Watch Hong Kong and ask: Will we be China’s partner or servant?

In its entire post-First Fleet history, Australia has not had to contend with the larger intercontinental political issues in isolation from its cultural and philosophical alliances. We’ve always had a larger, stronger partner. In the future we may have our own unique dilemmas as we deal with our response alone.

Aboriginal Australia had no occasion to deal with the encroaching global grab for territory until 1788 when Australia became part of the global naval power of the day, England. With England, Australia remained until it morphed seamlessly during World War II into a close collaboration with the United States.

Riot police charge towards protesters on Lung Wo Road during a protest against a proposed extradition law in Hong Kong.Credit:Bloomberg

This was not sycophancy; it was necessity as we would naturally ally ourselves with a stronger partner of similar democratic and liberal views against militaristic, autocratic aggression.

But empires collapse as the Roman Empire did. Large empires are not able to maintain large and disparate borders.

As with the collapse of the Roman Empire, the cost of defending your borders creates a vacuum in another point of strategic interest. This is filled by an emerging power, a new empire. Those surrounding the empire have to make a judgment on how their future will fare, a sober assessment of their emerging circumstances.

China has taken the South China Sea without firing a shot. Now the expansion of Chinese control is forcing full legislative absorption of Hong Kong. A million people in Hong Kong may take to the streets but unless the course of events takes a dramatic change from the path determined by Beijing it will merely be a funeral march for a disappearing democratic philosophical foothold on a Chinese continent.

Questions have to be asked as to how countries adjacent to what will be the largest economy and largest population, supported by the largest and most sophisticated military, will exist apart from being supplicant states living next to a superpower with autocratic rule. What will be the limit of sovereignty on nations in our region?

Will the press be able to say what it wishes? Freedom of the press will mean little when it’s corralled by the edicts of a new superpower. Will other nations be able to invite to their country whom they wish and publicly vent issues as they wish? Will they act as determined by the aspirations of their own people or will it be within the confines of what will be accepted by the master of their new regional order.

Irish orator and politician John Philpot Curran stated in 1790: “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance.”

This requires a deep faith and a strong honest perception as to what is happening around you. If your faith is not as strong as required then you need other mechanisms to protect your freedoms. Alternatively, you can proscribe some liberties so as not to forfeit all. To varying degrees this is the path of many countries in this new East Asian realm.

Illustration: Simon LetchCredit:

The question for Australia is what path lies ahead for us. Will we be the servant or the partner of the largest economy in the world. Will we rely on innate humanity to protect our liberty or will we have to realise that it now has to be more substantial, more formidable. This will be even more pronounced if the US reverts, as it has before, to a new isolationist phase.

What is formidable in the new world order in which we now find ourselves? It means we have to be realists, that we have to believe that we will be fighting our own battles. We have to understand that our children will live with our outcomes.

Being a world leader in virtuous causes may come at a price which we can no longer afford. Our industry must grow. If you do not want wage cuts then the advantage must be in the cheapest power prices in the OECD. Our defence force must be formidable, our nation-building infrastructure must be able to take a major leap foreword through a hoop currently barnacled with caveats to environmental green tape. Our students must compete and win in the global academic test.

Protesters hold pictures of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam as protesters march along a downtown street against the proposed amendments to the extradition law.Credit:AP

We must be able to undertake the same economic acceleration and transformation that our Asian neighbours have undergone because we live in Asia, not Europe, not the Americas. We live in Asia and in Asia we will have access to the greatest global opportunities or be one of the greatest casualties.

As we watch the people on the street in Hong Kong, observe with genuine empathy.

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