Prime Minister Scott Morrison downplayed backbencher Andrew Hastie’s column. (AAP: Joel Carrett)
Australia’s foreign policy discussion — such as it is — often seems to roll along in a torpor that is out of sync with what is actually happening in the world.
Only the more extreme rhetoric, or biggest threat, or, dare one say, sharpest three- or four-word slogan seems to penetrate through the fog, while the bigger picture of what is at stake either gets lost, or quickly forgotten once the headline issue has been dealt with.
There has been plenty of this abroad in this week when the one big story that looms up wherever you look is China.
A week ago, the story was all about whether the United States wanted us to have missiles in Darwin.
It took a few days of bumbling to knock that on the head, but once it had been ruled out, the broader messages US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper were delivering seemed to get lost.
These were messages about the preparedness of the US to escalate strategic tensions in the Asia-Pacific by pushing for ground-based missiles, and the United States’ willingness to drop Australia right into heightened diplomatic tensions with Beijing by clearly exhorting Australia to back Washington’s stance against China.
That these messages seemed to get lost after a couple of days might be explained by the fact there were even more alarming China-related stories erupting: the upgrading of US/China trade tensions into a currency war; and an increasingly ugly situation in Hong Kong.
The decision of the Chinese to devalue their currency on Monday in response to increased US trade sanctions shook financial markets, with ramifications for the value of the Australian dollar and the value of Australian investments.
Equally, what is happening now in Hong Kong — with an escalation of aggressive warnings to protesters this week by Beijing — seems to make the prospect of a significant crackdown there now very likely.
Yet what has captured the debate — or at least the headlines — is the comparison a government backbencher, Andrew Hastie, has made between China and the French failure to recognise the threat from Hitler’s Germany in 1940.
‘See above’ isn’t leadership
There was immediately an outcry about any comparisons to the Nazi regime, and very little discussion of the strategic argument Hastie was making.
In his column, Andrew Hastie warned against underestimating China’s influence. (ABC News: Matt Roberts)
Asked to respond to Mr Hastie’s comparison, rather than comment on actual developments in China, the Prime Minister downplayed his backbencher’s comments.
But in doing so, Scott Morrison seemed to betray the bitter reality that the Government doesn’t actually have any idea what to do about either the growing US/China tensions, or the growing Chinese belligerence, which it now believes extends to building a new military base in Cambodia.
“I just refer to the speech I gave a few months ago, before I went to the G20, and I set out pretty clearly what the challenges were there and continuing to successfully manage our strategic allies and comprehensive strategic partners”, Mr Morrison said.
Yep, “see above” is always such powerful bit of persuasive leadership.
And there was more. When asked about the observation by banking royal commissioner Kenneth Hayne that the use of slogans is undermining institutions in the place of policy debate, the Prime Minister said:
“Well, I did stop the boats and people who do have a go do get a go under my policies, so I think that’s a pretty good plan. Cheers.”
Commissioner Hayne noted in a speech last month: “Political rhetoric now resorts to the language of war, seeking to portray opposing views as presenting existential threats to society as we now know it.”
Yet the great irony of our politics is that even while domestic politics increasingly resorts to the language of war, our political leaders seem so incapable of mastering language, or even canvassing the issues, to deal with the very real increase in strategic and economic tensions which we now face.
On Tuesday, an official from the Chinese Government’s Hong Kong office had an ominous warning for protesters.
“We would like to make it clear to the very small group of unscrupulous and violent criminals and the dirty forces behind them: those who play with fire will perish by it.”
Hong Kong response unknown
There has been a view abroad that Beijing would be exceptionally reluctant to intervene in any heavy-handed way in Hong Kong because it knows how damaging that would be.
The Australian National University’s Professor Hugh White says it is a mistake to presume this.
The Hong Kong protests, he says, are seen in Beijing as a threat to order, government authority and control over its sovereign territory.
Beijing is conscious it would be a bad look to stage a crackdown but it would be willing to accept that if the alternative is a serious erosion of its control.
The question is how heavy handed it might be. We have already seen pro-Beijing mobs, sometimes linked to Chinese triads, taking on the protesters.
Professor White says there are two conflicting imperatives confronting Beijing about how it might intervene, just as there are over the question of whether it intervenes at all.
One option is to keep it as low key as possible, the second: to send an unambiguous message to Hong Kongers, the rest of China and, for that matter the rest of the world.
After all, what would the rest of the world do? For which read, what would America do?
Given the response to Tiananmen Square 30 years ago — when China was a much smaller player on the world stage — the answer is probably “not much”.
Music to Beijing’s ears
The response of President Donald Trump to developments in Hong Kong to date, despite all his anti-Chinese bluster, is instructive.
Asked on Thursday whether he was concerned by media reports that China might intervene in Hong Kong, the President said the city had experienced “riots” for a long period of time.
“Hong Kong is a part of China, they’ll have to deal with that themselves”, he noted.
It must have been music to Beijing’s ears.
Riots are not something other countries get involved in of course.
An intervention, whatever its form, would however likely become part of the escalating strategic battle, including as another test by both China and the US about whether we have an independent view of what happens in Hong Kong.
Whether events unfolding there are enough to break us out of our torpor is a very big question.
Laura Tingle is 7.30’s chief political correspondent.