Is China a threat? Presidents, Prime Ministers, governments and opposition parties all tell us that it is. There is barely a day passes without the media finding new and more expansive ways to ‘prove’ the existence of this threat. And while all this goes on, the voices of dissent become marginalised. At one important level China does pose a threat, but not in the way that our political leaders, leader writers, or an increasing clutch of scholars perceive it. The threat is not ideological, is not cultural, is not based on race, ethnicity or geography. China’s development has led it to become a capitalist entity and a competitor for economic hegemony with the USA. The threat is to the supremacy of the USA. On this count China stands accused and is guilty as charged. Its crime has been to follow the example of other successful capitalist economies. The crime has been made all the more heinous because it has been successful.
The timing of China’s rise to superpower status might have been, for China, unfortunate. A deep economic crisis from the 1970s meant that globalisation assumed a frenetic pace. National economies suffered as business and manufacturing moved offshore in a quest to maximise profits. What followed was the backlash of nationalism, economic nationalism and populist politics. The integration of global capital was unstoppable, but calls were being made to reclaim national economic power. Interstate rivalries have become more acute than at any time since WWI. Nationalist responses to the crisis needed to find someone or something to blame; a suitable enemy. It was China. The downward spiral into threat, counter threat, trade war and the very real potential for war began.
The United States, as the economy about to be eclipsed by China, has led the charge. After all it is the most threatened. But why should a state such as Australia become so embroiled, seemingly at the risk of economic devastation, by belligerently advocating for the USA in its anti-China campaigns? There are a number of possible scenarios. Australia has always regarded itself as ‘European,’ sitting precariously on the edge of Asia. Even before Federation, Australians had been taught to fear and distrust the ‘yellow peril.’ It became a mechanism by which to build national unity. Australia has traditionally remained subservient to the dominant global power. The people have learned to be fearful. Can our anti-China stance, simply be a need to maintain the support of our traditional western allies? Such a suggestion might make some sense, but it is not entirely satisfactory. A war between the US and China is entirely conceivable. It is possible that the Australian political class and through it the media have chosen which horse to back and have considered the benefits that might flow to an ally whose loyalty is beyond question. This scenario has a ring of credibility but there is still another idea to explore.
There are strong elements of ingrained racism in the psyche of Australia that have been consciously promoted for more than a century. There is a fearfulness of losing the patronage of the powerful. There is the potential to profit from any US-inspired war. Then there is the economic crisis itself which can act as a strong motivator for state behaviour. Survival and self-preservation are the final motivators.
Before the crisis of the 1970s and the subsequent rush to globalisation, the nation-state system was relatively secure. It enjoyed a strong sense of legitimacy and a social contract between the governed and those governing was long established. The rapidity of globalisation, regardless of its inevitability, fractured that social contract. The state was less and less capable of delivering positive outcomes. Living standards began to deteriorate, social inequality grew and in response came the rise of nationalism, economic nationalism and populism. Complex questions were reduced to simplistic responses. Guilty parties were sought. The political class and those sections of society with the most to lose, rallied. They managed to turn the growing wave of anger away from the shortcomings of the nation-state system and toward real or imagined threats from external sources.
This feature of 21st century political life has taken some rather extreme turns. While appearing to be more subtle in Australia, it is no less evident. All of the early factors that had gone to creating a national ethos; fear of the region in which we live, great power sycophancy, and all the rest has been carefully fostered, along with an intensification of Australian nationalism. In this context it is possible to see a logic emerging as to why Australian political figures and leaders of both major political parties, have been willing partners in military build-up, talk of security issues, massive increases in expenditure on weaponry, and the promotion of quite spurious threat perceptions.
Anti-Asian sentiments have existed in this country for as long as Europeans have lived here. The people have been well taught and are now are being carefully manipulated. It serves the interests of our political establishment to preserve a sense of legitimacy, even though the old social contract has been torn apart. It’s all about survival. Survival, in this sense, is a very narrow consideration. Our economic interests become almost secondary to the necessity for the status quo to be maintained. The gamble that our political masters seem prepared to engage in is that any economic losses can be made up by promoting a stronger alliance with the US and other western allies, while quietly hoping that trade with China can continue. To be openly non-antagonistic towards China is to risk reaction from a population that has been so inured to anti-Asia sentiment. Power and the maintenance of a political superstructure, even one that is no longer effective is, in the estimation of our leaders, essential. In the meantime, the ‘threat’ continues and grows with every new headline and speech from Canberra.
William Briggs is a political economist. His special areas of interest lie in political theory and international political economy. His latest book, China, the USA and Capitalism’s Last Crusade is due to be published by Zero Books in early 2021.