‘You can sell your soul for a can of soya beans,’ announced the second most powerful man in the world to a group of largely gob-smacked doyens of the Canberra ‘swamp’ who had gathered last Sunday afternoon in the magnificent Mitchell Room of the State Library of NSW. The event, superbly hosted by former Speccie editor Tom Switzer and the Centre for Independent Studies, saw US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Aussie counterpart Marise Payne make excellent speeches followed by a rousing Q&A. It was in response to a question about the need to appease China in order to trade with them that Mr Pompeo made his soya beans quip. As was the case during many of his similarly blunt comments, you could not only hear a pin drop, you could hear the bristling hairs and arching backs of many in the room.
Much like his boss back in DC, Mr Pompeo displays an extraordinary knack of being able to use unambiguous, down-to-earth language and common sense notions to convey the strategic complexities the West currently faces, and his approach to them. Gone, mercifully, was the waffle so beloved of so many political leaders of recent years. (Intriguingly, one of the great such wafflers of all time, former PM Malcolm Turnbull, was in the audience, beaming away. Clearly he had forgotten that when Donald Trump was the assumed losing candidate back in 2016, Mr Turnbull on his US trip didn’t even bother to meet him.)
Mr Pompeo had a series of points to make, and by the end of the hour nobody in the room needed to say to him ‘tell us what you really think’.
On the positive side, Mr Pompeo was adamant that the bond between the United States and Australia is ‘unbreakable’, and he clearly enjoyed recounting not only anecdotes from, but also the long history of, US-Australian military joint ventures. The notion that America would ever leave Australia in the lurch, a recurring popular fantasy of the Left’s, was breezily dismissed.
The discussion headed down the thorny path of basing US missiles (that could reach Shanghai) in Darwin, at which point Marise Payne jumped in to reassure Mr Switzer that no such plans were in the offing. Mr Pompeo, too, went out of his way to stress that whatever differences the US and China may have – and there are clearly many – nobody in their right mind was contemplating any kind of ‘hot’ war taking place.
Nonetheless, Mr Pompeo was adamant that not only Australia, but the US and the West in general, had for far too long been complacent about China’s more sinister intentions; citing cyberwarfare, unfair and unprincipled business practices, the creation of large-scale debt in tiny nations throughout the South Pacific, the militarisation of the South China Sea (despite repeated promises from Xi Jinping that this would not happen) and so on. In particular, Mr Pompeo reminded us that we share values that are anathema to the communist Chinese, regardless of how ‘mesmerising’, to quote John Howard, their baubles may appear.
In order to combat these economic and military threats, and presumably in order to avoid a more dangerous confrontation further down the track, the US Secretary of State has been travelling the region urging countries to re-evaluate the nature of their relationships with China. And how is this message being received? Interestingly, Mr Pompeo on his grand tour throughout South-East Asia found many nations very keen for the US to re-engage in the region. But in a serious way, not in the frivolous manner of Barack Obama’s laughably named and utterly ineffectual ‘pivot’.
As the first (and only) publication in Australia to not only support but also accurately predict Donald Trump’s presidential victory, it was both encouraging and highly amusing to see the VIP audience at the State Library, most of whom would clearly have felt far more comfortable had it been a Clintonite up there on the stage, sit in stunned disbelief struggling to absorb Mr Pompeo’s boldness of vision and bluntness of message.
As for Iran, it is clear that the Morrison government is taking seriously the US request for help in policing the Strait of Hormuz. Mr Pompeo was only in Australia for a little over 24 hours. But like most visitors to Sydney, he certainly packed in plenty.
It’s not often that this magazine gets on its high horse. But when it does, history normally shows it to have been correct in expressing its dudgeon. As the two Davids (van Gend and Flint) make clear this week, Gladys Berejiklian has made a monumental, career-destroying move in entertaining this ghastly abortion bill. Pull out, quick.