The way I act don’t seem like me / I’m not on top like I used to be

I tend to find that a blog­ging ennui sets in when in New Zealand. I have no idea why — per­haps the weath­er, the heav­ier food, the extend­ed social routes, the lack of a per­son­al work­ing space, or per­haps just because.

In 2012 I’ve spent some 2 1/2 of the 4 months to date in the coun­try and blogged very sporadically.

I think I’m just mak­ing excuses.

So, here I am back in South East Asia and you imme­di­ate­ly get the urge to scrib­ble again. I guess sit­ting in the midst of an aspir­ing cold war with the poten­tial to go hot on the edges does focus the mind some­what. I don’t think it will — go hot that is — but you do some­times won­der if there are those beyond the region who would like noth­ing more.

Two things came at me — both Asia-cen­tric yet glob­al­ly sig­nif­i­cant — which I had a mind to say some­thing about, and to link because they’re clear­ly related.

Will Robert­son sent me this piece from the Aus­tralian Marx­ist Left Review — not a site I fre­quent often but per­haps should  — writ­ten by Tom Bram­ble, enti­tled Aus­tralian Impe­ri­al­ism and the rise of China.

Set­ting aside the inter­twined talk of class war­fare and the like (and in par­tic­u­lar the last cou­ple of head­lined sec­tions in the piece) it’s a pret­ty decent analy­sis of the rise and future rise of Chi­na, with more ana­lyt­i­cal sub­stance than most of the sup­pos­ed­ly informed blus­ter found end­less­ly in the dig­i­tal and phys­i­cal pages of Bloomberg, The WSJ, The Econ­o­mist and oth­er more cen­tre-right West­ern journals.

Most espe­cial­ly I like the way it looks at the Aus­tralian mil­i­tary pos­tur­ing towards Chi­na and the way it con­flicts bad­ly with its nec­es­sary eco­nom­ic stance, and the impos­si­bil­i­ty of the place the anoint­ed land finds itself in as it tries to rec­on­cile the past with the accel­er­at­ing rework­ing of the future by the Asian explosion.

The mon­ey-shot in the piece is this (and, once again, you can treat the class con­flict nota­tions there­in as you wish):

Nonethe­less, the fact remains that Aus­tralia is cur­rent­ly not forced to choose between the two sides. The US and Chi­na are not about to go to war with each oth­er. Why then is the Aus­tralian rul­ing class posi­tion­ing itself so aggres­sive­ly towards Chi­na? At some lev­el this ques­tion can­not be answered by ref­er­ence to mate­r­i­al facts and inter­ests which would sug­gest a more bal­anced approach or some hedg­ing of bets. Australia’s hawk­ish pos­ture can only be under­stood at the lev­el of ide­ol­o­gy and the rul­ing class’s per­cep­tion of itself as a white redoubt in Asia defined by its depen­dence on anoth­er “white” pow­er. As Hugh White argued, even pres­sur­ing the US to make more space for Chi­na would involve a con­fronta­tion with Australia’s “old­est and deep­est for­eign pol­i­cy principles”:

We have always believed that our secu­ri­ty required the dom­i­na­tion of the West­ern Pacif­ic by an Anglo-Sax­on mar­itime pow­er… We can hard­ly imag­ine what it would be like to live in an Asia that is not led by the US. All our his­to­ry and instincts there­fore incline us to push the US to con­test China’s chal­lenge and main­tain the sta­tus quo for as long as pos­si­ble. Yet our inter­ests and our future should incline us to push the oth­er way.

To the extent that even today the rul­ing class con­ceives itself, and there­by pro­motes amongst the pop­u­la­tion at large, the notion that Aus­tralia is essen­tial­ly a Euro­pean coun­try, while the vast bulk of trade is with Asia and an increas­ing pro­por­tion of immi­grants come from Asia, is tes­ti­mo­ny to the resilience of rul­ing class ide­ol­o­gy even when faced with chang­ing facts on the ground.

This does­n’t end seem to end well for Aus­tralia at the moment, as it con­fronts but refus­es to recog­nise the impend­ing real­i­ty that is Asia in the next few decades.

Think­ing about that, I returned t0 this sto­ry a few days ago in the Bangkok Post. It’s pret­ty impor­tant, par­tial­ly because it does­n’t beat around the bush and indi­cates a grow­ing region­al prag­ma­tism that the west seem­ing­ly miss­es. We don’t do prag­ma­tism that well, but it’s the essence of Asian inter­ac­tion — that and face.

The essence of the sto­ry is that the three Thai mil­i­tary chiefs, plus the Min­is­ter of Defence went on a ded­i­cat­ed trip to Bei­jing last week.

Thai­land has, since the end of WW 2, been a sol­id US ally in the region, but:

We want­ed to con­vey the mes­sage to Chi­na that the Thai armed forces assign impor­tance to Chi­na. We’re like a close rel­a­tive. As for the Unit­ed States, we are a close friend. We can­not pick one over the oth­er. We still keep close ties with all the super­pow­ers for the bal­ance of pow­er. But under the present cir­cum­stances, we have to stay clos­er to our rel­a­tive than the close friend who is far away,” a high-rank­ing source at the min­istry summed up the trip.

Of course there are oth­er rea­sons for the jour­ney — the Thai/Cambodian scrap for exam­ple, but the greater sig­nif­i­cance of this trip lies with the fact that Thai­land has been named repeat­ed­ly by the US as one of the nations most ner­vous about sup­posed Sino mil­i­tary flex­ing — such flex­ing being a pri­ma-facie giv­en rea­son for US counter-flex­ing, not least with Aus­tralia as a part­ner. The West­ern flex­ing — a mod­ern Third Opi­um War in the mak­ing — is to nobody’s advan­tage aside from per­haps the mil­i­tary-indus­tri­al mono­liths and those that ben­e­fit from that (per­haps I’m edg­ing clos­er to Tom Bram­ble than I thought). Cer­tain­ly, nobody in Asia includ­ing Chi­na gains an advan­tage. It’s not prag­mat­ic. Here, we just lose no mat­ter who wins the war.

I won­der what the Wall Street Jour­nal has to say about this.….


Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

May 5, 2012 at 6:05 pm

Glad you’re back blog­ging. That was a fas­ci­nat­ing post.

George D
May 5, 2012 at 8:56 pm

It does­n’t seem to have occurred to Aus­tralia (and by exten­sion NZ — since NZ has­n’t had an inde­pen­dent for­eign min­is­ter with con­fi­dence in his own ideas in the last 15 years) that coun­tries exist not to line them­selves up as sub­jects of a sec­ond cold war, but as inde­pen­dent enti­ties whose inter­ests are pros­per­i­ty and secu­ri­ty. Sim­ple enough to grasp, but the world real­ly does look a lit­tle dif­fer­ent in Can­ber­ra and Welling­ton (it real­ly does).

May 5, 2012 at 9:07 pm

Yeah, I agree George. The idea of sidling up to take part in the US’s end­less con­fronta­tions to gain fis­cal (and polit­i­cal) advan­tage seems stuck in those cap­i­tals, per­haps because so few actu­al­ly notice them and they des­per­ate­ly wish they would.

May 7, 2012 at 10:57 am

I sus­pect there is a A deep-seat­ed cul­tur­al fear of reprisal for coloni­sa­tion at play in the NZ psy­che: if and when the US declines, it goes, New Zealand will nec­es­sar­i­ly be bru­tal­ly colonised in a 19 Cen­tu­ry way by the ascen­dant for­eign­ers because that’s what Euro­peans did when they had all the guns, germs and steel. His­to­ry, the fact that the Chi­nese have no his­to­ry of impe­r­i­al behav­iour out­side of the mid­dle-king­dom, does­n’t seem to mit­i­gate it. 

Of course the Chi­nese have strate­gic inter­ests in our dairy indus­try; we have strate­gic inter­est in their dairy indus­try also, and so far they seem extreme­ly will­ing to allow us to invest in it with­out impos­ing the sort of anti-com­pet­i­tive mar­ket restric­tions that, say, the Euro­pean Com­mon Mar­ket imposes. 

Inci­dent­ly, we just sold off about 100 years of intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty in respect of apples, in the form of ENZA, to the Ger­mans. If there was a news sto­ry I missed it. There was­n’t any out­rage, and com­par­a­tive­ly that was a much more sig­nif­i­cant sell off than the Cra­far farms, one with arguably lit­tle ben­e­fit to our economy.

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