Diplomacy was invented so we could pull off challenges like this one: managing an alliance with the US in which we host bases, buy its F-35s and send troops to its “forever wars” while negotiating a booming trade with China, which soon will be the world’s biggest economy, pulling 850 million of its citizens into the middle-class, able to buy our beef and wine from their supermarkets and come here as our biggest-spending tourists.Working at the balance, and not being fixated on the choice, wouldn’t have required us to moderate our language on China’s repression of Uighurs or the extinction of legal autonomy in Hong Kong. But Canberra gives the impression it wants to turn day-to-day management of a bilateral relationship into an existential crusade, urged on by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a think tank partially funded by the US, from which commentary on China has become more and more blood-curdling.LoadingWhen hardliners like those in ASPI say we are on the eve of a war over Taiwan, they won’t concede participation is still a choice for Australia. As they see it, in the words of the 1915 recruiting song, Australia Will Be There. Japan’s not making that mistake, nor Canada nor New Zealand nor the ASEAN states.The Cold Warriors don’t acknowledge former Liberal prime minister Robert Menzies deliberately steered us away from commitment and Alexander Downer said in 2004 that, on Taiwan, the ANZUS Treaty did not apply. And the Cold Warriors never define how they see the war being won. Nor do the hawks in Washington who want to see the first explicit security guarantee made to the island.Professor Hugh White asks if America is prepared to lose Los Angeles in a nuclear exchange – even as US missiles reduce Shenzhen and Shanghai to hot, radioactive rubble.Henry Kissinger warned in November of “a catastrophe comparable to World War I”.Nationalists in China and the US need to understand that a horrendous war fought over which political order prevails in Taiwan is not worth this price. The issue will solve itself in 50 or 100 years without a blood sacrifice of millions and near-ruin of half the planet.LoadingAustralian diplomacy ought to be identifying the off-ramps that will avoid this nightmare. Former prime minister Kevin Rudd, writing in Foreign Affairs last month, advanced ideas for enlarging co-operation between China and America, for example, on North Korea, global financial stability, pandemic management and climate. He also urged the kind of crisis communication that the US and the USSR set up after the near-death experience over Cuba in 1962.Promoting this through quiet diplomacy would cast Australia as creative middle power edging forward our own interest and the world’s.Lawrence H. Summers, former US treasury secretary, said of China relations: you can be strong and resolute without being imprudent and provocative. Getting China wrong, he said, “is the greatest threat to America’s national enterprise over the next quarter century”.There may be no adults. There will be no winners.Bob Carr is a former Australian foreign affairs minister and was NSW’s longest-serving premier. He is industry professor of climate and business at the University of Technology Sydney.