Is the China story just a story?

Former Australian ambassador to China, Dennis Argall argues the Australian public and policymakers are denied truths about China 

6 July 2021 | Dennis Argall, Pearls & Irritations (Image: Marcus Reubenstein)

If ever there is now an axis of evil it is surely the uncoordinated journey of fellow travellers ASPI, now reportedly replacing DFAT as strategic advisor to government; Adrian Zenz, conservative Catholic inventor of Xinjiang genocide, who wants to see the overthrow of the government of China, and the ABC team led by Stan Grant, who have taken propagandistic reporting to unprecedented levels.

The foot soldiers of the true China story include ordinary people like Jerry Grey (find him and associates on Twitter), a former senior executive of the Australian branch of an international
security firm, who lives in China modestly but raises money for good causes. Jerry has recorded that on one occasion he sat by his bicycle in the middle of the desert in Xinjiang exchanging messages with a young person in ASPI who declared from his maps from space that he, Jerry, was at the site of a prison that just isn’t there. Jerry worked in and designed elements of prisons in the UK.

The Financial Times on 30 June carried a video conversation on whether China would become the centre of the world economy. The talking head China expert on the left begins and goes on with simple errors of fact that should deny him recruitment at base level to the Financial Times. The one on the right says yes China will be huge but others won’t let them be at the centre. This is imagination and hope, not hard-nosed FT reality. But it’s how the world is bent.

This year is the one-hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. Ironically marked by old colonial powers, (links here are to elements of history, parentheses to current gunboat follies) Britain (aircraft carrier), France (submarine). Japan (modest), and the United States (immodest with occasional Australian naval vessel under its skirts) steaming up and down the China coast.

I have been attempting a mind experiment: of being a responsible person in the UK Ministry of Defence preparing notes for the prime minister on the role of the nuclear missile Trident force on British submarines, in an upcoming war with China and the powers of the prime minister. I imagine his classified waste bin is full of discarded attempts as he mutters “can’t tell Boris that I suppose.”  It’s a joke, a very deadly joke, and an absurd reality.

It is as if we learned nothing from the twentieth century. As if we have no international mechanisms for war avoidance.

There is unfortunately now a major contradiction to the architecture for war avoidance: the behaviour of the United States in the unipolar war of the last four decades, become more vicious in recent times. You say what about Russia and Ukraine? I say, Malcolm Fraser. It’s actually the history stupid, not the histrionics.

The rules-based international order of the United States (excellent essay by Mack Williams here) seems in practical intent a license to kill, if we look to US readiness to launch attacks in the Middle East, willingness to cut off the people of Iran and Venezuela from food and medicine, along with a broad swathe of sanctions. And much more. Alison Broinowski and Tony Kevin are better at keeping the lists. The US cherry picks the international rules that suit it.

This growing wildness, this disregard for international law, did not begin with Trump. The longer history underwent great expansion under Obama, not least with failure to seek to build international law to limit the use of new drone technology, instead using drones for widening wars, declared and undeclared, and mainly illegal. Sanctions were ‘refined’ as weapons. Richard Nephew, author of a book boasting of how under Obama he shaped sanctions to hurt ordinary people is now number 2 on Biden’s team dealing with Iran. Watch the inflexibility of the US bite hard.

This is the official list of sanctions, from the US Treasury Department. Biden and his team have adopted and extended the Trump regime of sanctions. A national strategic policy based on sanctions and calling your principal competitors killer and thug is surely an avoidance of an international order, in favour of brutal power. Good domestic politics? No, no effect. Biden’s domestic agenda is largely stuck, apart from cheques based on newly printed money.

The power of sanctions is based on the power of the US dollar as the global reserve currency and more particularly the power via the SWIFT system to stop international transactions between third parties. (Does the ordinary Australian know that China, Japan and Korea pay for iron ore imports from Australia in US dollars, that our purchases of domestic appliances and cars from wherever also travel via the US dollar cash register?)

It is simply a matter of day-by-day record that China by various means is working to overturn the role of the US dollar as the single international reserve currency. How long this will take is uncertain. It will happen. The current simplistic whiplash power of the United States will be overturned. The American freedom just to print more dollars will decline.

There is already evidence that Australia’s partners in the Five Eyes sleuthing cabal have replaced many of Australia’s blocked exports to China. All of this spy gang to which we belong, except Australia, maintain high-level contact with China. Same with the so-called Quad. Australia alone chooses to play tough and whine as does the schoolyard bully “I didn’t start it.” ‘

China values trade with Australia, steadfastly blames Australia for the rupture, see this in the Global Times on 28 June (A slender article, doubtless they have difficulty finding Australian news. I try to keep daily track of international news on the ABC News app. Score close to zero, bar the anti-China snide remarks. We are locked down in ignorance.) China has the historical record on its side, but of course, Australia is never in the wrong, beset by international nasty people writing unfair reports on the environment, human rights and now this.

The fantasy of ‘decoupling’ – trading with the Five Eyes or the Quad instead of China ­– was exposed as nonsense in this essay at Medium by Jerry Grey in March.

In Australia, as in many other democracies, opposition parties seldom win government. Governments lose government. Domestic issues rather than foreign policy decide our elections. The Coalition ran out of steam and coherence in 1972, whereas Labor was led by a Towering Hero wanting to bring sewerage to the outer suburbs. Labor’s pace of change frightened too many in our conservative society in 1975. In 1983 the Coalition lost especially because of a drought and because Labor sprang a surprise and produced the Hero Larrikin as leader at the last moment. Labor lost to Howard in 1996 because people did not accept the high fallutin’ rudenesses of Keating. Howard lost to Rudd because Rudd created a new and articulate centre, because he was the Soundbite Killer … and finally people could vote Labor again.

The following years are fresh in memory, with a jumbled and widening distrust of politics in whatever form. Now we seem to have tolerance of fascistic behaviour. Democratic socialism is on the nose aided by a broad failure of education systems and especially the media to teach the nation history. Labor has no hero, Towering or Larrikin. Labor has no space in the media. Prospects of change of government are slight.

A conservative government could sort out the China relationship. The Republican conservatives Nixon and Kissinger turned US policy towards China around fifty years ago, but Morrison and his national security team do not seem to match the intelligence and political acumen (and courage) of Nixon and Kissinger’s little fingers.  I am pessimistic., I wish they’d prove me wrong.

Dennis Argall’s degrees were in anthropology and defence studies. his governmental work in foreign, defence and domestic departments and for the Australian parliament. His overseas postings included Beijing as ambassador, and Washington. This article was first published at John Menadue’s Pearls & Irritations