HENRY REYNOLDS. Between America and China?

 In his Lowy lecture delivered in Sydney last October Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared that ‘Australia does not have to choose between the United States and China.’

Credit – The White House Flickr

It was such a commonplace comment that it passed without notice. It had been articulated by assorted Australian leaders many times before. But now seven months later it seems to belong to a different era. So much has changed, the pandemic to begin with. But equally important are developments in American politics.

In response to the widely reported and recognised chaos in the White House, President Donald Trump has already sketched out his tactics for the presidential election in November. He will lead a crusade against China. Joe Biden is to be attacked for being ‘Bejing Biden’, a man without sufficient vigour to confront America’s rapidly emerging rival. As the American response to the pandemic comes under increasing and merited criticism, the anti-Chinese rhetoric will escalate. If the polls turn down Trump’s confrontation will become more central to the campaign. American allies will be expected to join the crusade with the more compliant ones leading the march. It is fanciful to think that Australia will choose to sit on the sidelines.

So does Australia have to choose between America and China? Clearly not. The decision has already been made for us. For many years it has been the height of our strategic planning to lash ourselves as tightly as possible to the Imperial mast and to then stop thinking. And if you are joined at the hip with a great power, as Malcolm Turnbull phrased it, there is almost no room to manoeuvre or to change direction. The American alliance has always been oversold to the electorate and so little thought has been given to alternative ways of acting in the world of nation states that we have nowhere else to go.

Like the Republican Party itself we will be swept along in Trump’s wake whether we like it or not. Several recent developments point us in this direction. It stretched credulity to suppose that Morrison’s loud-mouthed call for an international inquiry into China’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak was not made as an accompaniment to the rising tempo of Trump’s own campaign .

And there are other serious constraints on Australian governments and none more obvious than the extraordinary power of the Murdoch Empire. Rupert Murdoch is not just any American tycoon. He is deeply immersed in conservative American politics. Fox news is central to Trump’s power base. The News Limited papers would clearly not look on quietly and allow an Australian government to move beyond the penumbra of American power or even take up positions contrary to the direction of Trump’s campaign.

The recent Daily Telegraph exposé of what purported to be Five Eyes intelligence about China’s viral culpability was merely a foretaste of what is yet to come. The information, assumed to have been provided by the American embassy ,was quickly taken up and sensationalised by Fox news and from there was incorporated into a speech by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The slickness of the operation was breathtaking. And where was that clutch of right wing commentators and the chronically leaking security establishment who warn us endlessly about foreign interference? It obviously depends on who you consider foreign.

What has become clear over the last few months is that many Australians are willing to applaud the rupture in relations with China. Members of Canberra’s defence and security establishment have always prioritised our ties with the US. In that way they are the lineal descendants of the Imperial loyalists of a hundred years ago who had difficulty distinguishing between Australian interests and those of Britain and the Empire. Like Menzies they were proud to be British to the bootstraps. Cold War thinking encouraged many Australians to believe their first loyalty was to the ‘free world’ rather than the nation state. And old habits persist. We pursue what is called interoperability with American forces. Our ships sail with American flotillas in both the South China Sea and the Persian Gulf.

But there has been a significant change in attitudes to China in the broader community which may prove more important in the long run. Leading commentators have shed their erstwhile objectivity. Right wing members of the Coalition’s back bench winch up their rhetoric. The public broadcasters, the ABC and SBS, turn repeatedly to known enemies of China which is now judged by standards not applied to other powers least of all the USA. But more troubling are the inexcusable attacks on long standing members of the Australian-Chinese community who, without evidence, are accused of being Communist sympathisers or even cadres of the party. What we have now is a replay of the Cold War pursued by a generation with no experience of the old one. They engage in exercises of recapitulation without knowing what they do.

Another development is the upsurge of anti-Asian racism. Though primarily directed at Chinese anyone with East Asian characteristics is vulnerable. A survey by the ABC found that hundreds of people across the country had either witnessed or been involved in racially charged incidents in supermarkets, on the streets and in their cars. Some say they are now too frightened to go shopping by themselves or even take a walk around the block in their own neighbourhoods. Racist graffiti reappears.

It is as if Pandora’s Box has been thrown open and all the atavistic attitudes to Asia have re-emerged. The earnest, exaggerated talk of politicians and commentators about the threat of China to our sovereignty and security has created an atmosphere where many people feel free to vent long nurtured prejudices. These inadvertent enablers may personally find such crude racism distasteful but it is an inevitable consequence of their alarmist rhetoric.


Henry Reynolds is an eminent Australian historian.

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13 Responses to HENRY REYNOLDS. Between America and China?

  1. I think we have to remember that we live in the south-east Asian part of the world, and act accordingly. In any war involving us against China we would most likely come off second-best, and I wouldn’t bet on the US being able or willing to jump to our defence without a considerable price to pay. Certainly not with the present Commander in chief! No, we shouldn’t kowtow to China, but neither should we be offensive or confrontational. Their politics are their own business, as ours are to us.

  2. Avatar David Macilwain says:

    As the author observes, the views of the Australian public now play an important role in maintaining the prejudice against China being daily stoked by the media and commentators. Unlike his balanced and fair viewpoint, such prejudices are based on mere innuendo and rumour, and easily stirred up into breast-beating hysteria, by scare stories about “wet markets” and unsubstantiated “human rights abuses” by the “communist” state. As evidence now points firmly towards the US as the initiator of the outbreak, albeit accidentally, with the knowledge of those in power in Australia, it seems unlikely that public can be persuaded to believe scientific evidence that conflicts with their entrenched belief – just as they can’t be persuaded to emerge from their homes despite the “all-clear”.

  3. Avatar Jerry Roberts says:

    Hi Mike. I think you will find the China de-coupling policy is a fait accompli in USA and will be bi-partisan come November just as support for the American alliance is bi-partisan in Canberra. The shrill tone of media commentators accusing China as the Covid 19 source has surprised me. It is a straw man strategy — an excuse to follow the American policy of de-coupling Australia from China.

  4. Avatar jo vallentine says:

    Thank you henry reynolds for pointing out some obvious truths about the sacred cow of the Alliance with the U.S. Since WW2 it has seen Australia engage in five totally unnecessary and expensive wars.
    As well as the current vexed question of our relationship with China,
    We should consider the damage to relationships with other countries in our region. Worringly, Australia comes in at # 13 in SIPRI’S annual list of global military expenditures. Why on earth, when we have natural defnces being an island nation, with no enemies? Of ourse it’s to suit our “great friend and ally” referred to not long before his death by Malcolm Fraser as dangerous. We have on order a dozen submarines, which will be obsolete before they hit the water, and 75 F35 jet fighters which we don’t need and which are beset by numerous technical difficulties.

    Covid 19 gives us, and the whole world, an opportunity to re-calibrate our settings. Challenging the sacred cow of our dangerous Alliance e should be on our national agenda.

  5. There are several conundrums in this for Australia. Will Australia be able to recover its position with China if Biden wins and the Chinese-US relationship resumes normalcy? Or, if Trump wins and the US continues to vacate the world stage, will Australia become attached to an isolated America while China engages normally with the rest of the world? And if push comes to shove, has Australia retained enough autonomy to say no to a disastrous war with China?

  6. Avatar Peter Martina says:

    There has been comment from some observers that we are on the way to partnering the U.S. in a war against China. I consider this unlikely but if it did happen our close ties with the U.S. are supposed to protect us. China does not have many ICBMs and a nuclear exchange with the U.S. would be a disaster for them. However, the U.S. cannot protect us from nuclear attack and could not intercept a nuclear missile fired from China at Canberra. Given the current leadership of our country I am ambivalent when it comes to the annihilation of Canberra but, looking at how other modern wars began, maybe this is something our leaders should be thinking about before things get out of hand.

  7. Avatar malcolm harrison says:

    And the elephant in the room? What happens to us when America’s campaign against China fails?

  8. Avatar Jerry Roberts says:

    I think you are correct, Henry. America is “de-coupling” from China and the process, while difficult and complex, is moving fast, as you noted in the Pompeo story. Financial capitalism, not China, is wrecking the US economy. The Fed, by printing money to prop up asset prices, is not allowing capitalism to work according to Schumpeter’s rules. The reserve currency is the elephant in the room. We may be in one of those periods of history identified by David Graber when people lose confidence in paper money and turn to gold and silver.

  9. Avatar michael lacey says:

    Your right !
    Geopolitically, China faces backlash in the form of US propaganda! Trump is in election mode and if it is not the democrats pushing the Russia cart it is Trump pushing the China cart!

    Capitalists were quite happy to remove all our industry in the pursuit of cheap labour. Workers are just pawns and we are used to play whatever neoliberal game is on the table at any given time!

  10. Avatar Sam Lee says:

    There may be silver lining in all this if you will suspend your disbelief for these 100 words:

    We have our MAGA credentials stamped now, and the question of whether our farmers support Australia attacking their PRC customer has been settled.
    Is it possible to leverage say, $100 million over 10 years from the PRC (cheap vs tariffs), with the contract made publicly available, to establish a new unaligned no-lobbying Australia-news-centered national Australian paper that does not come with self-defeating PRC preconditions / oversight? An unaligned and informed Australia is much better than an ignorant hostile Australia after all.

  11. Avatar Teow Loon Ti says:

    Thank you for such a balanced,fair and honest view. I, as an Australian, would love to see more trade between China and Australia. However, the Morrison government and the Australian media have not made it possible. An attempt to embarress China does not augur well for our trade relationship. Now that the Chinese government has taken a small step back in the barley squabble, they are labelled “thuggish” and “bullies”. They are a different culture and thus take these words seriously. Such words don’t sound so offensive to Australians who are used to our politicians using clever words to get themselves out of tight situations of their own making. Nevertheless, there is enough commonality between languages for them to see through the “intent” of Australia’s call; and the media’s claim of vindication as a “joke”.
    Trade with another country is hard work, not an entitlement.

    Teow Loon Ti

    • Avatar Richard England says:

      An article in yesterday’s South China Morning Post explained how China’s strictness with food imports derived from a clampdown after scandals about the quality of their own locally produced foods. To be fair they had to be strict with imports too. When Australian exporters were asked at home about the problem , they spoke aggressively about China. Let us hope their response in China was crafted for consumption there, so they don’t lose business for their Australian clients.

      I think you have made a very important point about a culture that is adversarial (boorish) at home giving offense to a more refined and polite foreign one. That is an increasing problem that the degrading leadership of the Angloculture faces in its relations with China in the Pacific, and Europe in the Atlantic.

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