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It may be a statement of the bleeding obvious, but a face-off with the People’s Republic of China would not be a good idea.

From any perspective – military, economic, political, simple weight of numbers – Australia cannot hope to compete on a level playing field with our dominant neighbour.

And to pretend that somehow we should be seen as equal partners, as Scott Morrison is apparently urging, is a dangerous delusion. At best, we can never be more than a client trader; keen to deal with whatever China is willing to buy from us and what we are desperate to buy from it.

So when our Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack trots out the old line about "China needs us as much as we need them", it is not only silly but provocative. Apart from being demonstrably untrue, (Chinese investment in Australia has fallen from $16 billion to $2.5 billion since 2016) it is a feeble attempt to give our most important customer the finger in particularly fraught times.

It behoves us to tread with caution and when Beijing warns us to back off, kiddies, it cannot be dismissed as just a bit of diplomatic chit chat, however much the backbench crazies might wish it to be.

Nor is it simply what Morrison calls a list of 14 grievances, more of the same old demands over things such as Huawei and a COVID-19 inquiry. The complaints go deeper, to what is obviously seen as a conscious anti-China agenda on the part of the Australian Government.

Ominously, China’s Foreign Ministry is now using the word “enemy” in communiqués to and about Australia. But Morrison seems to think this is more of a challenge than a threat. His response remains that we are a sovereign country, our standards cannot be compromised and we can bluff it out.

But Beijing is not just unrepentant, but positively proud of its relentless imposition of totalitarian rule on its hapless citizens.

Detention without trial or charge, forced labour, strict censorship, repression of minorities and the politically incorrect, physical and mental torture are the norm. This cannot be condoned.

But, around most of the world, it can be and generally is ignored. And there are times when it is better to be tactfully silent than to shout futile defiance.

No one is suggesting we lower our standards, which may not be impeccable but are obviously far less abusive than those of the Chinese, the most tyrannous regime on the planet.

But our own record is hardly beyond reproach and the Chinese are not averse to pointing this out. They have already targeted Australia’s failure to redress the inequalities across the Indigenous community, and now, of course, they have extra ammunition with the highly convincing evidence of Australian war crimes in Afghanistan. This is not the best time to assume the high moral ground.

That does not mean that we have to negotiate on our knees. But as we have been repeatedly told, the relationship has to be managed with care. Respect is essential and an acknowledgement of the manifest power imbalance.

Last week, in Tokyo, Morrison tried to secure an alliance of resistance with the Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and has been offered support for his stand by United States heavy hitters like Republican Senator Marco Rubio. Our departing emissary, Arthur B Culvahouse Jnr, has provided a farewell cheerio. But all this only underlines Australia’s own impotence.

When Morrison scrabbles for purchase, declaring that Australia’s actions should not be interpreted through the lens of the strategic competition between China and the United States, Beijing hears another message:

"China noticed Prime Minister Morrison’s positive comments on the global influence of China’s economic growth and China’s poverty alleviation efforts."

Tribute received and accepted.

And this is precisely the dilemma. Beijing obviously thinks we do have a choice and we have got to make it. We are either with them or against them – sitting on the barbed wire fence is not an option.

There is a lot of history in this. The Jade Empire has had a couple of centuries of having sand kicked its face by the colonial bully-boys of Europe, but now, if it is not quite yet the toughest kid on the block, it is bloody close to it. Time to kick back.

And giving Australia a gob full is entirely appropriate – even karmic. China’s own resources – economic, innovative, even spiritual – have been ruthlessly exploited by invaders. With Australia depending on China to do the exploiting and pay the bills, there is no better time to turn the screws.

So the news comes through that some 80 Australian coal ships have been held up indefinitely at Chinese ports. Owing to "environmental concerns", explains Beijing, in what is no explanation at all. And there may be an element of that, but no one in Canberra doubts that this is really all about ramping up the political pressure.

And the same applies to the wine tariffs, imposed in retaliation for improbable allegations of dumping.

Morrison is looking for the old comforters: rules-based trade, nuance and accommodation, latitude and room to move. But his pleas are becoming more frantic – methinks he doth protest too much.

He implored: 

"It’s as if Australia does not have its own unique interests or its own views as an independent sovereign state. This is just false. And worse, it needlessly deteriorates relationships."

Well, not to the Chinese it doesn’t. That’s just the kind of relationship they like – the one where they win.

And let’s be honest, the relationship has seldom been entirely amiable. China has been seen as more of a threatening than a friendly neighbour. Long before it was rechristened during the cold war as the Red Menace, China loomed large over our future. There was always the fear that the teeming masses to the north would engulf us by the sheer force of gravity.

And the Chinese themselves? Mysterious, inscrutable – and therefore sinister – overtones of an undercover regime under the iron rule of the evil genius, Dr Fu Manchu. Or perhaps his successors; the current suspicion of hordes of cyber-hackers hidden behind secret vaults, tirelessly sabotaging and subverting Australia and its diplomatic allies has gained considerable purchase.

Inherent racism? Almost certainly. And this will be just another problem for Morrison as he tries to reframe a confrontation that he may wish to end, but his antagonist is happy to pursue to its inevitable conclusion.

Mungo MacCallum is a veteran journalist who worked for many years in the Canberra Press Gallery.

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