China policy: A casualty of Australia’s addiction to imperial power

Oct 21, 2022
Royal imperial crown on red table, red brick wall background

It’s now close to five months since Labor came to office, but little has changed in the government’s position on China or the dangerous escalation in great power tensions.

A short ministerial meeting here, a reassuring sentence there, but no substantial rethink on the ‘China threat’ thesis which has held sway in Australia for the past decade.

Penny Wong has referred more than once to the need to “stabilise” the relationship, but no mention of how stability is to be achieved. Tellingly, when meeting her Chinese counterpart in July, she stated “Australia’s Government has changed but our national interests and our policy settings have not.”

Why, might we ask, is there so little to distinguish the China and security policies of the two major parties, especially when in government?

Part of the answer can be traced back to European colonisation which brought with it little knowledge of the traditions, lifestyles or wisdom of the original inhabitants, and little or no affinity with the much larger Asian populations located in Australia’s neighbourhood.

As a consequence, Australia’s sense of place from the earliest days of European settlement has been largely shaped by five articles of faith:

  • Australia’s ‘whiteness’ is crucial to its identity and attachment to Western (i.e., British) traditions and values;
  • With a small population and a vast territory to defend, the country’s security ultimately depends on protection by the imperial power;
  • Such protection requires Australia to demonstrate enthusiastic loyalty to the protector, this being the premium, however costly, Australia has to pay to maintain its insurance policy;
  • The main threats security originate in Asia, where unfamiliar civilisations and huge populations cannot but look with envy upon Australia’s economic prosperity; and
  • Loyalty to the imperial protector and an effective response to external threats require a policy of forward defence, that is, a willingness to fight at the side of the protector ‘sooner rather than later’ and ‘there rather than here’.

Attachment to these five myths has been the bedrock on which rests Australia’s addiction to “empire’. Following Britain’s decline in the wake of World War II, the rise of the United States as the preeminent world power afforded much needed reassurance to the Australian psyche.

The transition to dependence on US military protection, consummated with the signing of the Anzus treaty in 1951, would over time help to entrench all five myths with only minor adjustments along the way.

Since the signing of the Anzus treaty, Australian governments have repeatedly despatched military personnel in support of US military actions – from Korea to Vietnam, Afghanistan, the Middle East, and now the South China Sea.

Virtually all aspects of security policy – defence procurement, interoperability of military forces, diplomatic positions taken on issues deemed critical to US interests – have rested on the premise that Australia’s only option is to serve as America’s faithful ally.

Once China’s rise came to be seen by the US security establishment as inimical to its longstanding global and regional dominance, Australia meekly followed suit. AUKUS, driven by anti-China sentiment and the powerful US defence lobby, is but the latest in a long line of such entanglements.

There is more, then, to Australia’s approach to security than strategic calculation. Australian elites felt most comfortable when connected to the anglophone world and at best uneasy when dealing with the East.

This stance is often justified by reference to the democratic values that bind Australia to the West – values, it should be said, honoured as much in the breach as in the observance. Scratch a little below the surface, and cultural xenophobia, not to say racial prejudice, soon rears its ugly head.

One other pull factor helps explain the addiction to imperial power, at least so far as Australia’s political, bureaucratic, military and intelligence elites are concerned.

They see themselves as having unique access to an exclusive and powerful club that confers status and privileges – once the British club, now the American club. They reluctantly accepted the demise of the former, but are in no mood to accept the slow but steady decline of the latter.

And so, we have seen in recent years a well orchestrated, multifaceted campaign designed to paint China as a clear and present danger to our security and all that we hold dear. Xi Jinping’s China is described as aggressive, confrontational, ready to violate the international rule of law, repress its minorities, and interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries,

The Albanese government shows no sign of countering the politically contrived anti-China hysteria that has swept the country in recent years. No sign either that it will want to question a defence posture that commits Australia to supporting US regional and global supremacy.

Senior Labor ministers do not wish to rock the boat. The see no value in provoking the ire of the security establishment that includes the armed forces, the security and intelligence agencies and influential figures in key government departments – well supported by vociferous think tanks, lobbies and media networks.

There may be members of the Labor caucus who have misgivings about the current direction of our relations with China, and security policy more generally. if so, they have chosen to remain virtually invisible.

The Greens, for their part, have said little about China, except for expressions of concern about its human rights record. They have said even less about the dangerous escalation in China-US tensions or the drift of Australia’s defence posture. They too may be intimidated by the prospect of the inevitable pushback. It is in any case doubtful that they have given much thought to these questions, or that they feel competent to enter the public debate.

The teal independents, however useful may be their contribution to the climate change or social policy agenda, have strikingly refrained from venturing into this arena. Safe to say that as things stand the Parliament is unlikely to provide in the near future an arena for serious debate on the fraught relationship with China.

But all is not lost. Unease with the present policy paralysis is gradually emerging within the university, business, professional, trade union and ethnic community sectors. The critical analysis of current policies offered by retired political leaders and diplomats, educators and public intellectuals is also helping.

A long overdue revitalised national conversation may yet come to pass.

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