By Robert Macklin
It’s taken a while to appreciate the full implications of Scott Morrison’s decision to waltz away from the French submarine contract in favour of quick step with his ‘forever partners’, Britain and America.
It was immediately clear that it was a political decision because that’s the only kind that Morrison ever makes. In this case, it served several ends: the $90 billion spend on the French subs was unpopular; and it was a Turnbull decision when Morrison wants to put his own brand on all big Defence purchases. The American connection not only fitted his plan to confront China, thereby rousing the racist vote in a country that embraced the White Australia Policy for 90 years. Throw in the still substantial Anglo-Australian colonial nostalgia and in the Morrison calculus that’s a winning formula, especially when it wedged an Opposition that’s afraid of its own shadow.
Nothing surprising there. That’s straight from the Morrison-Howard playbook. But when you start to drill down into the realities of the decision a different picture emerges.
Submarines are said to be useful weapons of war because they can sneak in close to the enemy coastline and deliver an accurate missile barrage to strategic targets or big cities. They can also torpedo the surface ships of the enemy’s Navy. But to be useful we have to actually go to war. Otherwise it’s just money down the drain. And everyone agrees that the American subs will be much more expensive than the French.
But here’s the thing: America regards China as a challenger to its primacy and is more than happy to respond aggressively while France is a major player within the EU which has a very different attitude. The Europeans would much prefer to incorporate China in the big issues of action on climate change and free trade while nudging them firmly towards human rights and diplomatic subtlety. Indeed, the French saw the submarine contract as part of a process to engage in a region where they have historic ties and good reason to become an honest broker between the contenders. That would lower the regional temperature to the point where diplomacy could eventually replace sabre-rattling in the Taiwan Straits.
By contrast, in his quest for a khaki election with China as the enemy, Morrison has raised the ante by permitting his Oxford Boxing Blue predecessor Tony Abbott to enter the ring in the Taiwanese blue corner. It doesn’t matter a fig that China has 60 submarines with more on order; or that China is our biggest trading partner; or that Australia, the UK and the USA all adhere to the One China policy which recognizes Taiwan as a province of the People’s Republic.
Then there’s the question of just how ‘forever’ are our ‘forever partners’. There was a time when Britain famously ‘ruled the waves’. Since Brexit they’re on a downward slide to Little England with absolutely no interest in our region or the capacity to influence events – viz Hong Kong. And they have a clown for a Prime Minister. In America, with Donald Trump already on the campaign trail, Joe Biden is in trouble; his approval rating is down to 38 percent; his program is stalled in Congress; and he can’t recall Morrison’s name.
The partners are the most confused and ineffectual trio since the Lion, the Tin Man and the Scarecrow went dancing down The Wizard of Oz’s yellow brick road.
No prizes for guessing who’s who.