ALLAN PATIENCE. Time to inject some realism into the China debate.

Mar 6, 2018

A rising chorus can be heard in Australia voicing fears about China’s alleged intrusions into our domestic affairs. There are disturbing echoes in all this of a narrative about a dangerous China lurking in the interstices of Australia’s society and economy. These echoes need top be addressed before we can have an intelligent debate about how to respond to China’s re-emergence as a great power and how our foreign policy can be revised to prevent Australia being drawn into great power rivalries in the Asia Pacific.

Clive Hamilton’s new book, Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia, is an anguished account of the emergence of a new great power in our region that seems (to Hamilton, and to some leading commentators) to be gaining undue influence our universities, media, businesses, and political parties. There is plenty to argue with in the book – mostly because of factual vagueness and inaccuracies. However, its most glaring weakness is its failure to take into account a persistently negative narrative about China in this country. Indeed the book is a just the latest version of that narrative. It offers nothing new about how diplomacy between Canberra and Beijing can be improved.

Australia’s China narrative has an inglorious history of fear of China. As Glenda Tavan notes in her fine book, The Long, Slow Death of White Australia: “Anti-Chinese agitation had a long history in the Australian colonies, most of it motivated by a potent combination of racial arrogance and economic self-interest.” Colonial attempts to limit Chinese immigration – and non-white immigration generally – fed into the poisonous culture that eventually found expression in the baleful tradition of the White Australia policy, entrenching it in the law of the land.

In its various legislated iterations between 1901 and 1973 the White Australia narrative severely constrained Australia’s relations with, and understandings of, our Asian neighbours, especially China. During the Pacific War fear of a Japanese invasion intensified anti-Asian racism in the country. It spread like a virulent cancer during the Cold War when, as Gregory Clark then pointed out: “Few countries, Western or non-Western, are more hostile to China than Australia” (In Fear of China). An ugly ideological narrative flourished, painting a lurid picture of the Yellow Peril and/or the Red Menace poised to sweep down and engulf Australia – the last victim of the falling domino theory in East and Southeast Asia. Not a few Australians are still hostage to that reprehensible falsehood.

This kind of thinking has led to Australia’s security reliance on the United States, fostering the firm conviction in Australia that we must loyally – uncritically and unhesitatingly – follow America into all its wars, no matter how high the cost in blood and treasure. So we blundered into Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Syria, blindly following US strategies, come what may (see the excellent book by Henry Reynolds, Unnecessary Wars). Meanwhile China’s activities in the South China Sea, and its initiative in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the One Belt One Road policy, are setting off unduly alarmist warnings as American policy in the Asia Pacific daily becomes ever more quixotic under the Trump administration.

The thing we need to understand is that Australia’s narrative of fear of China is seriously undermining a sophisticated understanding of China’s “rise” and how Australia needs to respond to this profound development in our region. Like it or not, China is rapidly emerging as a great power in the Asia Pacific. This fact has to be fully understood.

China’s economy continues to grow at a strong rate, although how sustainably is unclear. What Australians must not forget, however, is that this strong economic growth is a (if not the) major benefit to our contemporary economy. Framing clumsily assembled and poorly substantiated anti-Chinese views will inevitably build distrust and resentment in Beijing. We are in grave danger of cutting off our economic nose to spite our fiscal face if we stupidly pursue a China policy that is offensive in the eyes of President Xi Jinping and his colleagues.

Moreover, as Hugh White has explained: “The development of China’s air and naval forces over the past two decades poses by far the most serious challenge to American sea control in the Western Pacific by an Asian power since the defeat of Japan in 1945” (China Choice). This means Australia has to craft an exceptionally clever and nuanced diplomacy that ensures we are not seen as part of a belligerent American (or other – e.g., Japanese or Indian) strategy to “contain” China. China simply won’t be contained. Indeed any blunt strategies aimed at containing China could well draw us into an unwinnable war.

And there are very important lessons to be learned in Australia about the true nature of what the US scholar John Mearsheimer has termed “the tragedy of great power politics.” Great powers are powers that don’t need many (ore even any) allies. Their primary foreign and security purposes will be aimed at maintaining and expanding their power. If it suits those purposes they will make alliances for their own ends, and those ends will not necessarily accord with the national interests of their lesser allies, or they will be pursued by the great powers even despite the interests of their lesser allies. (This is a lesson we stubbornly refuse to learn in our relations with America.) So great powers need to be dealt with very carefully indeed. It is a particularly foolish country that joins itself at the hip to any great power.

It is an urgent necessity that Australia’s narrative of fear of China be overcome, because it is undermining our security and prosperity. We should be educating young Australians about Chinese history and culture and ensuring that among them there are plenty of fluent Mandarin speakers, to enable us to dialogue intelligently with China. As Deakin University’s Professor Chengxin Pan has explained: “To better understand China, as well as conduct critical self-reflection, we need to listen attentively to Chinese voices and come to terms with Chinese subjectivities […] it is problematic to privilege our anxiety uncritically and at the same time remain indifferent to and ignorant of China’s point of view and its concerns” (“Getting Excited About China,” in Australia’s Asia: From Yellow Peril to Asian Century).

 Clive Hamilton and those associated with his way of thinking about China remain immured in a narrative that is contradictory to Australia’s national interest. It’s time to see China as a great power with all the difficulties that this entails. This requires a new Australian diplomacy that emphasises our independence and our willingness to engage with Beijing on terms that will be mutually beneficial, not benefitting to third parties. And in this day and age we must not allow ourselves be dictated to by anxieties that are the evil consequence of prejudiced attitudes coming out of a shameful past.

Allan Patience is a Melbourne academic.





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