AUKUS and the security pathology of colonial racism 

Jun 8, 2023

Today, there are strong arguments that Australian security and defence thinking, which was historically race based, is now culturally embedded; that the current situation is close to what race theory describes as ‘racism without racists.’ How, then, might Australian colonial racism have conditioned our security culture to put the ‘A’ in the AUKUS nuclear powered submarine (SSN) deal?

This answer has three parts.

First, a point about ‘the defence of Australia’. 

At first glance, that phrase suggests a clear-eyed calculation of geo-political reality in relation to the defence of the territory of the Commonwealth. For much of our history, particularly in the era of ‘White Australia’ (1901-1972), however, ‘the defence of Australia’ has also been much and, even, primarily about something unspoken: managing a race-based anxiety of the perceived threat from Asia, the incommensurable ‘yellow peril’ and the coming ‘race war’.

Yet ‘White Australia’ never provoked the ‘Yellow Peril’. One of the great problems of Australian defence, indeed, is the chronic race based imperial misconception that Asians think as white Australians do. Defence officials have long projected their own strategic assumptions onto Asians, which are western imperial; they are anxious that the British settler occupation of the country and genocide of the Aboriginals is the model for what Asians are scheming. Patently, however, that is not how Asians think. There is no evidence that, even in 1942, any Asian people has ever intended to invade Australia. Neither is there any evidence that China plans that now.

Ignorance of Asia and the conjuring of nightmarish Asian enemies then has a major repercussion. It intensifies the sense of the need for dependence on the imperial power of the Anglo-American branches of the kindred race to protect its Australian outpost in the Pacific. Only those powers are imagined to be commensurate with the shapeless Asian threat.

Colonial ‘racism’ is, as Alan Behm, No Enemies, No Friends (2022), writes, the ‘dominant security pathology.’ National defence plans are distorted, or abandoned. For the most part, imperial defence triggers the self-serving expeditionary military reflex that structures ANZAC military and cultural history. Relatively small military expeditions from the outpost are sent far and wide to support Anglosphere forces in their wars in the faith-based hope that they will protect ‘White Australia’ in its region when the ‘Yellow Peril’ inevitably threatens to ‘swamp’ it.

How, in that tradition, an unspoken ‘race strategy’ sprang implicitly into action in the War of 1914-18 is canvassed here: And how, half a century later, a ‘forward defence’ policy in Asia that involved both a ‘race strategy’ and a ‘barrier’ one against China during the Vietnam involvement (1962-72) is encapsulated here.

So, second, how colonial racism became culturally embedded.

In the 1940s, the Nazi genocide of Jewish people gave racism a very bad name in the western world. In 1950, UNESCO decreed that the term ‘ethnic’ should replace ‘race’. Even more forceful in Australia, perhaps, the post-1945 world process of decolonisation, which culminated in Asia with the fall of Saigon in 1975, ensured the end the ‘White Australia’ policy. By then, the use of racist political rhetoric and language and the expression of racist views, which had still been palpable in the 1960s, was being placed beyond the bounds of acceptable discourse in official and elite circles.

Yet much pluralistic, multi-cultural change has not greatly weakened the ideological structures of white supremacy in western culture. Despite the current ethnic complexity of Australia, for instance, the stories of Adam Goodes and Stan Grant and of Aboriginals in custody, remind us that racism is still a large problem. And a point race theory permits one to make is that by framing race-related issues in the language of liberalism white people and their political leaders can commonly appear reasonable and, even, moral, while opposing practical measures that would promote racial equality.

Peter Dutton’s position on not giving Aboriginals a voice in the constitution is classic. He argues it would discriminate between groups by privileging one over another. Yet such a liberal argument against discrimination, ignores the grossly disadvantaged position of Aboriginal people which ‘the voice’ is seeking to help redress. A key contribution to this analysis is Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States (fifth edition, 2017).

So, third, the colour-blind construction of the China threat and the AUKUS response to it.

The serious decline in Australia-China relations, which prefaced AUKUS, has a race-based colonial history. Back in the 1880s, it was widely believed that Chinese immigrants were the source of the immorality and disease, the leprosy, small-pox, and typhoid, that helped much to provoke ‘White Australia.’ In 2020, the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic was not then a random catalyst for conservative Liberal Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s provocation of China, and the reactionary re-imposition of a defensive white horizon to Australia’s north.

In April 2020, Morrison and other ministers began political dog-whistling at home, by implying strong support for US President Trump’s racist claim that China was the source of the ‘China virus’. Neither Morrison nor his ministers used that term. Yet he called for ‘UN weapon-inspector like powers’ to enter countries without negotiating access to find the genesis of Covid.

After a hostile Chinese response, which portrayed an Australian, anti-Chinese propaganda campaign launched on instructions from the US, Morrison reinforced that perception. On 21 April, he tweeted that he’d been in touch with Trump about Covid transparency and that ‘Australia and the US are the best of mates and we’ll continue to align our efforts.’

That provocation of China was accompanied by strategic alignment with the US and vice-versa. Still thinking that Chinese think about security issues the same way Australians do, and influenced by US imperial interests and threat construction, Morrison, and the security apparatus continued to portray China self-servingly in anti-China terms as an emerging threat to Asia. China’s human rights record, territorial claims, military modernisation, cyberattacks, and unfair trade dealings were all selectively emphasised.

Australian history suggests ‘White Australia’-like exclusions and nostalgia for the Commonwealth’s former affinity for the scaffolding of the white colonial order in Southeast Asia. By 2021, the Australian government’s sense of regional order had, as Alan Gyngell’s, Fear of Abandonment (2021) put it, ‘no clear place for China’, the largest economic and military power in Asia.

The foreign and defence policies of a pluralistic society were pushing a white horizon far into the north.

On 21 September 2021, Morrison participated in the sudden, surprise announcement of the AUKUS SSN arrangement. With only 24 hours-notice of the announcement, Labor Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese adopted the policy. Since before 14 March 2023, when in government Prime Minister Albanese finalised the SSN deal, the official mantra, enunciated by Defence Minister Richard Marles and others to explain the SSNs was that they are necessary to protect our sea lanes from Chinese depredations.

This construction of the threat is not apparently racist. Yet it has no compelling strategic justification. The tiny number of six SSNs we will allegedly acquire under the deal will be quite incapable of covering the vast volume of shipping that links Australia and China to what we must also emphasise is the mutual economic advantage of both countries.

Moreover, we may emphasise that the strategically spurious construction of the threat invokes the liberal frame of the ‘rules-based order’. It suggests to the public a reasonable defence of liberal ‘Freedom of Navigation’ rights and lawful uses of the sea, which the Chinese are allegedly infringing. Obviously, that frame also excludes the 750 US bases in the world of which a continuously growing number, including in Australia, surround China. Other US diplomatic and military provocations of China also fade from view.

It is true that China has become more autocratic and assertive in relation to the South China Sea, Taiwan, and the Pacific, as economic and strategic competition between it and the US has increased since around 2016. There is reason to take the situation seriously. But China has not threatened Australia, and it can hardly be in Australia’s national interests to provoke China with a revival from the 1960s of a far-flung ‘forward defence’ policy that recycles both a ‘race strategy’ and a ‘barrier’ one against it.

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