Fear and loathing of China is poppycock.

Australia seems often to act like a junior gang member who is hyper anxious to impress the leader of the gang….Annoying China is good politics but bad leadership.

It is probably inevitable that the scenarios which are built into our defence planning are not made public. Those scenarios presumably shape most defence decisions – from what force size and composition we have and what defence equipment on down. Rightly or wrongly concerns about China seem to be the unstated cornerstone of our defence planning in 2020.

However, being concerned about China begs many questions.  Is the scenario that China will start lobbing long range missiles at us?  If that were to happen, without a lot of help, it seems unlikely that we have any chance of defeating such an attack.  However, I consider the scenario to be highly unlikely.  Building alliances and perhaps the capability to retaliate seem to be the  two best prospects for dealing with such an unlikely scenario.

Another possible scenario is that China will send its navy – the biggest navy in the world – to attack us.  The same comments apply to this equally unlikely scenario.

The most likely scenario for China to become involved in skirmishes is around the South China Sea and/or Taiwan.  Australia could be drawn into such skirmishes.  (The best strategy if Taiwan is to maintain its independence seems to be for it and its allies to ensure that Taiwan is a very hard target. That is the thing most likely to deter China).

I suggested in my previous article that Australia should make resolution of issues in the South China Sea a matter of the highest diplomatic priority. China is understandably nervous about the vulnerability of its sea-lanes.  Those concerned to preserve peace need to do everything that we reasonably can to reduce the factors creating that nervousness.  We should be trying to influence our allies – including the US, Japan and South Korea – to that way of thinking as well.

Unfortunately, Australia seems often to act like a junior gang member who is hyper anxious to impress the leader of the gang.  We are the first to sign on for any half-baked military mission suggested by the US – to liberate Iraq from Saddam Hussein over those non-existent weapons of mass destruction, to throw the USSR’s old enemies (the US’s old friends, the Mujahideen) out of Afghanistan, and prove that the US (with our assistance) can do what the British and the USSR failed to do for well over a century.

Part of this junior gang member mindset seems to be that whatever the other gang wants to do is automatically to be strongly opposed.  China’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative is a case in point.  The State of Victoria is portrayed by some within the Federal Government as almost treasonous for expressing interest in participating in the Belt and Road.

Again unfortunately, the Federal Government seems unable to get out of the mentality that our gang (led by the US) is good, and that the other gang – really only China – is bad and is the enemy.  China is not the enemy.  We need to work with China where we can.  We need to see the world through Chinese eyes and cooperate with China where we can. We need to get along with China if we can.  We need to stop gratuitously shouting at China and talking verbal pot shots at China.  Annoying China is good politics but bad leadership.

We also need to appreciate that Australia’s position vis a vis China is very different to that of any other member of the US gang – the US itself, the UK, Japan, other NATO members and allies in Asia.

Again unfortunately, our history makes it very easy for Australians to fear and loath China.  From the 1850’s, like men from Mars (from the perspective of white diggers) they were coming to take our gold.  Then they were coming for our jobs and to undercut our wages – furniture was stamped certifying that it was made with only European labour.  The White Australia blocked further Chinese immigration for most of the twentieth century, but there was frequent talk of “the yellow peril” that would, unless we kept our guard up, sweep down from China in a giant horde.  I recall a political ad about 1962 showing a young Australian woman pulling a rickshaw with a Chinese person aboard across the Sydney Harbour Bridge.  The Domino Theory of the Vietnam War was a variant of “the yellow peril”.  Then Pauline Hanson masterfully played on the same fear and loathing with her vile campaigns, encouraged by our second longest serving PM, John Howard.  It was good, wedge politics and Howard found good, wedge politics irresistible.

Unhappily, and without the need for help from One Nation, we are back there again.  Covid has played into this phenomenon, but little help has been needed.  The politics of being alarmed about security has played very well in Australia since 9/11.  Initially it was about terrorism and Muslims.  But the alarm has almost imperceptibly morphed into being about some amorphous threat from China – let’s just call it Foreign Interference.  We have had numerous recent warnings from ASIO, ex-Prime Minister Turnbull and other Ministers that we are in the most dangerous security environment ever.  The fact that I consider it poppycock is not much to the point.  It seems to be playing well politically.

This anti-China campaign has the double disadvantage of drawing down fear and loathing on a significant and much esteemed part of the Australian population; and of doing great harm to our diplomatic and other relationships with China.  I fear that it is also warping our foreign policy and our defence policy.  We need clear thinking; not fear and loathing.

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Lawyer, formerly senior federal public servant (CEO Constitutional Commission, CEO Law Reform Commission, Department of PM&C, Protective Security Review and first Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security; High Court Associate (1971) ; partner of major law firms. Awarded Premier's Award (2018) and Law Institute of Victoria's President's Award for pro bono work (2005).

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