On October 27 U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo spoke with Shekhar Gupta, editor-in-chief of India’s news website The Print in an interview that descended into an anti-China diatribe by Pompeo, who was fed soft-touch questions.
Pompeo refused to abide by conventionally courteous diplomatic practice in referring to “the government” of China, preferring, like Trump, to talk about “the Chinese Communist Party” when berating and insulting the Beijing administration. While this is immature and feeble, it is also ironically diverting, because it demonstrates the ever-present double standards of the present Washington establishment. In one attack, he claimed that “the Chinese Communist Party wants the same thing in every place. They want to control and dominate” which was somewhat at variance with his publicly expressed sentiments concerning a nearby country which also has a communist government.
Pompeo’s anti-China swing round Asia included talks in India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Indonesia, and he ended his trip on 30 October by visiting Vietnam where he declared that “We have enormous respect for the Vietnamese people and your country’s sovereignty.”
It appears he has not read his own Department’s illuminating ‘Report on Human Rights Practices’ in Vietnam, which observes that “The Socialist Republic of Vietnam is an authoritarian state ruled by a single party, the Communist Party of Vietnam” which in 2019 caused concern because “Significant human rights issues included unlawful or arbitrary killings by the government; forced disappearance; torture by government agents; arbitrary arrests and detentions by the government; political prisoners; significant problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; the worst forms of restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including arbitrary arrest and prosecution of government critics . . .” and so on.
This is but one instance of Washington’s double standards and pervasive hypocrisy. If a foreign country is supportive of Trumpian foreign policy and knuckles under in terms of trade, then the Trump establishment ignores human rights violations and many other contraventions of decency (witness, for example, official reaction to the murder of the reporter Jamal Kashoggi by orders of the ruler of Saudi Arabia), in order to further its own interests, which are in the main commercially-based. There are, however, other countries with pristine records in human rights and general governance that ally themselves with the U.S. in pursuit of what they mistakenly imagine is furtherance of freedom.
One country that is disconcertingly supportive of whatever policies are favoured in Washington is Australia, which is making a most serious mistake in seeking ever closer alignment at the expense of its relations with China.
While Pompeo was on his trip in Asia, preparations were in their final stages for the annual anti-China major naval exercise Malabar, nominally sponsored by India and involving its warships and combat aircraft along with those of the United States, Japan and Australia. It began on 3 November and Voice of America observed that “India’s decision to include Australia for the annual drills comes in the wake of a push by Washington for deeper security collaboration in the ‘Quad,’ the informal group that includes the United States, Japan, Australia and India as a counter to China. Australia returns to the exercises after 13 years, when its participation triggered strident Chinese objections. But this time the Malabar exercises will endure as all four participants seek a long-term counterbalancing strategy to China, according to analysts.”
Australia’s embrace of the U.S. is not new, but its current alignment with Washington and others is taken by Beijing as being specifically against China and it is doubtful if it was a coincidence, as noted by the independent analysts of STRATFOR, that “beginning November 6 Chinese authorities will halt all imports of a range of Australian agricultural and mineral exports, dramatically expanding an earlier coal ban.”
The economic effects of Australia’s recent and entirely unnecessary confrontational stance are going to be massive and will not only adversely affect its financial sector as a whole, but will destroy the livelihoods of countless workers. On November 2, the South China Morning Post recorded that “China has banned imports of Australian timber from Queensland and suspended barley imports from a second grain exporter, while Chinese importers are also bracing for a possible new round of bans on copper ore and copper concentrate as well as sugar this week in the latest trade escalations between Beijing and Canberra. The new bans occurred over the weekend as clearance of Australian rock lobster shipments was also delayed in Shanghai due to increased import inspections.”
Collapse of the lobster market, alone, will be catastrophic as it is worth U.S.$ 527 million a year, a modest amount in U.S. terms, but a major item in Australia’s national budget. Further, its lobster fishers will disappear and the fishery ports will be stricken with unemployment.
On 28 October the UK’s Guardian commented that “while it is difficult to quantify the cost of the trade war, research by the Perth U.S.-Asia Centre at the University of Western Australia shows the total value of exports to China from the seven industries affected by declared and undeclared sanctions was $47.7 billion last year.” To an economy the size of Australia’s, this is potentially disastrous, but it seems that the government in Canberra is determined to continue confronting China, no matter the cost to its citizens.
In spite of the combination of U.S. pressure and domestic political intransigence, Australia could have followed the example of Sri Lanka whose Prime Minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa made it clear that zealots such as Pompeo would not be successful in attempts to pressure his country to align with the anti-China league and tweeted that “Sir Lanka will always maintain a neutral stand in foreign policy and will not get entangled in struggles between power blocs.”
The U.S. campaign against China gathered momentum on 6 November when the Commander of the Pacific Air Force, General Kenneth Wilsbach, publicly announced that the U.S. armed forces must be prepared to engage in conflict with China. He insulted the Chinese government by stating that it engaged in “maligned and coercive activity that’s frequently not in accordance with international law” and declared that “We’ve got to challenge and compete with them in accordance with the national strategy, but we also have to be ready in the event we get called to go fight tonight.” There was a time when senior military officers in democracies were forbidden to engage in public comment on international affairs, for obvious and sensible reasons, but it now appears that these people are being encouraged to threaten foreign governments and stoke up tension.
The stage is being set for further confrontation, and Washington is wilfully ignoring China’s determination to continue its own policies. The possibility of conflict is increasing.