugh White is emeritus professor of strategic studies at ANU and the author of How to Defend Australia

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