The year was 1962. As Canberra’s first trainee in Chinese I had been placed on the Department of External Affairs China desk and told to monitor rising tension along the Sino-Indian Himalayan frontier. Beijing was complaining about repeated Indian frontier violations and warning there would be consequences if India went too far.
Eventually under Nehru’s forward policy India did go too far and occupied some land (the Dho La Strip) on the Chinese side of the border – the McMahon Line frontier in Assam. Only then did Beijing finally decide it had had enough and sent in the troops, not just into the Strip but also well into Assam.
It then brought the troops back to where they started, only to be accused on every side of unprovoked aggression with no consideration for what went before .
Beijing had then sent Canberra copies of the original McMahon Line and many other historical documents in an unusually strong effort to show clearly where the Indian frontier violations had occurred. (The Indians sent us nothing.)
So naively I set out to get to the bottom of things. I contacted the China desks in London and Washington, as was Canberra’s custom in those days.
Had they also received the McMahon Line originals? Yes. Was not the Dho La Strip on the Chinese side of the frontier. Well, yes.
Then on what basis could our governments continue to accuse China of aggression?
Please understand the realities of the situation was closest I got to an answer.
I then prepared a piece of paper saying it seemed India was at fault and we should not cast all the blame on China. The response from above?: ‘We fail to see that it is not in Australia’s interest to have the Chinese and Indians at each other’s throats.’
And so, the myth of Chinese aggressiveness towards India was allowed to take root. It still poisons relations.
Chinese foreign policy then was under the moderate Zhou Enlai. His frustration over Western distortions is on record. The chance to move to a sensible relationship with China was lost.
Too often the rights and wrongs of disputes get blurred in the fog of propaganda wars. But here there was no fog. From the beginning it was clear the ‘unprovoked Chinese aggression’ accusations were ‘bright, shining lies’ (to borrow Neil Sheehan’s later description of US propaganda during the Vietnam war).
But who was going to do the research into an obscure dispute high in the Himalayans to discover the facts? It was too easy just to go along with the bright shining lies.
And so, with help from a mistaken version of the Sino-Soviet 1960’s dispute, the myth of an inherent Chinese militarism was born. From there it went on (far more than is realised) to encourage intervention in the Vietnam War. There the lies would eventually be exposed. But by then it was too late.
Over India they still continue.
They continue elsewhere today, with China accused of aggression in the South China Sea. True, Beijing has increased its military presence there. But usually it has been in response to others. We never hear, for example, that it was Taipei, not Beijing, which first made the postwar claims to SCS islands (and with US enablement). Or that those claims continue.
Do we ever hear of Taiping Island, for example, the largest of the SCS islands in dispute? Over strong Phillipines objections it has been seized by Taiwan and militarised, with an airport and military personnel. Somehow it avoided criticisms from a 2016 UN Tribunal by getting itself described as a ‘rock.’
Meanwhile Japan has seized a rock the size of a bed in the far Pacific, called it Okinotori-shima, and used it to make Economic Zone and continental shelf claims covering an area two to three times the size of Japan itself.
Japan also claims some East China Sea islands which it calls the Senkakus and which it took from a China weakened by Western and Japanese 19th century aggressiveness.
Tokyo has not even got round to giving the islands a proper name. It relies on a translation the name, the Pinnacles, given two centuries ago by British explorers. But it has no doubt it owns the islands.
The Chinese name, Diaoyu-tai, or Fishing Platform, goes back at least one thousand years. But sure enough, any Chinese claim to the islands is more ‘aggression.’
Japan today plays much the same role as India in stoking anti-China sentiment.
Ironically, postwar Washington once accepted Taiwan’s claim to the islands, specifically refusing Tokyo’s claim to sovereignty in the process. Even today the US recognises only Japan’s administrative rights. But we are still supposed to be angered when China exerts the rights the US once conceded.
China’s alleged aggressiveness is now said to target Taiwan itself. And it is true that Beijing has long seen recovery of Taiwan as its key foreign policy objective. And having tried smiles vainly, it is now moving to a harder line.
But any military move against Taiwan would likely focus on taking islands close to China which Taiwan in the past has used to threaten and carry out raids on the Chinese mainland.
Beijing could go further, but that would hardly be aggression. Even the US in 1978 formally ‘acknowledged’ Beijing’s claim to Taiwan as the condition for opening relations with China.
In its new Cold Wars with Moscow and Beijing Washington says it wants rules-based diplomacy. But only the rules that favour the US, it seems.
Australia now has a body of China expertise. But few seem willing to do the homework to rebut publicly and in detail the ‘aggressive China’ accusations.
For example Beijing’s initial moves to block Australian trade were not due to Canberra calls for an inquiry into China’s responsibility for the Corona virus. They were due to the way Canberra immediately endorsed US President Trump’s belligerent calls for such an inquiry – a crucial point.
Instead what we mainly get from our China experts are simply the mantras that China matters or is important for trade.
That makes little impression on the hysterical anti-China commentators in Australia’s mainstream media. So Beijing seems to have decided, as in 1962, that it is tired of the constant harassment. It is reacting.
These reactions in turn are used by the bigoted people we pay to work in security outfits with vested interests in creating anti-China confrontations.
Those are the people who once told us the North Vietnamese were puppets of an expansionist Beijing determined to move south towards Australia. On this basis they sent Australian troops to kill large numbers of the very same Vietnamese they now say we should rely on to stop those still aggressive Chinese.
They have yet to admit they made a mistake then. Now they want to send troops more directly against China.