China: How do I fear thee? Let me count the ways

Oct 15, 2022
Sydney Harbour Bridge in the colour of red and reflections turn the harbour vivid red too.

A deep-seated ontological fear is complicating any possible moves towards restoring some semblance of normality in relations with China. There are many strands in this tangled skein. Let me try to pick some of them apart.

As Paul Keating said recently in a La Trobe University video-recorded conversation, Australia has the unique advantages of being a continent-nation. It also has the handicaps of such geographical isolation. Since European settlement, we have been dependent on outside supplies of staple supplies, with trade routes vulnerable to disruption by natural disasters or changes in global politics. This makes us fearful.

As an invading “white” settler society, we never signed a treaty with the Indigenous peoples. We do not know where we truly belong, whether East, West, North or South. Who are our true friends who might come to our assistance in time of need? We were abandoned by the “Mother Country” which after 150 years, abandoned Australian troops in Singapore in 1942. Prime Minister Curtin’s appeal for assistance to the United States was a turning point in Australian foreign policy. We fear invasion.

In fact, our foreign policy vacillates between defence of this continent and commitment to fight our allies’ wars, mostly in far-flung corners of the globe. From participation in the Boer War and the Relief of Peking in 1900 to the decade of war in Afghanistan, such distant wars do not protect our land but increase our vulnerability. No wonder we feel insecure.

Australians travelling to Asia are often overwhelmed by people numbers. Even in our cities, we treasure our personal space. India, China, Indonesia, are all densely populated. I recall one grazier visiting Calcutta intending to inspect a spinning mill who abandoned his plan before he even alighted from his taxi, finding the crowd more than he could handle. In the 19th century this fear of invading Asian hordes led to various exclusion acts and was a driver of the move to Federation.

At that time, “Yellow Peril” fears were not exclusive to Australia. They were peddled by Prussia, the United States, Russia, France and Britain. In Australia William Lane, mixing nationalist racism and socialist ideology, thundered against racial mixing as “miscegenation”. Such attitudes continued to colour Australian attitudes to Asia throughout the 20th century. Eminent economist Heinz Arndt wrote in 1992: “Most Australians (and not least those of continental European origin) remain vaguely fearful and suspicious of Asians. The Australian media, in their self-appointed role as guardians of human rights in Asia, miss few opportunities to affront our Asian neighbours.” Heinz’s comments still apply today.

The Romans feared Attila the Hun and his hordes. They felt helpless behind their city walls and called the Huns “barbarians”, meaning “others”, people who differ in appearance and in culture and who live in other places. Today we still talk of the barbarians at the gates. The end of the White Australia policy formally ended discriminatory treatment of people of different races but conversely increased our feelings of helplessness and fear of change. Pauline Hanson gave voice to this in the 1990s when she spoke of being swamped by Asians. Fear of Asia is easily exploited.

Fifty years ago, Gough Whitlam’s decision to recognise the People’s Republic of China marked a fundamental shift in Australian foreign policy. In his instructions to Stephen FitzGerald, our first ambassador, he wrote, “We seek a relationship with China based on friendship, co-operation and mutual trust, comparable with that which we have, or seek, with other major powers.” Whitlam’s vision was inherited by Malcolm Fraser who established the Australia China Council to advise on the development of relations, recognising that there needed to be a widespread adjustment of thinking and of interaction at all levels of society if we were to take a proper place in our Indo-Pacific region. Today there is an even greater need of such an advisory role.

In the days when people wrote letters not emails, I was given the task in the former Department of Overseas Trade in 1973 of dealing with correspondence about China from the public. There was a flood of comments and suggestions about trade opportunities that might flow from the establishment of diplomatic relations. Someone wrote that Chinese people were nimble at using chopsticks so could easily be taught to use knitting needles and to knit jumpers with Australian wool. That was the level of naïve enthusiasm for relations with China at that time.

It was later, when China moved from being a market to being a significant regional and even global power that public attitudes changed. China was no longer seen as a beneficiary of Australian exports and friendly advice. China gained confidence and understood that the rest of the world benefited from its new status. For some time, there was an unrealistic expectation that as China got richer, it would become more like us. The assumption was that only western democracies (like us) could sustain national wealth. Counter examples such as Singapore or South Korea were ignored or poohpoohed. China is clearly a counter example also. President Xi Jinping is indeed determined that China will not become like us. He stresses at every opportunity that China is different, unique, and special. This shocks us. Since we fear difference, we fear China.

In any mediation process, it is necessary to understand the role of culture for both disputants, but in a non-judgmental way. It is most important that both sides be given equal status and that a power imbalance is not allowed to develop. Similarly, in relations with China, we should try to understand the priorities of the Chinese leadership, including their preoccupation with territorial integrity and national unity. We do not need to relinquish our own cherished values of democracy and human rights, but we can cast off some of our fears.

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