GEOFF RABY.  Our China Threat is based on a fundamental error (Australian Financial Review, 19 August 2019)

Andrew Hastie’s intervention on the China Threat helpfully highlights the extent to which Australia’s intelligence, security and defence establishment (ISDE) is running Australia’s China foreign policy.   In stark language he has laid out many of the assumptions that underly the supposed Threat.  Contrary to the Prime Minister’s assertion, as Chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, his is no mere private view.

Hastie’s dog-whistle invocation of the Maginot did not need him to compare China with Nazi Germany, which he did not.  But when Germany overran France it was run by a Nazi Government.  His implication was clear.  China needs to be confronted at every turn.  But the assumptions underlying the China Threat are contested, as are the historical analogies used to support it.

Hastie has done little more than repackage the tired fare from the US China Threat people, for which there is so much appetite among Australian conservative think tanks and media.  Echoing the sentiments of Vice President Pence from his Hudson Institute speech of October last year, Hastie’s main point is that this is an ideological struggle with China.

Most of Hastie’s assertions derive from arch-China hawk Michael Pillsbury’s The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower. Hastie’s reference to a “ten decade” struggle is based on Pillsbury’s math.  Of the many refutable assumptions underlying Pillsbury’s influential book, perhaps the most flimsy, which Hastie hangs his hat on, is a type of buyer’s regret.

It is asserted that China has welched on an implied understanding that as its economy grew and its people prospered through greater integration into the international system, China’s political system would become more liberal and democratic.  It is not China’s fault if some in the US deluded themselves.  China never indicated that “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” meant anything other than the Communist Party remaining in power.

If neo-conservative ideologues in the US didn’t understand that, then the same wishful thinking was never a serious premise for Australia’s and just about everyone else’s engagement with China.  Engagement of China in the international system was because the alternative of not doing so would be potentially far worse, and for the economic benefits that would and have flowed.  As with all sound foreign policy, it was based on self-interest as, of course, was the decision by China itself to engage.  China’s becoming a liberal democracy was not part of the deal.

In Australian policy circles, the prevailing view from as far back as the 1980s was that China’s political system would evolve along with economic growth and an increasing role of markets, but that China would find its own form of political and social organisation.  It was hoped that this would become more participatory and open, but few believed that a contestable political system would prevail.

The untested assumption of China as a strategic threat to Australia now dominates policy circles in Canberra.  Hastie feels no need to make the case.  It is enough simply to assert what is now widely seen as a self-evident truth. Discussion is closed.  With the appointment of China hawk Andrew Shearer to Cabinet Secretary, policy advice will become even narrower and the ISDE’s bellicose view of China further entrenched.

The Opposition would appear to be as enamoured the ISDE’s running Australia’s China policy as is the Government.  It was left to Labor’s Shadow Defence spokesperson, Richard Marles, to response to Hastie.

Disingenuously, Marles proposed a bi-partisan approach to China, as if there wasn’t one at present.  Since the Morrison Government moved away from the damaging, self-important, stridency of Turnbull/Bishop and tried to approach the relationship with China with a measure of maturity there has been no difference between the Government and the Opposition.

This is the problem for the Opposition when it essentially accepts the ISDE’s assumptions about China and frames the difference between it and the Government in terms of messaging.  It is easy for the Government to change its messaging, which it has done, leaving the Opposition with no thought-through policy.

Probably at no other time, has policy advice to government been so narrowly based, nor the Opposition so cowed by the bureaucracy into policy convergence with the Government, as it is at the present over Australia’s China policy.

This is a curious state of affairs as Australia’s China policy is caught in a deep, fundamental, contradiction.  In aligning Australia so closely with the United States, the ISDE views China as a strategic competitor and hence to be treated with strategic mistrust and to be challenged on all fronts – be it in the Pacific, over its global ambitions with respect to the Belt and Road Initiative, technology and cyber, in the Indian Ocean, or on the campuses of our universities or in our board rooms.

All these positions are quite consistent, and Hastie has set out to legitimise those policies, albeit based on highly contestable assumptions.  The policy challenge is, however, that unlike for the United States, China is not a strategic competitor of Australia.  A view with which, in public at least, the Australian Government concurs.

If China is indeed a strategic competitor, then Government should say so clearly, with all the consequences identified, including diminished security, reduced economic opportunities, limited regional and international influence, much higher defence and security expenditures, among other things.

It would also be helpful if the Government explained why China was such a threat to Australia when it is not to our regional neighbours, such as New Zealand, Singapore, Indonesia or Malaysia, all of which are democracies of a fashion, are overwhelmingly dependent on the Chinese economy and seek continued US engagement in East Asia to balance China.

Australia’s China policy is a mess because it is so conflicted.  China policy needs to start with a rigorous discussion over the core assumptions that underly the China Threat scenario.  A sense of proportionality is also required.  As is the definition of Australia’s interests as distinct from those of the US.  An honest discussion would begin by acknowledging these differences.

Geoff Raby is a former Australian Ambassador to China.


Geoff Raby AO is an Australian economist and diplomat. He served as the Australian Ambassador to the People's Republic of China from February 2007 until August 2011.

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6 Responses to GEOFF RABY.  Our China Threat is based on a fundamental error (Australian Financial Review, 19 August 2019)

  1. Avatar J.Donegan says:

    Thank you Dr. Raby for your excellent summary.
    Australia’s China policy is indeed a mess and it will remain so while Mr. Hastie and others consider it necessary to echo the US line while not having the guts to say that the ‘threat’ from China is such that we should no longer have anything to do with it – thereby being prepared to ditch about one third of our exports. Such a course would be logical, but I don’t see the Minerals Council of Australia agreeing.

    As you say Dr. Raby, it is impossible to ignore international engagement with China – the more so as our initial engagement was based quite sensibly on our own self-interest. One way out of this impasse would be for our resolute and business minded PM to declare that so far as Australia is concerned, business with China is good business and everyone else can shut up.

  2. Avatar michael lacey says:

    Australia is a vassal state what it thinks is irrelevant!
    The synergy in the respective strengths of China and Russia are key to protecting the sovereignty and security of the two nations from a very real and imminent threat of neoliberal /neoconservative forces!

    The Chinese and the Russians want their countries to be truly free, powerful and sovereign, and they understand that this is only possible when you have a military which can deter an attack, but neither China nor Russia have any interests in policing the planet or imposing some regime change on other countries. All they really want is to be safe from the US, that’s it.

    1000 years of European imperialism is coming to an end!

    The truth is that in military and economic terms, the “West” has already lost. The fact that those who understand don’t talk, and that those who talk about this (denying it, of course) have no understanding of what is taking place, makes no difference at all.

  3. Avatar Kien Choong says:

    China’s government seems to be continually reforming, so we don’t need to give up hope that China will become more democratic over time. In fact, China has a track record of engaging with the world and changing policies on matters such as climate change, currency policy, trade policy, …. These changes come through engagement; the key is to convince China’s government that the policies are in China’s own interest.

    • Avatar michael lacey says:

      China will become more democratic over time.

      Does it mean let the neocons /neoliberals control the Chinese economy!

  4. Geoff, I can’t imagine that even American neo-conservatives thought the Chinese Communist Party would voluntarily cede absolute control and introduce the separation of powers that is the touchstone of Western liberal democracy. This is expected to be a process of evolution, as summarised by Columbia Professor Andrew J. Nathan, quoted in the 27 July New York Review of Books by Ian Johnson.

    “The more China pursues power and prosperity through technological modernisation and engagement with the global economy, the more unwilling are students, intellectuals and the rising middle classes to adhere to a 1950s-style ideological conformity.”

    This is the Chinese administration’s Catch 22 and as Yossarian discovered, it is one helluva catch, that Catch 22. The catch is in play in Hong Kong as we write.

    Ian Johnson is reviewing “The Last Secret: The Final Documents from the June Fourth Crackdown” published by Hong Kong New Century Press. The book describes how Communist Party general secretary Zhao Ziyang was made the scapegoat after opposing the use of the military in Tiananmen Square.

    “On the one hand, Deng wanted Zhao to carry out reforms but Zhao was also being watched suspiciously by Deng’s more conservative opponents. On the other hand, Zhao’s downfall shows how uneasy the Party is with the social effects of economic reforms — a problem that remains today, as Xi Jimping promotes old-style Communist ideals.”

    The object of the exercise is to moderate the government of mainland China, preferably in a democratic direction. This is a long-term project for the Chinese people. The immediate future of President Xi is a short-term project for Chinese elites, as noted by Nina Khrushcheva with reference to the fate of her grandfather, Nikita Khrushchev (The Australian 16 August).

  5. Avatar Steven Howard says:

    As a vassal state of the US empire, there is no question that the US’s stance on China is mirrored in rhetoric emanating from the Canberra security establishment and their political flunkies. With the Australian security services and military establishment seeming to be mere branch offices of Langley and the Pentagon, the question to be asked is whether it is even possible that Australia’s national sovereignty can ever be restored given their real masters appear to reside outside the country.

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