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‘What is Happening to the US’


Australian Club, Melbourne

30 August 2022



The title of this talk reflects the two titles given to the book. In Australia and the United Kingdom, it is Play By the Rules. In the United States, it is America in Retreat.


I am not going to discuss America’s internal dysfunction, its Republican politics or its health care system – about which I have opinions but do not feel qualified to express them.


I am going to discuss only two matters: the problem of American exceptionalism and America’s problem with China, especially over Taiwan.


Forgive me for starting with the Korean conflict but I am doing so because Korea happens to be the last time China and the United States met on the battlefield and it illustrates Chinese resolve and American overreach.


In my previous book on Korea, I made the point that the Korean War was a metaphor for America’s subsequent conflicts and mostly-failed wars - whether war on communists, war on terrorists, war on jihadists, war on Saddam Hussein (which was neither a war on terrorists nor a war on jihadists and certainly not a war on communism) and now, what is worryingly being called a ‘war on autocracy’ – exemplified by the proxy war on Russia in Ukraine and the baiting of China, almost willing war, over Taiwan. They have all been wars on ideologies of one sort or another. The enemy, as we have so often heard, consists of   governments or peoples that ‘do not share our values’ – as if there should be only one set of values.


In the little understood Korean War, it only took the UN forces three months to push the North Koreans back to the 38th parallel. Their mission was to restore peace and stability at the border, which was all that the UN Security Council authorised. The war should have been over quickly – like the brief 42-day Gulf War in 1991. But in 1950, President Truman wanted to go on and achieve regime change in Pyongyang.


Truman deployed all sorts of diplomatic semantics to justify the incursion into North Korea – just as George W. Bush did to justify the Iraq invasion in 2003. China was not initially involved in the Korean conflict, but warned against US forces crossing the 38th Parallel, which is when Deng Xiaoping made his famous statement: ‘We shall not sit idly by’. That statement has been invoked again in connection with Taiwan - to which I will return. China meant what it said then, as it probably does now.


In Korea, the United States ignored the warnings, crossed the 38th parallel and threatened China on its Manchurian border at the Yalu River. I described it as the first misstep of the American Century. The Chinese forces then entered the war and unexpectedly forced the US Eighth Army into the longest retreat in American military history. It was, in reality, a dreadful rout, which I described in frightening detail in the book.



That is enough to describe the background and context that led me to look at the broader picture of American post-war leadership in Play By the Rules. Except for the book’s final part, it is a catalogue of American exceptionalism, its excesses, its militarism and its unilateralism. I will not go there today but, as I said, I will focus briefly on the strange principle of exceptionalism and then turn to the role of China, which is the final part of the book.

The adherents of American exceptionalism contend that the United States has a destiny and a duty to expand its power and the influence of its institutions and beliefs. It is a notion that only Americans believe in. And it is reminiscent of the arcane and now somewhat discredited Cecil Rhodes who wrote in the Victorian era that the English were ‘the first race in the world, and the more of the world we inhabit, the better it is for the human race’.  For my part, I do not think that American exceptionalism survives rational analysis and do not intend to stay long on the topic.

The approach I prefer is that of Senator William Fulbright, after whom the Fulbright Fellowships are named. Truman did not like Fulbright who had been to Oxford and was a very different type of man. Fulbright completely rejected the notion that the US should be responsible for spreading democracy and freedom in the world. He favoured a more modest approach that ‘accepts the world as it is, with all its existing nations and ideologies, with all its existing qualities and shortcomings’. I am afraid it is a minority view. Exceptionalism remains the dominant paradigm, although Obama pushed back against it gently and got himself into hot water, and Trump criticised it.

Fulbright illustrated his point with a joke about three boy scouts who reported to their scoutmaster that their good deed for the day was helping an old lady to cross the street. When the scoutmaster commented ‘That is fine, but why did it take three of you?’.  The boys replied ‘Because she didn’t want to go’! It is an apt analogy because as Fulbright said ‘the good deed above all others that Americans feel qualified to perform is the teaching of democracy’.



That brings me to China. Its rise is a big part of the reason for America’s decline but I fear the problem is being addressed in the wrong way. Economic historians will tell you that for most of history – 18 of the last 20 centuries - China’s economy was the world’s most powerful. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries China was literally ‘the cog running the wheel of global trade’. The modern reality is that China is now, or soon will be again, the dominant global economic force.

The western world is living in a bubble. Twenty-five years ago in a famous book called The Clash of Civilizations (1996), the American Samuel P. Huntingdon wrote that the ‘two-hundred-year Western blip on the world economy will soon be over’. Not everyone likes to admit it but in the grand scheme of history, the last two centuries of Western economic dominance have been an aberration and we are reverting to the historical pattern.

It would seem that China’s past is likely to be its future. Two millennia ago at the time of Christ, the two great powers in the world were Rome and China, which was then under the Han dynasty. It might surprise you to know that the poet Juvenal complained that Roman women were interrupting the important affairs of men by asking the question ‘What are the intentions of the Chinese?’ They were John Howard’s doctors’ wives of their time.

Rome was extravagantly prosperous from the time of the emperor Augustus, but the good times lasted only about two hundred years. There were multiple reasons for Rome’s decline, but much like the modern United States, Rome was spread thin and had an extensive empire of foreign military bases, which became increasingly difficult to afford. Rome also had a large trade imbalance with China, which was not sustainable. It imported silk and paid in bullion. Silk was infinite and renewable and the bullion was finite. The result was that Rome became less and less prosperous and China continued on, as it always has.

It is a salutary lesson. By the way, on the subject of renewable resources, you may be aware that China today leads the world in every zero emissions technology – in wind and solar installation, in wind and solar manufacturing, in electric vehicle production, in batteries, in hydro, in nuclear, in ground heat pumps, in grid transmission and distribution, and in green hydrogen.

Whether we like its system and values or not, we all have to learn to co-exist with China. This applies especially to Australia because of our geographic location in Southeast Asia. China is not democratic and never will be. I am sure you know the much-quoted Australian Treasury figures about China’s economy: It currently represents a greater share of global GDP than America. And by 2035, Treasury predicts that China’s share is likely to be 24 per cent while America’s is likely to be 14 per cent and declining. These home truths demand an approach to China that is pragmatic – not another civilisational crusade against people who don’t share our values. They are the reason why I would like to turn to the Taiwan issue.

The assumption of most Americans and many in the West is that China is threatening a small sovereign country. I prefer to approach the problem from an historical and legal perspective. Could I give you a few highlights:


  • Until the seventeenth century, the island was mostly inhabited by an indigenous population whose predilection for headhunting had dampened past Chinese enthusiasm for settlement.

  • In the early 1600s, the Spanish and the Dutch established small settlements on the island but they didn’t last long.

  •  In 1661, a Chinese force of Ming loyalists opposed to the newly established Qing dynasty, fled to Taiwan.

  • Twenty-two years later, in 1683, the Qing emperor Kangxi expelled the rebels and formally incorporated the island into Fujian province as the Taiwan Prefecture.

  • Two hundred years later in 1895, Taiwan was ceded to Japan following its victory in the first Sino-Japanese War.

  • Fifty years later in 1945, when Japan was defeated in WW II, China resumed control of Taiwan and Japan renounced its sovereignty. So far so good.

  • But – and here I will try to simplify - in 1949, as Chiang Kai-shek lost his civil war against Mao’s communists, he and his Nationalist forces retreated to Taiwan and made it an opposition bolt-hole – just as the Ming rebels did in the 1600s.

  • American politics then became involved, which changed everything. A hugely influential anti-communist ‘China lobby’ developed in Washington, shocked and horrified by the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The mantra of its wealthy constituents – mostly rabid expatriate Chinese and equally rabid American Christian evangelists - included claims that ‘America lost China to the communists’ and that ‘the State Department was controlled by communist sympathisers’. It was effectively the birth of McCarthyism.

  • At the time, the China lobby was the most powerful lobby that had ever operated for a foreign power in the United States, except that Taiwan was not a foreign power; it was simply the last redoubt of the defeated Nationalist forces.

  • The lobby has been so successful that Taiwan now receives more military, financial and political support from the US Congress than ever before.

  • Yet Taiwan is not a sovereign state recognised by the United Nations and is not part of the family of 193 nations that make up the United Nations.

  • Washington has a one-China policy and recognises Beijing as the sole legal government of China (including the island of Taiwan). It does not support Taiwan independence.

  • Almost all countries in the world recognise Beijing not Taiwan. Only 13 or possibly 15 countries recognise Taiwan and they are all political minnows like Swaziland and Haiti.

  • Taiwan has never made a formal declaration of independence.

  • And of the opposing blue and green political coalitions in Taiwan, the pan-blue faction seeks to gradually reunify with mainland China.

  • Lastly, and this is the point that the men and women of the US Congress have never understood, or have wilfully ignored, there is a legal right to defend sovereignty. There is no legal right to defend democracy.


The facts tend to suggest that China has a valid claim, although you will not hear that in Canberra or Washington. Some speak privately of course. An Australian Army officer who works in the legal and intelligence areas volunteered to me recently that China’s case is by far the stronger. And in the latest Quarterly Essay, Hugh White made this sober observation:


America and its allies already acknowledge, even if they do not formally accept, China’s claim to sovereignty over Taiwan. That means that – unlike Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – a Chinese attack on Taiwan could not be presented as aggression by one sovereign state against another. Not just in Beijing’s eyes, but in international law…


That is a very good reason to explain why America’s official policy is one of diplomatic ambiguity and also why the Taiwan Relations Act requires the United States to provide ‘arms of a defensive nature’ to Taiwan not to intervene militarily if China attacks or invades Taiwan.


I do not know what the future holds in a possible era of a resurgent Trump and an all-powerful Xi Jinping. But China holds all the cards on Taiwan. The strategic, geographic, technological and operational fundamentals all lean China’s way. None of the ASEAN countries wants a US-led conflict over Taiwan, which if it occurs, is likely to accelerate America’s decline in East Asia and the Western Pacific.


George Orwell once reminded us that seeing what is in front of one’s nose requires a constant struggle.


You can probably gather from what I have said that if conflict is brewing over Taiwan, military intervention by the United States would be another misstep in a long history of missteps. Australia would be well-advised to stay out of it…for once. As a friend of the United States, we would better serve our national and regional interests by firmly advocating an abiding interest in a peaceful and structured process of international dispute resolution – and encouraging Washington to go along with it. If it does so, America’s decline will not necessarily be arrested. But if it does not, its decline will be accelerated.


MA Pembroke

30 August 2022

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