In an American war against China, Australia would suffer: New Frame


New eras are always declared with aplomb, but none have arrived with a greater bang – and more dire consequences for Earth and all things that live on it – than the atomic age. Shot triumphantly in the West as the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki smoldered in the deadly afterburning of radiation, the Atomic Age, the world was told, offered all kinds of brilliant and brilliant possibilities.

Not everyone was fooled. Writers began to grapple with the potential Armageddon of the atomic bomb early on. English author Nevil Shute, having immigrated to Australia, published a hypothetical novel about the end of the world, On the beach, in 1957. World War III begins when Albania drops atomic cobalt bombs on Italy. Then the domino effect is triggered: Egypt bombs the United States and the United Kingdom, NATO attacks the Soviet Union after having wrongly attributed the Albanian and Egyptian attacks to the Soviets, who in turn send bombers in China.

For once, there is a little comfort in the separation between North and South for the latter. Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the southern half of South America have not yet been affected by the fallout but will be in the coming months. It is in this little window – the last days on Earth, like the title of the previous four-part version of Shute of this story – that On the beach play. The story follows life in Melbourne and the USS Scorpion, one of the last American nuclear submarines.

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The film adaptation, released two years after the novel, remains a visual classic, its black-and-white images striking and austere and almost a modern equivalent of the apocalyptic scenes of the supreme evocation of Ingmar Bergman’s death, The seventh seal. About 40 years later, the novel was turned into a Showtime miniseries and its plot updated. This version, released in 2000 and later as a feature film, sets the story in the future of 2006, amid the nuclear devastation of a war between the United States and China.

The cause of this war? China first blocked Taiwan – the island state that until 1949 was part of China – and then invaded it. True to their agreement to defend Taiwan in the event of an attack from China, the United States entered the conflict. Bombs away, a zero-sum game.

This is a very plausible casus belli because the United States has such an arrangement with Taiwan, and China has long declared its intention to unify the “rebel island” or “separatist province” with the mainland. Recently, Chinese diplomatic talks over Taiwan have been of the “two systems, one country” type – the exact pact China broke with Hong Kong.

Heartbreaking final

This week, the real world has asserted itself even more over the fictional. The Anglophone Alliance Aukus (Australia-UK-US) – for which a more appropriate acronym would be Ausuk – increases the possibility of the type of confrontation that the second On the beach cinematographic positions. Aukus means military cooperation between its tripod of partners against China in the latter’s backyard, the South China Sea and its environs.

Hypothetically, this means that if China were to move towards Taiwan, Australia and the Australians would find themselves at the forefront of the United States’ war on China. Australia would be a proxy for the US naval and military presence in the region and it could well be Australians dying in an attempt to stop the occupation of Taiwan: in other words, Gallipoli II followed by a wider conflagration.

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So it’s time to revisit Shute’s classic and very human book. Extremely unwavering, too: As the fallout hits Australia and people become terminally ill, they line up to receive their government-issued suicide pills. Few contemporary novels are as heartbreaking as the last pages of On the beach. From the top of Barwon Heads, Moira watches the USS Scorpion leave Melbourne, taking her lover and her commander, Dwight Towers.

“She was sitting there, stupidly, watching the low gray form move towards the haze on the horizon, holding the bottle in her lap. It was the end, the whole, the whole end.

Appropriately, Shute took the last four lines of TS Eliot’s poem Hollow men for the epigraph of his novel:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a moan.

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