China is not a threat to Australia

China is neither an enemy nor a threat to Australia. The Morrison government and mainstream media do us all a great disservice when they set it up as such. This anti-China paranoia must stop, now!!

On 1 July 2020, Prime Minister Scott Morrison gave a speech pledging $270 billion to defence weaponry, even including some very expensive items, such as long-range missiles. He explained that the post-Covid order would be poorer, more dangerous and more disorderly than before. He reordered Australia’s defence away from the Middle East and towards the Asia-Pacific.  He then likened the situation Australia faces to the 1930s and 1940s. Although he later denied that he was comparing China to the Nazis or Imperial Japan, that was the imputation left.

He did not specifically mention China, but the commentariat, led by Peter Jennings of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, assured us the same day that China was the only country that was a major threat to Australia. Peter Hartcher of the Sydney Morning Herald wrote approvingly that evening that Australia had “snapped awake from a long slumber” and was now prepared to defend itself against the monster China.

The next day Linda Reynolds gave a speech at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. She was much more forthright than Morrison that China was the problem. She charged China as taking “unsettling” actions and left no doubt that she regarded it as a threat to Australia.

My take is that China is not a threat to Australia and has never been. China is rising but has no wish to conquer. Among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, it has been preeminent for its lack of outside military action. It would like to expand its influence in Australia and elsewhere, but suggestions that it is trying to undermine our democratic system are greatly exaggerated, if not absurd. It is simply crazy to isolate China as a threat to Australia.

Looking at the situation from Beijing, it would be reasonable to see the United States getting its acolyte Australia to prepare for war against China with a view to bringing down the Communist Party and replacing it with a government more to Western taste. Senior officials such as Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have made speeches so full of venom and hostility against China that it must look very threatening to the leaders in Beijing, who themselves rarely respond to such vitriol.

Morrison was very concerned about cyber attacks, and that’s reasonable. But I think it’s worth remembering that these have become more or less universally practised nowadays. It is fine to defend Australia as far as possible against these. But they are in no way a reason for spending billions of dollars on sophisticated and expensive long-range missiles. From Beijing’s point of view, they are going to look like part of an American-led armoury surrounding China. The best way for China to regard Australia as an enemy is for Australia to set China up as an enemy. Action over the last few years and months have done just that.

Does the new national security law that has just been introduced in Hong Kong show China as a threat to us? In a word, no. Personally, there are some aspects of this move that I find disturbing. But I don’t share the view that the new law means the end of “one country, two systems”, or that there will be no separate Hong Kong law. This is a complex legal question, definitely not one that is solved by the kind of simplistic articles common in the mainstream media. On 1 July, Paul Monk, former head of the China desk of the Defence Intelligence Organisation, wrote in The Australian that China’s adopting the new law in Hong Kong was equivalent to Hitler’s Anschluss with Austria in 1938. That just seems to me to be alarmist nonsense.

Hong Kong is, after all, a part of China. In the face of endless large-scale and damaging demonstrations last year, the government in Beijing was very restrained. I never expected its patience to last for ever. There was a point when young people trampled ritually on the Chinese flag to show their contempt. Other protestors shouted “Liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our time” and unfurled American and British flags. Were the leaders in Beijing being so unreasonable in thinking some people were seeking independence and colluding with external forces to win it?

The new national security law bans secession, subversion, terrorism and “collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security”.  It’s perfectly reasonable to ban secessionism. We do the same, no less a document that the Australian Constitution declaring in its Preamble that the federation is “indissoluble”. Terrorism is illegal in Australia and virtually everywhere else, as it ought to be. I already suggested above that collusion with external countries for an independent Hong Kong and against China’s national security is more than a mere chimera.

Australia’s and other Western governments have also shown themselves extremely concerned about their own national security, and that is rational. I think we should show some sympathy towards countries like China when they show concern about their security. Yet we happily interfere in their affairs issuing hostile statements and taking measures to damage their economy, while issuing threats against any suspicion that they interfere in ours.

And let’s remember that China is still our largest trading partner. In June a report from the International Monetary Fund showed that, while China would still grow by 1 per cent this year, the world would sink into recession, with the advanced economies going backwards by some 6 per cent. So China’s benefit to us is likely to remain substantial. It is all very well for us to signal how virtuous we are because we are willing to “stand up to” China, but I would argue that in many cases such action amounts more to insult than resistance. I also suggest that there are no benefits from losing trade opportunities, however virtuous it makes one feel.

Fortunately, there are already signs that, after the pandemic dies down, Chinese students will still wish to come to Australia. On 25 June, The Australian reported on a poll, conducted by the Global Times and Beijing Foreign Studies University, which “found that Australia remains a hugely popular destination with China’s urban middle class, despite the ongoing political turmoil in the bilateral relationship”.

I say we should encourage them as hard as we can. Of course, let’s trade with India and other countries, and welcome Indian students. But not necessarily at the expense of Chinese connections.

Unfortunately, I think we are reaching a point where China is going to regard Australia as an enemy, as it already does the United States. Australia is less important, and China could well think of it as not worth bothering about. I think the government and mainstream media should stop fanning the paranoid hysteria that regards China as a threat and instead do what they can to reverse it. To antagonize China, let alone treat it as an enemy, is flatly contrary to Australia’s interests. It’s also totally unnecessary!

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COLIN MACKERRAS, AO, FAHA is Professor Emeritus at Griffith University, Queensland. He has visited and worked in China many times, during the first working as a teacher of English from 1964 to 1966 at the Beijing Foreign Studies University.

He is a specialist on Chinese history, theatre, minority nationalities, Western images of China and Australia-China relations and has written widely on all topics. His many books include Western Perspectives on the People's Republic of China, Politics, Economy and Society, World Scientific Publishing, Singapore, 2015.

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