Trouble on the North West frontier

It was back in 1982, when then-President Ronald Reagan said “freedom and democracy will leave Marxism and Leninism on the ash heap of history”.

Remind me again when that stopped being policy.

Certainly, there was a case for soft-pedalling the rhetoric and crossing fingers when Deng Xiaoping’s China was obediently joining the world economy and making pacific agreements on Hong Kong.

But as Donald Trump was early to twig, something changed, some time ago, including a naval buildup, sabre rattling in the Taiwan Strait, the purging of Hong Kong’s democracy, President-for-a-long-time Xi Jinping’s suppression of the CCP’s factional pluralism, and the emasculation of the growing independence of private individuals and businesses.

So there is a case for the harder line which President Biden has occasionally been running this year, for example when he said that the US had a “commitment” to defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack (despite later efforts from the State Department to walk-back the comment).

But his recent virtual summit with China’s Xi appears so far to have been only marginally more productive than the COP26 festivities.  To be fair, there is no obvious ‘deal’ to be done.  But nor did Biden take the opportunity to signal a clearer or firmer policy.

Perhaps it will need events to do that.  Certainly, the logic of Xi’s policy is further separation of the countries’ interests and the testing of America’s willingness to use force to defend its interests.

So the Australian follow-up was all the more impressive, making clear that it would be “inconceivable” for Australia not to support the US in the event of war over Taiwan.

The Australian government evidently understands that drawing a line is a precondition to trying to stop its being crossed.  

They are perhaps also being a little more strategic in their trade thinking.  Better to restructure Australian trade now towards more secure and congenial clients, albeit at the cost of the hopefully-small premium earned for tolerance of tyranny. The recent energy crisis seems to suggest that this policy might have had more impact on China than expected, and less impact on Australia than feared.

While of course it’s not up to the rest of the world to decide China’s government, the nature and behaviour of that government will dictate the measures other countries must take to check the growth of its power.  And it’s a profound reminder of why our long-term interest would be served by a China of broad consent of the governed, rule of law, respect for private property and other individual rights.  

Who knows, a bit more of this and we might even see an end to the occasional (but still odious) celebrations of the Chinese government’s use of its dictatorial powers, for example in Covid control.

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