Australia’s clumsy retreat from Asia will prove costly

Dec 29, 2021
china embassy canberra australia
Australia's relationship with China has rapidly declined. (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

The decline in our ties with Asia that began under John Howard has accelerated alarmingly as the Morrison government.

COVID-19 provided cover for an increasingly disorderly retreat by Australia from Asia. It provided a face-saving excuse to creep home behind the protective shield of AUKUS and the United States, our ally through thick and thin over the past 80 years and the only country in the world we trust.

Our first foray into Asia was to send a military contingent to support Britain and other colonising powers put down an anti-imperialist armed uprising by Chinese nationalists. The revolt was known as the Boxer Rebellion and took place from 1899 to 1901. Australian colonies sent just under 1000 men, primarily from NSW and Victoria. Australian troops were already engaged with the British in putting down another colonial uprising in South Africa. The contingent was initially garrisoned in Tianjin and then formed part of the force which sacked Beijing. They served in China from August 1900 to March 1901.

No doubt the drive for volunteers was assisted by the anti-Asian campaign run by Australian newspapers, in particular The Bulletin, in the closing years of the 19th century. It led to the White Australia policy and a turning away from Asia with the exception of the British colonial cities of Hong Kong, Singapore and Rangoon.

Anti-Chinese sentiment had seen most Chinese gold miners driven from the gold fields in the late 1850s and 1860s with many returning to their place of birth. Some stayed and took up or continued various commercial pursuits in regional NSW and Victoria. They were tolerated for as long as their number remained small. Many were assimilated through marriage.

White Australia remained apprehensive or fearful of a seaborn Asian invasion. This primal emotion remains to this day. The solution for the newly federated nation was to ignore this “threat” and to have as little to do with Asia as possible. It punished and impeded any Asian who sought to permanently enter Australia with impossible language tests.

The new Australia fixed its gaze and shipping routes on Great Britain, referred to by many of the transplanted whites as home, and also on white, English-speaking South Africa, New Zealand, Canada and to a lesser extent America.

Australia was quick to volunteer for Britain’s European war in 1914 and again in 1939. The British and American defeat in Asia was underlined for Australia by the Japanese advance to within 32 kilometres of Port Moresby. The fears of white Australia were placated with Japanese withdrawals in the Pacific in 1944. Hostility and the desire to punish the Japanese rested easily with many, if not most, Australians for some time after the war, much to the hurt and pain of Japanese war brides.

Hatred of the Japanese morphed into hatred of the North Koreans and then the Chinese with the advent of the Korean War in 1950. Comic book illustrators moved seamlessly from drawing ugly myopic Japanese soldiers to drawing ugly myopic Chinese and North Koreans. And with incredible dexterity and skill they were able to draw very handsome and wholesome South Korean soldiers who looked nothing like their North Korean counterparts and cousins.

Trade softened many in Australia to Japan, particularly the arrival of reliable and relatively cheap Japanese cars and the sale of wheat, coal and iron ore. Tourists followed and Sydney and the Gold Coast developed a new songsheet. In the meantime, well-heeled Australians discovered the delights of Singapore, Hong Kong, Manila, Bangkok and later Bali, although some didn’t know they were in Asia, far less Indonesia.

The Colombo Plan brought people from the region, providing some exposure to Asia, albeit limited, for Australians in academia and business. The Malayan Emergency and Sukarno’s “Konfrontasi” kept the region on the pages of Australian newspapers. Australia established an RAAF base at Butterworth, Malaya, at this time. News of the comings and goings at the base also served to keep Asia in the media.

China was an ever-present although secondary news item, drawing mainly negative attention. The Great Leap Forward (1958-62) was viewed with bemusement and the Cultural Revolution, beginning in 1966 and lasting 10 years until Mao’s death, with concern. But for Australians, what was happening in China and the distorted view that gave them of “Asia” was soon overshadowed by the war in Vietnam and Australia’s involvement on the side of the United States.

At first the focus by the media was low-key, featuring stories on page five or six. However, with conscripts going into the army in 1965, the tabloids had front-page stories of haircuts and farewells. The visit of US president Lyndon Johnson to Australia in October 1966 saw the first of the major demonstrations against the war. Conscription galvanised mothers and those likely to be called up and the increasing horror and human cost of the war motivated the left, the Labor Party and then a broad spectrum of the population. By late 1967 and early 1968, television footage out of Vietnam had a marked effect on public opinion. Cartoonist Bruce Petty was cutting, clever and relentless in his criticism of the US prosecution of the war, and soon enough cartoonists of the right, like Molnar and Collette, accepted defeat. Petty was a significant mobiliser of public opinion.

The war in Vietnam changed Australian perceptions and understandings of Asia. The right in Australia wanted retribution and destruction visited upon the North Vietnamese. They wanted Asia and Asians punished for causing problems for Western nations. The attitude of the right has not changed. Pol Pot and the killing fields only reinforced their prejudices. The right’s perceptions of Asia infiltrated into the broader Australian consciousness, and from there into politics through people like Pauline Hanson and John Howard and into the mainstream media.

The left was devastated by the war and the perceptions generated of Asia because of it. The Vietnam War forced a focus on the region including Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. Despite the horrors, curiosity was aroused, particularly towards Thailand, and many Australians broke their journeys to and from Europe in Bangkok or Singapore. That was how Australians viewed Asia in the 1960s and ’70s — as a stopover to somewhere else, a fact noted by Paul Keating. SEATO didn’t cut much ice with Australians, nor any of the many and varied regional conferences which took place.

The Australian focus on Asia changed with the election of Gough Whitlam in December 1972. Among the first of many major decisions, Whitlam recognised China. He had paid a visit as opposition leader in 1971. This decision completely changed Australia’s vision of Asia. Stephen Fitzgerald was appointed Australia’s first ambassador to Beijing. Trade and cultural exchanges flourished. Embassies were opened or expanded in all the countries of Asia, the Pacific and Africa. Australia came out from behind the Union Jack and embraced the world with confidence and enthusiasm.

DFAT and other government departments undertook extensive Asian language training programs and, as embassies opened and expanded, Australian businesses followed, also engaging in language and cultural training. Universities offered courses and schools language training. French, German, Italian, Greek and Latin got a firm nudge sideways. Asia, not Europe, was the focus. Australians stopped in Asia for lengthier holidays and visited exotic places such as Angkor Wat and Borobudur. People learnt enough phrases to be polite towards hotel staff, taxi drivers and at markets. They enjoyed Asia and Asia enjoyed them.

While China was seen as important, it did not have the economic and political clout it now enjoys. Japan in the 1970s was coming to dominate the region. Among those who made a significant contribution to the relationship was John Menadue, who was appointed ambassador to Japan in 1976. He served in that capacity until 1980, overseeing significant growth in trade and tourism. The two countries discovered each other and, in the process, developed a mutually beneficial relationship. Menadue was as significant in developing the relationship with Japan as Fitzgerald had been with China.

For 25 years Australia had a strong engagement with the region. Australian universities developed offshore campuses and Australian businesses established themselves in various cities including Shanghai and Hong Kong. The only major company to receive a significant setback was News Corporation in China. This happened because of arrogance and ineptness. The Australian relationship with an increasingly self-confident and wealthy China grew, and both sides expressed a great deal of satisfaction with this development.

The first warning sign that things might change came with the election of the Howard government in 1996. Elected at the same time was Pauline Hanson. In her maiden speech she declared that “Australia was in danger of being swamped by Asians”. These remarks were widely reported, particularly in Asia where many Australian heads of mission were asked to explain. Howard did not immediately slap down Hanson. He let it fester and rot for two years before he addressed her remarks, but by then the damage had been done.

Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke and Keating worked hard to keep the Australian racist genie in the bottle. Howard let it go, thinking it might help him electorally, and it may have, but it gave licence to Australian bigots and caused watchful concern to friends in the region. Howard’s treatment of refugees did not go unnoticed, from the remote desert detention centres to the “children overboard” affair. Howard gradually rebuilt White Australia. Attacks against Indian students by white vigilantes in Melbourne and Sydney were an indicator of what Howard had sown and let take root. Howard did not nurture relationships in Asia; for him the UK and the US were far more important. He chose to ignore what diplomat Percy Spender and Keating stressed, “that no country can afford to ignore its geography”. Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison followed in Howard’s footsteps, Morrison disastrously so.

Inward-looking jingoism was fed by casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan with returning bodies met with ceremony by Howard and defence chiefs, and an overplayed celebration of the “Anzac tradition” and the myth of mateship in the run-up to the centenary celebrations of World War I. Jingoism, Anzac and mateship all fed the narrative of white supremacy. These appeals to patriotism looked inward, with the effect of further turning Australia’s collective back on Asia.

The pressure of the Murdoch media’s relentlessly biased reporting affected other Australian media outlets and government, and the focus shifted from giving readers and viewers a world perspective to one where the US and UK shared primacy.

Even before Donald Trump became president, the US was girding its loins to take on competition from China, which it described as a threat. Trade and economic rivalry were transformed into a security threat, which gave the US many more levers and tools with which to attempt to contain China. Then Trump came along and, with ignorance and insularity sustained by a simplistic and mean-spirited world view, he imposed sanctions on China and ramped up hostile rhetoric. Sensing someone equally as uncomfortable with syllogisms as himself, Trump turned the sycophantic Morrison into a croaking swamp toad and wound him up to pour a bucket on Chinese leader Xi Jinping over the origin of Covid, with Morrison in his schoolboy bully style telling the world it was most likely a Wuhan wet market.

Xi was livid. China imposed restrictions on a range of imports amounting to $35 billion. Covid hastened the fall in numbers of Chinese students and tourists. We should have seen it coming. From the time Abbott became prime minister, whatever lingering tolerance remaining towards Asia was evaporating. His creation of bunyip knights and dames and treatment of refugees and Indigenous Australians indicated to the region where he was coming from.

From 2017 the relationship with China began to cool. The mainstream media became obsessed with allegations of Chinese cyber attacks and infiltration of student organisations. In 2018 academic Clive Hamilton published a book, Silent Invasion, alleging growing Communist Party of China influence in Australia, and in 2019 the Australian government banned Huawei from the 5G network and lobbied the Five Eyes intelligence alliance against any association. China was furious.

The Morrison imbroglio will not be sorted until he is no longer in power. I understand the Chinese will have nothing to do with him. They know him and do not like him.

Coming stridently on the scene at this time was the so-called independent think tank the Australia Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), which is not very independent with funding from US arms manufacturers, the US embassy and the Australian government. ASPI has the ear of Dutton, Morrison and Foreign Minister Marise Payne, it is stridently anti-Chinese, it advocates a much closer defence relationship with the US and has been a strong supporter of all the chatter surrounding AUKUS and the acquisition by Australia of yet-to-be-developed US nuclear-powered submarines — a prospect that makes many countries in the region uneasy or annoyed.

Australia’s exit from Asia is all but accomplished with its adoption of US policy towards China. This denies the primacy China enjoys in the region and acknowledgement of the dominant role it will play throughout the Pacific and indeed the world. Australia has made a very bad and costly call.

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