Australian and American soldiers, fresh from their latest military triumphs in Afghanistan, will hardly have a chance to rest before they are being eagerly reorganised for potential conflict with China - a rather different adversary from the Taliban, even if the latter was more than enough for the combined forces of the United States, NATO and Australia.
This time about the partnership arrangements are partly concealed by worthy words about a grouping of democratic nations with benevolent intentions towards, engaged in some common worthy tasks such as the distribution of vaccines against COVID-19 in the Indo-Pacific again.
The word "China" scarcely appears in the communiques issued by members of the Quad - the grouping of the US, Japan, India and Australia. Each of the four players has its own reasons, which differ from time to time, or occasion to occasion to deny that the Quad is a military alliance, even if, for other purposes, both Japan and Australia have formal military alliances with the United States. India is particularly shy about the word, even if the most common practical expression of all of the understandings involves joint exercises by all of the partners with the Indian Navy.
But the reason it gets all of the attention, not least from President Joe Biden, is in its potential as a strategic alliance in the economic and military containment of a China increasingly seen as unfriendly, and, particularly as a maritime arrangements capable, probably with help from France, Canada and Britain of maintaining freedom of navigation in the Indian and Pacific oceans, and, of course, the China Sea. No need to guess what that's all about.
Its high-level supporters see it as a useful vehicle for general competition with China, including the development of western alternatives to the Chinese belt and road initiatives with its neighbours.
Likewise with vaccine initiatives, and in soft diplomacy herding, or attempting to herd, ASEAN and Pacific nations away from strong economic relations with China. But the strategists see it primarily for its impression of an encirclement by rival nations, as well as the base of enormous military power should the trade and propaganda conflict come to armed conflict.
Formally, the hope is that such a formidable gathering might persuade China that any attempts to "break out" by aggression towards its neighbours is doomed to failure, encouraging it instead to return to seeking peace with all of its neighbours.
The more realistic prospect is that a proud and bristly nation, already with the biggest gross domestic product on earth, will redouble its efforts to dominate its near environment, making relationships more unpredictable and more dangerous.
It sometimes seems as if Australia knows this very well, and that its program of provocation and insult is designed not so much to hurt our biggest trading partner as to motivate our most important ally - the United States - to maintain a strong economic and military presence in the area.
If that is so, it is all of a one with Australia's primary diplomatic policies since the 1960s, when we went with the US in Vietnam primarily for the purpose of keeping America enmeshed and enmired in Asia. The fear was that America, given the drubbing it was receiving, might get discouraged and quit Asia altogether.
Does Australia needle China to keep the US engaged?
Our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, is off to Washington soon for a meeting with other Quad leaders. Also in Washington will be Defence Minister Peter Dutton, and Foreign Minister Marise Payne, the politician who more or less consciously brought on Australia's war of words with China last year, which led to Chinese trade sanctions.
She took an international lead in demanding an independent inquiry into how the coronavirus had got loose into the human population. Peter Dutton, never to be outdone in bellicosity towards foreigners, had his additional two-bob's worth recently when he compared China, under the communist regime, with Hitler's Germany in the 1930s. Calming words like this are guaranteed (and calculated) to keep the temperature of relations with China high, whether at the political, economic or cultural level.
Expect some counter-provocations, including some wounding words about Australians - perhaps the triumph of our diggers in Afghanistan, which will cause outrage and indignation among our politicians, as well as in that part of the Australian intelligence and defence establishment which constantly seems to be slavering for a war we could not possibly win.
Perhaps the game of chicken is harmless enough, given the unlikelihood of China's lobbing a nuclear missile in our direction, or of its creating an expeditionary force, with supporting navy and logistical arrangements to sail to Western Australian to seize our, or rather Gina Hancock's or Twiggy Forrest's iron ore.
In this sense China may well see Australia as some child hurling insults from behind mother's skirts. But on the other hand, China, and not a few of Australia's neighbours see Australia as playing an American game, doing and saying things that a major power would find beneath them.
In this sense disproportionate reactions, not least in trade sanctions serve a double purpose: punishing Australia to a point that it must wonder whether being a surrogate for American hostility is worth the trouble, and enabling retaliations on a bit player that would be unworthy, or far too dangerous, if practiced on America itself.
Australians have already learnt for example that our glorious allies, who have promised to stand with us in dressing down China, have not scrupled to capture trade markets from which we are now shut out.
Strictly, the Dutton and Payne agenda is more focused on the annual ministerial dialogue on defence and foreign affairs between Australia and the US, and on the desire of Peter Dutton to get hold of more sophisticated American missiles and missile targeting gear.
But one can be also be sure that both, like Morrison at the Quad talks, will be as much focused on the Coalition's domestic political interests, as they will be in having the best possible military equipment for our own needs, including the service of our place, whatever it may come to be, in the alliance.
Could we have something like a 1963 election based on defence issues in prospect? Robert Menzies almost lost the 1961 election to Labor, because of a credit squeeze. Famously, he got back with a majority of one, though not as his last man in, Jim Killen claimed, because of communist party preferences.
Over the next couple of years, tensions rose with Indonesia - over its takeover of Irian Jaya from the Dutch, and its bitter opposition to the establishment of Malaysia, which saw Australian and British troops fight Indonesian soldiers in the jungles along the Malaysia-Indonesian border in Borneo. Labor, under Arthur Calwell, was almost as bellicose on the issue as the Coalition. In 1963 Menzies took advantage of rising tensions with Indonesia to call an early election.
About that time Australia was re-equipping its air force, and there were two enthusiastic sellers, Britain and the US, with Britain pulling very strongly on its apron strings. The British were hoping for a substantial sale of its fighter bomber - called during the campaign the TSR2 - to revive their aircraft industry and to create economies of scale with its own rearmament project.
Its big advantage was that it would be quickly available, unlike the rival still very much on the drawing board. It was called the TFX, but later the F1-11.
A political selling point was that an F1-11, on its specifications, could fly to Djakarta, drop a cartload of bombs on the presidential palace and return. Menzies ultimately went for the TFX, in the process doing rather more damage to the British aircraft industry than Hitler's Luftwaffe, and won a khaki election.
Morrison, no doubt, figures that he will be politically advantaged if he can confect a defence issue. One can be sure that the Coalition will suggest that Labor is unsound on defence issues, and a threat to national security.
Labor, by contrast, is always reluctant to fight on defence and national security issues, taking great care to minimise points of difference, and sometimes looking as if it has a guilty conscience on the matter. Indeed its unwillingness to enter into national security debates while in opposition is the greatest single threat to Australia's national security.
Let's not stake on a game of chicken
The Quad is not an ideal vehicle for a security alliance, or a containment fence for China. The four nations have their own issues with China, and collectively, if it were maintaining a common policy, could stare it down for quite some time to come. There are other nations in the area - most obviously South Korea, but also Indonesia, Burma and Vietnam - with fears about an expansive China, while still others, such as the Philippines, have continuing problems, not least over disputed islands in the South China Sea.
The Quad countries have blue water navies, and considerable capacity to project power, but China is fast developing an offensive capacity in such areas, not least because of the threat represented by the Quad nations.
Historically India has been rather more preoccupied with its conflicts with Pakistan to its north and west and its border problems in the Himalayas, with China. Although China has clear interests in the security of its sea lanes which go past India, they are not normally Indian Ocean rivals. China has strong ties with Pakistan, which with the triumph of the Taliban, has a strong influence in Afghanistan.
The present Indian government, which has a bigger Muslim population than Pakistan, is a Hindu nationalist party increasingly given to persecuting its Muslim population, and tensions over Kashmir and Jummu run strong. Both India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons. In all of these senses, including Indian attempts to increase its influence with the Taliban, India is more concerned with local issues than rivalry with China. There is, however, a constant worry that India's unreliability could undermine the political and military power of the partnership.
There's another issue too. India has traditionally looked west and south, rather than to its east. A few decades ago, a French statesman insisted to me that the real rationale for ASEAN, among its members, was for mutual self-defence, if India, regarded as a regional bully, turned its gaze. He was puzzled that I couldn't see it, but got me to agree, at the least, that south-east Asia made very little effort diplomatically to get India involved in its causes.
It's pretty much ancient history now, but Japanese expansionism, in China, south-east-Asia and the Pacific is still well remembered. Apart from the US, even those who acknowledge a modern model citizen, one not, until recently involved in the projection of power, do not want to see it too much encouraged as a full-blown counterweight to China, even if it could afford to be.
America will always have to have power on the spot; it will never be powerful simply because it has allies in the area. Australia is a significant middle power in local defence terms, but for all of its efforts to stand up for itself, depends critically on its great and powerful friend.
From Australia's point of view, its long-term position is not best secured by strong anti-China alliances, least of all when it wants to maintain a strong trading relationship with it. Our common interest in democracy is hardly a great unifier, not least because of the records of the players in pursuing their own interests at the expense of others.
In this sense, Australia has lost considerable credit as an international citizen in recent years, in part because of meanness with aid, but also because of its retreat from multinational systems, including combined action on climate change. On this, right now, we are despised even by the United States.
it would be far better if Australia used active diplomacy, trade, educational tourism and general tourism, to maintain strong independent relationships with all of the nations in the region, including China, Japan, Korea, India and the other countries of south and east Asia.
We are not helped by being seen as a lapdog, nor as one which will prefer the interests of another country at the expense of our own. We have enough interests in common with the US to be sure that it will not lightly abandon us - certainly not as lightly as John Kennedy did in 1965 when he preferred Indonesia's interests to Australia's.
With mutually strong relationships, all of our neighbours would recognise that any belligerent player affected everyone's interest, forcing nations to combine to resist actions that could progressively affect everyone. Analysts hot for conflict insist that this could be a disastrous strategy, because , they say, China operates by "salami-slicing'' minor disputes so that each new demand or development is not quite a cause for action.
Yet despite assertions of a much more assertive and bullying China, it is hard to point to much in the way of aggression, other than the fortifying of islands it has always claimed, and efforts to suppress anti-Chinese activity in Hong Kong. Of course, its treatment of Uighurs is lamentable, but if that is susceptible to external pressure it will be from the world at large, not a gathering of proclaimed enemies attempting to encircle it.
I do not expect Joe Biden wants war with China. But he has a domestic political need to appear "tough" on China, and Australia has become enmeshed in the US agenda, contrary to our own interest.
I don't see matters much improved either by gunboat diplomacy, by demonstrations of combined military power, or by goading and offensive displays designed to show that we do not give a fig about their claimed territorial waters. Sooner or later, the game of chicken produces casualties. We should watch carefully for alarmist words designed to frighten us towards the flag.
- Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times and a regular columnist. email@example.com
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