Enough! This week we've taken steps towards the politicisation of our China policy. They were only little steps, but there shouldn't be any and it needs to stop now.
Opposition foreign affairs spokesperson Senator Penny Wong started it with a political dig at Defence Minister Peter Dutton, and Dutton then tried to score points off Labor in reply.
We should indeed debate policy toward China, but we can't afford to have either side playing politics with it. Our situation is far too serious for that.
In fact, Wong began with exactly the sort of sensible discussion that we should have.
Dutton had earlier told The Australian that failure by this country to stand by the US in the event of war over Taiwan was inconceivable. Wong was right in saying that his statement was "wildly out of step" with Australian and US policy, which is not to promise any particular reaction to a Chinese attack on the island.
Actually, that does not mean that the policy is right nor that Dutton was entirely wrong to say what he expected Australia would do, but more of that in a minute.
Having made a reasonable point, Wong should have said no more. But she couldn't resist scoring a political point. She said Dutton's statement had been an electoral tactic.
In fact, Dutton was obviously expressing a genuine opinion, as she would have known. But she probably calculated that political journalists might fall for her line, since they're 100 times more focused on the minutiae of the electoral prospects than a defence minister's concern with national security.
Wong made only a small dig at Dutton, so he could have afforded to ignore it. Instead he replied by suggesting that she and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese were weak on China and weak on defence.
Then opposition frontbencher Tanya Plibersek stooped lower by telling us that Dutton just wanted to come across as a big tough man so he could pursue the Liberal leadership-again, a good line for Capital Hill navel gazers.
If an opposition gets into the habit of scoring political points on China policy, electoral concerns may deter a government from taking some action to protect the country. And if a government goads an opposition for being weak on China, we could end up with an arms race of anti-Beijing bellicosity, rather than the carefully measured (but still strong) approach that we need.
We've had a great advantage in bipartisanship on China, and we should keep it. Labor is as clear-eyed about the threat as the government is. Wong, in particular, gives every impression of being a safe pair of hands for China policy should Labor win next year's election.
Nonetheless, bipartisanship should still make way for debate when the opposition honestly thinks a minister is wrong, as I'm sure Wong did.
But was Dutton in fact wrong in saying that, if the US decided to fight for Taiwan, then Australia surely would, too?
Everything must be done to avoid such a terrible situation but, if it arises, any Australian government will see powerful reasons to militarily back the US.
First there would be the moral aspect: could we shrug our shoulders as Taiwan's free and democratic society of 24 million people fell under the oppression of the Chinese Communist Party? And would we want to let China get away with violent aggression?
Related to that, if we and other countries said Taiwan was expendable, would that mean that other democracies were, too? Which ones?
As for self-interest, Australia would be terrified of China gaining control of Taiwan, driving the US out of the Western Pacific then extending dominance over south-east Asia.
Committing our forces and territory to the US effort would reduce the chance of Chinese success.
MORE AGE OF THE DRAGON:
But here's what Canberra would probably see as the clincher: we absolutely would want to be on the side of the US if it lost. If we stood aside while the US took a thrashing, we could not expect its support in subsequently facing a China that dominated this side of the world. Our position would be desperate.
This is counter-intuitive strategic logic that I predict will become familiar in this country over the next few years. It was probably on Dutton's mind when he stated his opinion.
And it was only his opinion, not policy. Neither the prime minister nor foreign affairs minister have backed him. In fact, they won't declare our policy on this matter because we surely don't have one. We don't want to decide yet what we'd do.
Even assuming Dutton's opinion was correct, should he have kept it to himself? The answer depends on whether US and Australian vagueness on fighting for Taiwan is helpful or not.
In not saying what it would do, the US, like Australia, is also keeping options open. The problem is that uncertainty leaves more room for Chinese miscalculation. If the US committed to defending Taiwan, China would be less likely to mistakenly think it could get away with an unopposed attack.
Similarly, if China knew that Australia would back the US, it might be deterred a little more. So Dutton might actually have slightly lessened the risk of war, though that was probably not his intention.
Actually, Joe Biden has also strayed from the policy of so-called strategic ambiguity over Taiwan. Asked last month whether the US would protect Taiwan from a Chinese attack, he said: "Yes, we have a commitment to do that."
The White House backtracked on that, but China will not have dismissed the remark.
- Bradley Perrett was based in Beijing as a journalist from 2004 to 2020.