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Australia has chosen the wrong partner

Australia has put itself at a stark disadvantage by casting its lot with the US instead of the trading partner that has underwritten its growth over decades

US WRITER AND FORMER military analyst Daniel Ellsberg recently revealed that the Pentagon Papers, most of which were released in 1971, also confirmed that the United States contemplated using nuclear weapons against the Chinese mainland in 1958, to “defend” Jinmen, also known as Kinmen, an island about 10 kilometers from the mainland city of Xiamen, on behalf of the Kuomintang in Taiwan.

We need to recall that China had no nuclear weapons at that time-only the US and the Soviet Union did.

Ellsberg also said the administration of former US president Lyndon B. Johnson had covertly engaged in a range of extremely destructive attacks against the North Vietnamese forces and their supporters during the Vietnam War.


So the US, at least from a planning point of view, saw nothing fundamentally immoral about launching a nuclear attack on a huge developing country that possessed no such arms. 

This was a little over 10 years after seeing the horrific nuclear devastation in Japan. Fortunately, the plan was not implemented.

Manly Beach, Sydney, Australia: picture by Simon Rae/ Unsplash


Even more startling, from an Australian point of view, is the recent disclosure that Australia, was, in 1964, given an extraordinary US-courier task.  

Gregory Clark, a former Australian diplomat, has just revealed that in that year, Australian foreign minister Paul Hasluck demanded that the Australian Embassy in Moscow (where Clark worked) arrange a meeting with the new Soviet leadership. 

In a meeting with premier Alexei Kosygin at which Clark was present, Hasluck carried a message from Washington, requesting that the USSR join the US in Vietnam to stop the “bad communists” in Beijing and North Vietnam to expand southwards.  

Kosygin’s response was blunt.  Moscow would do all it could to support the Vietnamese people in their struggle against US imperialism – and he wished the Chinese would do more to help.

After the commencement of China’s reform and opening-up policy in 1978, however, the US generally welcomed the rise of China.

‘a popular, genial understanding of China as a vast, poor, peasant-based country’

The US relationship with China has gone through a striking transformation over the past century. 

Once, compassion was dominant. The Nobel Prize-winning novelist Pearl S. Buck wrote The Good Earth over 90 years ago while living in Nanjing. The book helped shape a popular, genial understanding of China as a vast, poor, peasant-based country with a remarkable history.


During the period when the US welcomed the rise of China, immense business opportunities were recognized and trade boomed, generating academic, intellectual and general interest in China.

Now that China’s economy is around 70 percent of the size of the US economy in raw US dollar GDP terms, the US has made clear its huge vested interest in seeing the rise of China strikingly reduced and contained.

Thus the US mood has gone from being sorry for China, then helpful to China, to being stridently hostile to China.‘China does not purposefully threaten Australia in any serious way’

Examined rationally, the strategic position for Australia is clear. It has a huge vested interest in seeing the rise of China maintained and enhanced.

China is now Australia’s largest trading partner. Before the recent intense downturn in the Australia-China relationship, trade figures show that Australia’s annual trade surplus with China had topped A$50 billion (US$36.9 billion). 

From 1991 until the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Australia maintained the longest period of sustained economic growth ever seen within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. China, above all, has underwritten this outcome.

China does not (viewed outside of hawklike think tanks) purposefully threaten Australia in any serious way.


The US, on the other hand, does threaten Australia at a more menacing level: first, by encouraging intensified antipathy toward the trading partner who has done more to remake Australia in the last several decades than any other; and second, due to the serious hazard of being drawn into yet more US military adventures-possibly involving certain levels of forceful confrontation with China.

Australia’s relationship with China is very different from that of the US. The acute difficulty for Australia, however, is that Washington has been highly insistent that Australia join in the US-led Sino-containment project. Australia has taken up this damaging new brief with uncommon gusto and naivete.

Collaboration has been beneficial to both sides: Picture by Mimi Thian/ Unsplash


Research by the Perth US-Asia Centre recently listed major income drops in trade with China, to Australia’s stark disadvantage, in areas including travel, education, coal, beef, wine, cotton and barley. In a number of cases, US exports to China have replaced those from Australia.

In 1964, Australia carried messages, like a tributary State, for the US.  Then the dark clouds lifted from Sino-US relations for several decades and Australia prospered, independently, like never before. 

The dark clouds had lifted from Sino-US relations for several decades, and Australia prospered, independently, like never before. Now those angry clouds are back, and Australia is once again being told, by its best geopolitical friend, what it must do. It must stand up for US interests, which are called shared values, and never mind the deep, long-term cost to Australia’s national interest.

It is an extraordinary state of affairs that calls for deep reflection and review.

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Richard Cullen is a visiting law professor at the University of Hong Kong.  His commentaries have appeared in the South China Morning Post, Pearls and Irritations, the China Daily, and many other media. This text first appeared in the China Daily

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Main picture: Xuan Nguyen/ Unsplash

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