There is a famous anecdote attributed to everyone from Woodrow Wilson to Winston Churchill but which is really just a dirty old joke.

A rich man asks a beautiful woman if she would sleep with him for a million dollars. After a pause she agrees.

He then asks her if she'd sleep with him for two dollars and she slaps him in the face.

"What do you think I am?" she asks, outraged.

"We've already established what you are madam," the man replies. "Now we're just haggling over the price."

This tells you all you need to know about international diplomacy and trade relations. Ultimately all nation states are prostitutes. The only question is the price.

And it is the very uncomfortable truth that is descending on Australia as we try to figure out how to respond to China's disgraceful and juvenile insult to our military and, through them, all of us.

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison demanded an apology from China. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Gary Ramage
Prime Minister Scott Morrison demanded an apology from China. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Gary Ramage

The first thing to accept is that no nation is pure. Even Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi had dark shadows in their lives and so how can any country composed of millions of souls ever hope to be holier than thou.

China knows this, which is why it recently started pressing the bruise with its absurdly theatrical tut-tutting about Australia's human rights record. They were not necessarily wrong - there has, for example, been appalling mistreatment of and discrimination against Indigenous Australians - but the criticism is a bit rich coming from a country whose Great Leap Forward caused tens of millions of deaths a mere six decades ago and which is still actively forcing minorities into labour camps.

Yet this has always been part of the totalitarian propagandist playbook. Regimes ranging from the Soviet Union to Islamic fundamentalists in the Middle East bat away criticisms by pointing to past colonial injustices or the Christian Crusades or the latest US military disaster. The general message is basically: "We are no worse than you and even if we are it's justified because you started it."

It is this kind of thinking that seems to be behind the appalling yet darkly ridiculous meme depicting an Australian soldier slitting the throat of an Afghan child. The message is: "How dare you call for an inquiry into our handling of the coronavirus outbreak when your troops killed civilians in the Middle East."



In the simplistic world of social media this sort of idiotic logic is known as "whataboutism" and it is a telling and troubling sign of our times that a full-blown trade and diplomatic war between us and a global superpower has been sparked by a dumpster fire on Twitter. God help us all.

In trying to find a way out of this rabbit hole both the Government and Opposition have adopted more positions than the Kama Sutra. The Coalition has gone from incandescent rage to calling for calm while Labor is unsure as to which government it should be blaming - ours or theirs. (Some free advice: It's theirs.)

And as usual those on the hard edges of the left and right are entangled in their own hypocrisy. Some of the most fervent condemners of Islam are now loudly decrying the Chinese persecution of Muslim Uighurs while pearl-clutching activists who spill tears into their chardonnay over Australia's detention of asylum seekers take the side of a regime who makes our detention practices look like afterschool care.

Once more, as happened with the very coronavirus crisis over which this whole thing started, ideology has completely overtaken sense. There will be a practical and pragmatic resolution to this problem, and as with all practical and pragmatic resolutions it will leave both sides unsatisfied but alive.

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China needs our iron ore, which it is buying from us at record high prices. This is fuelling our borderline miraculous economic recovery from the COVID lockdowns. What it needs less is our food and our wine, which is why the CCP is playing funny buggers with the stuff it knows hurts our farmers and puts pressure on the government politically. It's doing something similar with coal, which hurts our workers and puts pressure on the Labor Party - not least of all our firebrand man in the Hunter Joel Fitzgibbon.

But the difference between China and Fat Cat is that Fat Cat has friends, and just the other day Donald Trump re-established a massive US naval force in the Pacific after an almost 50 year hiatus. Why he did this after four years of explicit US isolationism is unclear, although the answer is almost certainly to piss off Joe Biden.

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Even so, that doesn't mean it's a bad thing. The only reason China isn't able to toss us around like a ragdoll and post as many mean tweets as they want is because we still have the grand old US of A standing behind us. And while the US hardly has a pure history either I'd back it over the People's Republic any day. At least in the American republic the people can vote for more than one party.

The truth is that, just like the rich man and the pretty woman, we are all morally compromised. No person and no nation is perfect but I'm pretty damn sure we're better than most.

Originally published as Only reason China hasn't destroyed us yet