Well over a century ago the German statesman Otto von Bismarck remarked that countries have neither friends nor enemies only interests. History since then has done nothing to dispel the wisdom of his observation. There are many people still alive today who were alive when this country fought for its very existence against the two mortal enemies of the day: Germany and Japan.
What is the status of those two countries today? Germany is the most economically powerful nation in Europe, a vital member of the European Union and finally after decades in which its economic power was vastly greater than its political influence, is finally asserting itself politically in a manner commensurate with its economic influence.
Similarly, with Japan whose 10-year reign of terror and unparalleled brutality in Asian countries it invaded and occupied was finally ceased by a new role as the designated guinea pig for the then newly developed atomic bombs. Two different versions of that weapon had been developed and had to be tested on human victims.
Japanese signals of wanting to end the war as early as late 1944 had to be ignored as the bombs were not yet ready for testing. The excuse for rejecting the Japanese overtures for a peace deal were on the grounds that they would not make an unconditional surrender. The sole condition Japan sought was the retention of the role of the Emperor.
After the bombs were successfully tested (from the United States point of view) on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese unconditionally surrendered. The occupying United States and Allied forces allowed the Emperor to remain!
Japan now plays the same role in the Asian system of United States alliances that Germany plays in Europe. Despite its power as one of the world’s major economies, Japan has remained politically weak. Both Germany and Japan continue to suffer the continued occupation of their countries 75 years after the war ended. There is no possible military or political justification for the continued United States military presence in either country.
That has not, of course, stopped the United States occupation. In respect of both countries the ostensible justification remains the same: the alleged threat from China and Russia. Part of the irony, and the hypocrisy, is that both those nations were part of the allies that fought Japanese and German militarism respectively.
China’s favoured status as US ally changed abruptly after the Communist party took over the government of China in 1949. As every student of the Korean War knows the sequence of events in Korea after 1945, when the Japanese were expelled, made a military conflict between the North, that had been initially occupied by Russian forces until 1948 and the South, occupied by United States forces in 1945 and still there, almost inevitable.
There were cross-border skirmishes by both sides until in 1950 the North mounted a full-scale invasion of the South. A United Nations Security Council resolution (in the absence of the Russians and with the Chinese Nationalists still occupying China’s seat) authorised military intervention.
The Northern troops were rapidly expelled, which met the terms of the United Nations Security Council resolution. That did not stop the United States and Allied troops who in turn invaded the North and continued all the way to the Chinese border. We now know, although it was never admitted at the time, that the United States intention was to continue across the border with China with the intention of defeating the new Communist government and reinstalling the Nationalist regime of Chiang Kai-Shek that had retreated to the island of Formosa where it was protected by US warships in the relatively narrow strait separating Formosa from the mainland.
We now also know that the United States military leader in Korea, General Douglas MacArthur, had sought Washington’s permission to use nuclear weapons against the Chinese mainland forces. Fortunately, that permission was refused, but the request was a revealing insight into the United States military mindset.
Chinese intervention into the war led to the rapid expulsion of United States and Allied troops back below the 38th parallel. Thereafter military stalemate ensued until a ceasefire was agreed in 1953. No peace treaty has been signed to this day.
The purpose of this brief historical summary illustrates that United States–China animosity has a long history and a military option has always been part of the equation. China today is a vastly different military and economic proposition than it was in the early 1950s. In terms of parity purchasing power China is by far the world’ largest economy and has been for several years. It is also a nuclear power capable of wiping out the United States or any other enemy if it chose to do so.
In a rational world, the enormous economic strength of China and the military strength of its close ally Russia, should have led to at least a modus vivendi being worked out and a peaceful, albeit uneasy, truce determined.
Instead we have witnessed the opposite. Although the Trump administration has increased its belligerent rhetoric and waged an ever-increasing economic war against China, he was not the first US President to exhibit hostility toward China. Even if, as seems increasingly likely, Trump is defeated this November, it would be naïve to assume that a President Biden would be any different.
Not the least of the reasons is that United States foreign policy is not determined by rational political actors, but rather subject to direction and manipulation by the forces the outgoing President Eisenhower described in his farewell address in 1960 as the “military industrial complex.” A 21st century description would add “intelligence” to the actors that Eisenhower referred to.
One of the more difficult things to understand for those of us who prefer to think that rational self-interest remains a powerful motivating force, is the behaviour of the Australian government. China is Australia’s largest trading partner by a substantial margin, taking more than a third of all Australian exports (about seven times the United States market share).
China is also Australia’s largest source of foreign tourists, largest source of foreign students (both very lucrative markets) and third largest source of foreign investment. In a rational world Australia would be carefully nurturing this golden goose. Instead the current government, with the enthusiastic support of the Labor Opposition, is going out of its way to offend and annoy the Chinese.
There is only one logical explanation for this self-destructive behaviour, and that is Australia places a greater weight on the military alliance with the United States than it does on its own economic well-being and the lives and prosperity of its own citizens. It is difficult to think of a polite way of describing this suicidal conduct.
Australian support goes beyond the merely political level. Australian warships in the Asian region are effectively part of the United States Navy exercises that are as this is being written, taking part in yet another so-called freedom of navigation exercise in the South China Sea. No one has been able to point to a single instance of China disrupting the free flow of civilian ships in the region. Given the economic importance to China of the free flow of trade through the narrow Straits of Hormuz (also subject to United States and Australian military patrols), it is not difficult to comprehend China’s reaction to this blatantly threatening conduct.
Should, as seems increasingly likely, the Chinese choose to exert economic pressure on Australia, the economic pain will be immense. Some restrictions on all Australian exports have already been imposed. These may be interpreted as a warning shot across the bows, encouraging Australia to rethink its manifestly suicidal economic behaviour.
There is no evidence that the message is penetrating the political and mainstream media skulls. There is total silence from those two sources of precisely who will step up to replace China’s crucial economic role as the source of Australia’s wellbeing. Reliance upon the Americans is frankly delusional and there is a conspicuous silence from any other prospective trading partner in the region or even elsewhere.
Not the least of the reasons for this regional silence over Australia’s suicidal policies is that a large proportion of those prospective trading partners are among the 160+ nations and organisations that have signed up to the Chinese-led Belt and Road Initiative and a growing number of other trading arrangements in the region that are rapidly developing.
Australia, again loyally following US directives, has shunned the BRI, again without offering a remotely plausible reason for doing so, and manifestly another example of acting against its national economic self-interest.
A profound lesson in geopolitical realism awaits Australia. When it inevitably comes and imposes its own harsh remedy, Australia will have no one to blame but itself.Print