Australia’s enthusiasm for potential conflict with China should concern the world.
A recent military spending spree is giving some Australian leaders a false sense of security that might tempt them to do something unwise that would have serious consequences.
The Australian political class does not live in a bubble, but a fortress built with the bricks of prejudice, paranoia and racism, slapped together with the mortar of past mistakes. The last remnants of white supremacy, what is left of the old white aristocracy, the heart of the Australian political class, is deeply suspicious of globalization, resents a multiethnic society and loathes the idea of China as an equal.
The government of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison arguably poses the greatest threat to U.S. interests in the region since the 1970s. Australia is unpredictable and could easily go off script at a moment’s notice.
During Donald Trump’s term in office, the political class in Australia began to craft and create the image of China as a many-tentacled giant octopus seeking to infiltrate, control and strangle the nation. This was a repackaging of the old “yellow peril” (anti-China) myth that led to the notorious White Australia Policy. This new, updated version of the “yellow peril” targets all-powerful Chinese President Xi Jinping, the wicked Communist Party and the Wuhan lab COVID-19 conspiracy.
Australia’s response to China’s rise has uncovered two problematic traits: Australia is untrustworthy and prone to tantrums. On Sept. 16, the Australian government reneged on a 90 billion Australian dollar contract with France over the construction of a new submarine fleet, signing a new agreement with the United States and Britain. The new submarines are just part of this spending spree.
For Australia, however, promises made do not mean promises will be kept. Australia has a history of only keeping a promise until something better comes along. Canberra reportedly doesn’t even know the cost of the new deal but signed it anyway.
The French claimed the Australian decision was a betrayal and reminded them of actions taken by the Trump administration. The decision, however, was very Australian. Betrayal is the weapon of choice in Australian politics. Since the late 1980s, Australian politics is like a repeat performance of a bad rendering of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” Every Australian Caesar has a Brutus. Five Prime Ministers have been betrayed by their friends or colleagues. Betrayal is as Australian as koalas and cricket. Maybe the French should feel honored to be part of this great Australian tradition. After all, you need to get close to someone before they can stab you in the back.
Washington must share some of the blame for pandering to Canberra. To sustain the economy, President Joe Biden’s job is to find a new conflict after Afghanistan. To keep hundreds of thousands of Americans employed, military procurement and weapons sales need to continue. It is how an empire works.
One way is to sell arms that are never used, only upgraded. Somehow, Canberra did not get the memo. The last thing the United States wants is real conflict with Beijing; a new Cold War with mutual distrust would be much more profitable for both sides. But try telling Canberra that. There is a new narrative emerging. Some believe that with the help of their American friends, there might be an Australian empire in the ruins of a humbled Beijing.
This political immaturity is also seen in Australia’s China policy, expressed through a series of tantrums. In Australia it is called “spitting the dummy,” as babies do when they don’t get what they want. It started with recycling. In 2017, China decided it would no longer be the dumping ground for Australian trash. Every encounter with Beijing since then resembles a temper tantrum — very public and very damaging. Psychologically, it is like Australia, through these tantrums, wants China to view it with respect.
The tragedy is that the narrative is out of date. Australia condemns Beijing for being undemocratic, but democratic freedoms no longer exist in Australia. What exists today is unrecognizable from what it was only a few years ago. Freedoms have been stripped away in the public health/martial law debacle of eternal lockdowns. Churches, mosques and synagogues have been closed for two years, public gatherings are illegal and protests are met with riot police. The military enforces public health orders and ordinary people are expected to report their friends and family to the police if they breach one of the hundred or so public health directives.
COVID-19 is just one part of our lives. These days everything ugly, dark and evil about the world is being grown, cultivated, nurtured and encouraged in Australia: racism, white supremacy, xenophobia, antisemitism and fascism. Morrison presides over a deeply divided nation in perpetual lockdown, coronavirus paranoia, sabre-rattling and political hysteria.
Australia is mobilizing for something but, in its excitement, things will not go according to plan. Pride always goes before a fall. You see, Australia has never had an empire, nor has it known real power. It does not know how to behave. This immaturity might accidentally allow Canberra to go a step too far with Beijing and pull the United States and Britain in as a result of their new alliance.
It might be time for a few changes — and a step back from the abyss.
Michael Sutton is a former research fellow at the WTO Research Center at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo and a former resident of Kyoto who now lives in Sydney. He is currently writing a book on the politics of demographic change in East Asia.
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