This correspondence is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 11: The March of Autocracy.
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I thank Charles Edel for those things he got right in my essay. “An obsolete understanding of regional dynamics and a nostalgic desire to promote American primacy”: a more succinct description of America’s problem as it looks across the Pacific I cannot think of. “Wishful thinking born out of ‘longing for the once-was, anxiety in the face of change, and an appallingly poor grasp of China’s aspirations and intentions’”: I cannot be but grateful to Dr Edel for singling out these phrases and ascribing them to wishful thinking. It is precisely the stuff of said nostalgia.
Conveniently enough, Dr Edel also gives Australian Foreign Affairs readers an exquisite example of just how these very consequential misapprehensions manage to travel so widely. They are made partly of misjudgements that people of high qualifications ought to be able to avoid, partly of what we may call motivated logic, partly of ideological conformity and partly of distortion. Obfuscatory, cotton-wool language seems always necessary to carry the freight, as Dr Edel’s remarks also exemplify. “Actions that have compromised the sovereignty of multiple countries …” Which actions and which countries, please. “… The confrontational foreign policy Beijing has embarked upon …” To what does this refer? This sort of inflated rhetoric simply does not stand up to scrutiny – and is not intended to, so far as I can make out.
This is what you get from the China hawks, unhappily. I will not offend Dr Edel by associating him with the John Birch–like ravings of Mike Pompeo, but he seems to tilt in our thankfully departed secretary of state’s direction. In the end it becomes a question of intellectual seriousness.
I am supposed to have argued that “Asia should just get on with the business of accommodating Beijing’s interests”. Jiminy Cricket! If my essay was about one thing above all others, it was Asians’ salutary “re-Asianisation” – their post–Cold War endeavour to define their interests for themselves. Dr Edel cites “the actions [China] has taken to destabilise, coerce and intimidate virtually every single one of its neighbours”. Wow, sweeping. I cannot wait to read the list. “Lawrence echoes Beijing’s talking points.” Oh, please. The veiled suggestion here is too infra dig to engage.
There is more in this line. China “holds out the promise of economic benefit in exchange for political compliance”. What under the sun is Dr Edel talking about? Once again, a list of cases would do nicely. Anyone taking the orthodox American position on the China question, as Dr Edel does, ought to (1) stay well clear of this matter of nations that demand political compliance from others and (2) get a good history of America’s postwar doings at the western end of the Pacific.
Dr Edel objects to my observation that America is now caught up in a “frenzy of Sinophobia”. I do not know how else one would characterise Pompeo’s extravagant conjurings of China’s countless evils. We’ve now got the Chinese controlling the weather, tapping Americans’ cellular phones from somewhere in the Caribbean, training “super soldiers” to leap tall buildings in a single bound, using some kind of strange ray gun to give American diplomats headaches, and using fun-for-the-family social media applications – TikTok, WeChat – to subvert our republic. Next we will be watching reruns of the Fu Manchu movies.
If readers think I see a twenty-first-century version of the old “yellow peril” in what hawks such as Dr Edel are up to, they read astutely. The point of these incessant fulminations, tinged as they are with primitive xenophobia, should be plain: it is to keep Americans fearful and to justify the Pentagon’s presence in the western Pacific – which, as a good map of US military installations will show, is inexcusably immense and provocative. No, as I wrote, East Asians do not want America to retreat to the California coast. But they are not going to sign on for a Cold War II confrontation with the mainland, whether this is offered in the bellicose Pompeo fashion or with the faux sophistication of President Joe Biden’s national-security people.
Since my essay was published last October, I have to note, Australia’s relations with China have gone straight through the floor. This seems to be the consequence of a long, unfortunately successful campaign waged by hawkish cliques in parliament and government departments, think tanks, the military, the universities and the media. So far as one can make out, these people have been assiduously urged on by Americans such as Dr Edel, whose impeccably hawkish credentials indicate he is well-situated among Sinophobes on both sides of the Pacific.
I had hoped for a better, wiser outcome for Australia, as I made clear in my essay. I had hoped that Australia would quickly see beyond its unbecoming, unconstructive deference to America. Dr Edel insists that Canberra has been thinking for itself all along. And what a splendid irony accompanies this assertion: an American purporting to speak for Australians to say that Australians speak for themselves. I think I understand.
There are some consequential years just out front, as Thom Dixon seems to recognise. Get the China question wrong – choose confrontation over cooperation and coexistence – and America and those who follow it risk damaging (if not disrupting) various longstanding friendships and alliances. Mr Dixon, for whose thoughts and comments I am also grateful, gets it exactly right when he writes of “the contest underway for control of narratives”. This is what Pompeo and the various schools of trans-Pacific hawkery wage. And Dixon is right again to say that Australia, finding itself “in a world without assurances”, has to make its own way but cannot “unless it farewells the America that once was”.
I am certain Australians can get this done and could scarcely cheer them on more vigorously. As Mr Dixon appears to appreciate, it is bound to be a bracing moment to stand between two doors, one ahead to be opened, one behind to be closed. It requires bravery, imagination, the confidence one will find one’s way. Strong nations exhibit these qualities. Nations that are merely powerful do not, as a rule, for the simple reason they have no need of these things.
Patrick Lawrence is an American essayist, critic, lecturer and former Asia-based correspondent, and the author of six books.