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Letters from Downunder

Friends and Relations

Submitted by Lindsay, Melbourne Australia!

A man, sir, should keep his friendships in constant repair
James Boswell, ‘The life of Samuel Johnson’ July, 1762

(5/11) The United States of America is the most powerful nation on earth.

This has been the case for some fifty years, and many countries and peoples around the world are better off, even alive, because of it. The ways in which this came about are well documented and very interesting, but this month I want to talk more about the future, because it is the future we have to look to – as I wrote many years ago, ‘the present is us always trying to catch up to what is ahead.’

Australia was part of the British Empire, that conglomerate that made the tiny island nation supreme for a few hundred years. Like colonials everywhere, we had little choice except to go along with their sometime benevolent rule, but unlike many other countries that made up that empire, we were unable to rebel, work toward ending their rule, or extract ourselves from it.

We didn’t want to, anyway, not just because they were the mother country, but more importantly because they were our protectors, marketplace, source of legal and fiscal light, and our culture. But all that changed in 1942. That was the year that Singapore fell into Japanese hands and those would be conquerors started their great drive south and east. Australia was suddenly facing conflict on its own shores for the very first time, and the prospect was so frightening that our leaders appealed to their home base, Britain, for help. That was refused. Not only that, England demanded we send more troops to Europe and Burma to help stem the tide of advances by the axis powers.

Disaster. We had over 100,000 troops already in action, and in one of the great turning points in our history, we defied Churchill’s ‘request’ and brought many of them closer to home. The motherland link had been broken, and while we continue to revere the queen (well, a minority of us do), the idea of England as protector has vanished as the mist.

In one of the first displays of its might, the United States had already taken on the role of defenders and liberators of the western pacific, including Australia, with our forces playing major and crucial roles in the success that ensued. This formed the basis of our new relationship with your country, which kept growing even when the war was over. Although there was enormous anger over the way Britain dumped us, there was equal joy at this new and dynamic friendship.

As friends we can grumble about your culture, food, crazy monetary plight, and shake our heads in disbelief at your self-serving foreign policies, but all that fades away when we again realize just how much we need you. So this is not a true friendship, for we command all of 3% of world trade – nearly all of it being the export of minerals – and have such a small defense budget that should we be threatened with attack once more we would again throw up our hands in horror and appeal to our friend and ally, you guys. In return we sign free trade agreements, watch your sitcoms (argghh), pretend to help willingly where we can in the wars you get involved with, and buy more of your armaments than our financial situation can afford, but much less than we need.

Now here is today’s question: Would you heed our call to fend off an enemy?

So here’s the other end of the telescope: No matter what your hawks say, or your ‘America will always be the best, strongest nation on earth’ brigade, a situation is developing that is probably going to put those ideas to the test once and for all.

That situation is China.

The state of affairs in this enormous country with the biggest population in the world has never occurred before. There is no precedent for a country that is dominated by a modified communist ideology that has also embraced capitalist values. Not when this country was, until the early 20th century, an inward looking elite/peasantry one that had little inclination to trade or mix with the west.

And how that has changed.

There are many strands in this transformation, but the cloth those strands are weaving is painting this picture: China is not going to be content with being the underdog in world affairs for long. At present it has no match for the vastly superior technology and strategy that America has, but already it defies the U.S. navy to stop them going wherever it wants in seas around it. It is taking an increasingly proactive role in world affairs, but in contrast it cannot do without its markets, for its power is based on manufacturing, just as your was. In this there is a symbiosis, but only so long as the United States demonstrates it can and will remain rich enough to remain in front.

So what will you do if, as seems likely, China continues to flex its muscles?

If push comes to shove, will you parade your might and say ‘Stop!’ or will you take a diplomatic stance?

For, you see, it matters greatly to us which course you take. We depend on trade as well as everyone else. A war between you and them would quite literally bring all that trade to a grinding halt, without any certain victory but with the certainty of enormous losses. Would it be possible that the United States of America and China could agree to share the pacific?

That’s not so daft, but please, if it does occur, make sure we’re part of your hegemony.

No one really wants to be part of the Chinese way of life – except the Chinese, and they are unable to dissent.

Difficult times lie ahead. It is going to take a real statesman to make equitable and realistic decisions, one that is not bound by the sniping of party politics, and one that has vision for the whole world.

We’re holding our breath down under, and asking these questions as friends.

Read Past Down Under Columns by Lindsay Coker