You are currently viewing Editorial: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (The more things change, the more they remain the same).

Editorial: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (The more things change, the more they remain the same).

By Paul Barratt AO, AWPR President

In our January Bulletin we expressed relief that the most powerful office in the world, and the constellation of lesser offices that revolve around it, are back in the hands of diligent people who take their jobs seriously and will approach their duties conscientiously, but cautioned that we in Australia should not be satisfied simply with a return to business as usual.

Developments since that time have reinforced that view. The signs that US foreign policy will continue on its long post-WW2 trajectory of exceptionalism, of hegemonic behaviour and of seeking to crush anyone who gets in its way are too numerous to ignore.

An early sign that little has changed was the Biden Administration’s decision to continue to seek the extradition of Julian Assange for what it frames as offences against the 1917 Espionage Act and most dispassionate commentators regard as the crime of journalism.

And the latest news from eastern Syria has a depressingly familiar ring to it.

Regarding the all-important matter of US-China relations, in his remarks at the State Department on 4 February President Biden said American leadership “must meet this new moment of advancing authoritarianism, including the growing ambitions of China to rival the United States” and that America would compete with China “from a position of strength”. Best of luck with that. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of 2021 is not the PLA of yesteryear, and nor is the economy which underpins it.

The Pentagon’s own Annual Report to Congress on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020 states that “the PRC has marshalled the resources, technology, and political will over the past two decades to strengthen and modernize the PLA in nearly every respect”, and that China is already ahead of the United States in certain areas, including:

  • Shipbuilding – the PLA has the largest navy in the world
  • Land-based conventional and ballistic cruise missiles
  • Integrated air defence systems

On the all-important question of Taiwan, the Biden Administration is clearly strengthening its links, and showing an inclination to blur the edges of the “One China” policy which was the foundation of the exchange of diplomatic relations from 1 January 1979. For the first time since that date, Taiwan’s de facto Ambassador in Washington was invited to attend the incoming President’s Inauguration Ceremony. The problem with moves of this type is, as noted by this RAND Corporation analyst, is that China would almost certainly respond by intensifying its diplomatic, economic, and military threats against Taiwan and the United States.

Perhaps the most troubling sign of all is the indication that the US will make heavy weather of any de-escalation of tensions with Iran. It will be recalled that the US, Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia entered into a deal with Iran in 2015 (the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action”) under which, in return for the withdrawal of what then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton termed “crippling” economic sanctions, Iran undertook to dismantle much of its nuclear capability. It surrendered much of the country’s uranium stockpile and two-thirds of its centrifuges, destroyed equipment, converted facilities, agreed to limit its future nuclear activities, and agreed on a regime of snap inspections to verify compliance. In return for this it received precisely nothing. The US maintained its own sanctions in addition to those imposed by the UN – which latter sanctions were directed to supporting compliance with the JCPOA – and pressured other parties to the deal to comply with the US sanctions. In 2018 the Trump Administration walked away from the deal altogether. The pathway back will not be easy to find.

These are all matters for the US to sort out for itself in negotiations with the other parties to the relevant agreements. Our point in raising them here is to observe that none of them is an issue in which Australia should consider itself to be automatically engaged, simply on the basis that they are a preoccupation of our major ally. Australia should work hard with other members of the international community to identify peaceful solutions to these momentous questions.

If any of them should come down to a non-peaceful solution, for any reason, Australia should remain determinedly on the sidelines, unless and until the Australian Parliament, in open and fully informed debate, determines otherwise.

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