TWO tragedies that illustrate for the discerning the state and moral quiddity of Australian foreign policy – and therefore of Australia itself – were in the news last week, actually or by implication. The first was a rapprochement with the Chinese Communist Party that constituted a no-contrition-offered, no-penance-given absolution for a global pandemic that has wiped out an estimated 15 to 30 million people. The second: the life sentences a Dutch court imposed on two Russians and one Ukrainian in absentia for the reckless 2014 downing of a civilian airliner – Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 – that killed all 298 people aboard. The Australian death tolls – for China’s covid-19 missile and for the conventional one loosed in a Ukrainian cornfield (by personnel unknown) – are 15,976 and 38 respectively. Only the latter, however, motivated Tony Abbott to attribute personal blame to a world leader. The “real perpetrator of this atrocity is of course Vladimir Putin,” Mr Abbott asserted (without evidence). Anthony Albanese – all smiles with Xi Jinping at the G20 – and Penny Wong also condemned Putin and repeated Judge Hendrik Steenhuis’ dubious claim that the three men ‘responsible’ for the MH17 disaster were “murderers.” Embarrassingly, two days after the symbolic convictions were handed down, Ukraine killed two people with an exceedingly suspicious missile strike on Poland. Volodymyr Zelenskyy refuses to apologise.
Show pony Steenhuis previously made news in the Anglophone press in 2016 when he enthusiastically convicted Geert Wilders for the fake “crime” of criticising Islam. His media-vain murder finding assumes two things: that the men knowingly shot down a civilian airliner and that the Donbas conflict in which they were fighting was brought on by Moscow. The war was in fact incited by the US State Department orchestrating a coup in 2014 and enabling nazi militia to ethnically cleanse Russians in eastern Ukraine. The American reaction to the Dutch convictions has been low key for obvious reasons. The United States has never apologised for killing the 290 passengers of Iran Air Flight 655 in 1988. The Wyatt Earp responsible – then captain of the USS Vincennes, William C. Rogers – was never prosecuted. Likewise, Mr Abbott and the other Australian prime ministers who co-presided over a failed 20-year “war on terrorism” that killed approximately 365,000 civilians have never admitted culpability or shown the slightest remorse. They and ADF top brass will not be arraigned alongside the Afghanistan combat veterans being framed for “war crimes.”
An old man I was visiting in hospital some years ago had no chance of recovery and only had days to live. He had always been physically robust and was rightly proud of it, despite prolonged – and serious – underlying conditions. He still did the shopping, the driving, the messages and errands, all the bibs and bobs of an octogenarian’s life. “I might have to hand in my driver’s licence,” he told me, now moribund and just a week from the end. It was a poignant fancy but I could see what was being signified by so belated a yielding to the larceny of time. He thought this concession to reality and hitherto respectfully disregarded counsel would make a final, humbler phase of his life more likely. It was a prayerful plea bargain: ‘Alright, God. I’ve been a bit stubborn. Take my licence and I’ll see out my days at home.’ For the past year or so, I’ve been reminded of the old man whenever I’ve heard or read Morrison-cum-Albanese government principals and op-ed Talleyrands declaring it might be time for Australia to surrender its dogeared, misunderstood copy of A Lucky Country and build a nuclearised defence force for an impending war. It’s too late.
No, this doesn’t mean Australia is going to be “lost” any time soon – as the flighty Colonel Blimp of the Hawke years, Kim “Bomber” Beazley, warned it might be at an Advancing AUKUS symposium last week. It does mean Beijing’s imperial designs on the Pacific and Taiwan are not going to wait 45 years for a chastened nation to nuke up. The President of China’s rules are nothing like the 9th Marquis of Queensbury’s. (Though both men enjoyed crushing dandies). The dualities, hypocrisies and sycophancies of Australian defence and foreign policy have never been sillier or more exposed: we provision the most corrupt country in Europe to ‘send a message’ to Beijing about invading an island nation that Prime Minister Albanese haughtily declares isn’t really a nation. We pretend to be on the cusp of acquiring nuclear submarines but denounce and abhor nuclear energy. Our finest and brightest military minds say China is the Third Reich of our time but we want nothing more than to do business with it. We rejoice over the release of Sean Turnell from a Myanmar prison but are indifferent to the prolonged, sick torture of Julian Assange.
Everything, in other words, is back to pre-covid normal. We want US protection and Chinese cash. To the extent that the Prime Minister has revived realpolitik (if that isn’t too lofty a description of Third Fleet cargo-cultism) and turned the page on the Morrison-Dutton government’s over-the-top campaign-mode warmongering, well and good. But enough with the golden laurels, please. As I’m sure Woody Allen would be happy to point out, 80 per cent of diplomatic success is showing up to alliance get-togethers and signing on for more of the same. Contrary to Paul Keating’s antiquated Asia-Pacific provincialism, the more trade and defence linkages we have in ‘our’ region (especially with Japan) and in the northern hemisphere the better. Contrary to Mr Albanese’s critics when he was Opposition Leader, he was never going to become an alliance burner in The Lodge. Two other Keating criticisms of the bi-partisan orthodoxy the PM dutifully professes, however, are absolutely correct: Australia is too obedient to the US and there is no possibility of this country projecting military power on its own against China – ever. We’re wary of Celestials, then, and enchanted by the Great White Fleet. Call me when the longer twentieth century ends.