Mandarin Talks: the decline of the US, the rise of China, and Australia’s role

By Shannon Jenkins

Thursday September 17, 2020


Australia has made its support for Washington clear and that’s dangerous, according to historian Michael Pembroke.

Pembroke, a former New South Wales Supreme Court judge and author of Play By The Rules – The Short Story of America’s Leadership from Hiroshima to COVID-19, joined The Mandarin’s Chris Johnson this week to discuss the state of US leadership, COVID-19 and the rise of China for a Mandarin Talks event.

The decline of the US and the rise of China

Many countries have lost respect for the US over its “loose and disastrous” handling of the coronavirus pandemic, Pembroke said. Further, its withdrawal from the World Health Organisation and its attempts to undermine the World Trade Organisation and the International Criminal Court has caused nations to “lose confidence”. Meanwhile, many Asian nations actually respect the “pragmatism and the effectiveness” of China’s COVID-19 response, despite the authoritarian approach.

Pembroke noted that the US has also lost respect due to being hypocritical, particularly in its attempts to interfere in European countries where the Communist Party has some influence.

“It’s said by many that after having been the leading force in establishing the United Nations and the United Nations Charter — the first principle of which is to respect the sovereign equality of all nations — the United States was the first to start undermining that principle,” he explained.

“So within a year or two of the United Nations Charter, it engaged in a campaign which makes the Russian campaign to influence the US presidential election in 2016 look minor. It tried to completely control — and did so successfully — the Italian general elections, because it thought that it was not in its interest that the Communist Party in Italy should come to power, when they were the major party and looked likely to take power.”

America also hasn’t been a good world neighbour in its orchestrating of unnecessary conflicts in other places, from Vietnam and Hiroshima to Iraq and Afghanistan.

“And all in the name of, supposedly, you know, liberating the poor people of Iraq from an authoritarian leader or the poor people of Afghanistan from the Taliban, or the poor people of Libya from Gaddafi, and in Syria it’s another similar idea,” Pembroke said.

“Not everyone in this world is responsible for the actions of everyone else. And you can’t just send an invasion force around the world because you don’t like the regime in another country.”

America’s “one dimensional approach” to the world has also helped pave the way for China.

“While America has been intervening around the world, China has not engaged in any military conflict for 40 years,” Pembroke said.

“While the United States has been spending greater sums on military and defence matters in ever increasing amounts, especially since 911, and especially also since the end of the Cold War, the Asian countries have been going about the business of getting on with each other as best they can, coexisting and trying to make their citizens prosperous … We have to coexist.”

Read more: ‘What you cannot avoid, welcome.’ China, the US and Australia in between

How can public servants remain apolitical in this world?

What should a public servant do if their government demands things of them which go against the values of integrity and impartiality? The answer is simple, Pembroke said:

“You resign.”

He argued that it’s near impossible for public servants to speak up in these kinds of situations, as “there are usually rules and regulations that prevent you from doing so”, noting that many, many officials have resigned from the Trump administration.

Closer to home, former Liberal MP Warwick Smith recently resigned from the National Foundation for Australia-China Relations, a body created by the Morrison government to supposedly strengthen the relationship between the two countries.

“He became very concerned that it was being stacked with people of a certain political persuasion, as against China, so he stepped down a few months ago. And he sounded a warning against allowing ideology to influence the conduct of what should be a pragmatic relationship,” Pembroke said.

Touching on Australia’s role in relation to some of the human rights issues occurring in China, Pembroke argued that it’s “wrongheaded for some loud voices in Canberra to be talking about values all the time”, and Australia should be pragmatic in its approach.

“We have a UN Human Rights Council, which is very busy. We have bodies like Human Rights Watch, we have other bodies, and we have diplomats. But it’s not helpful — and this is where Australia comes in for some criticism and some division, I should say — for prime ministers and heads of government to be espousing values and criticising a country like China. You have to leave it to the diplomats. They know the history,” he said.

“China is extremely heavy handed. None of us would accept that degree of heavy handedness in this country, but there is a context and there’s a history. It’s their business and it’s their values, and we’ve got to deal with the government and coexist with them.

“That’s what our diplomats are for. It’s not for our prime minister to fashion our relationship with China, simply because of dreadful behaviour like there appears to have been in Xinjiang.”

But is diplomacy strong enough to deal with such issues? Not for Australia, Pembroke argued.

“It’s not working in Australia’s case or in America’s case because we’ve made it so clear that we’ve sort of become anti-China. The United States for the last three years, minimum, if not a bit longer, has been effectively waging war against China on all fronts, other than military,” he said.

“And we have made it clear — and I think this is a misstep in the conduct of our relations — that we are very much on the side of Washington. And I think that’s dangerous.”

So should Australia modify its relationship with America?

Australia should be clearer on where it stands, Pembroke said.

“We should be wary of Washington’s judgment, because Washington’s judgment on some issues is, frankly, worrying. And I was very pleased to see Marise Payne distanced herself from some of Mr Pompeo’s more extreme proposals at the AUSMIN talks a month or two ago,” he said.

“We should be sometimes skeptical about Washington’s motives and interests, and we should be prepared like a good friend to speak up, and to tell Washington that sometimes we don’t agree with what they’re doing, because it would be in its interests, our interests and the world’s interest, if Washington did not take such an adversarial approach.”

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