The official visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2014 was the high point in Sino-Australian relations. It has been all downhill ever since.
Within a few years prominent political leaders and bureaucrats were talking of war almost, it seemed, with relish. Public opinion swung in a similar direction. Australia had found a new enemy. It became popular to talk about “standing up to China”. Such a dramatic change takes some explaining given that China continued, all the while, to be our major trading partner by a long shot.
Many developments, both internal and external, played a part. But there is no doubt that there was a concerted, and indeed a coordinated campaign, to turn the ship of state about. Many hands helped – the defence and security establishment, the Murdoch press, right wing think tanks and no doubt willing American allies. But even the activists must have been surprised by the speed and the ease of the transformation. They had clearly tapped into deep ancestral currents of anti-Asian sentiment… either wittingly or not. That being the case it will be instructive to recall the events of a century ago when Australia was confronted with the rise of Japan which was even more spectacular and unexpected than the recent emergence of China as a great power.
It is well known that the Australian colonies were deeply concerned by the prospect of Chinese migration resulting in restrictive legislation in the 1880s followed by the adoption of the Immigration Restriction Act by the first federal parliament in 1901. But the fear was demographic and the attendant danger of what was openly called racial contamination. There was no concern about Chinese strategic power. The Australians had paid little attention to Japan’s victory over China in 1896 and the resulting annexation of Taiwan. But they were completely surprised in 1902 by the negotiation of a treaty between Britain and Japan and then deeply troubled by the spectacular victory of the Japanese forces over Russia in 1905 and particularly the destruction of the Russian fleet in the battle of Tsushima. This was hardly surprising. The Japanese victory was celebrated all over the non-European world as an epochal event. The great tides of history were shifting.
There was widespread discussion in both Europe and North America in the years before World War I about the likelihood of an impending race war. Such concern was greatly amplified in Australia. It dominated our thinking about the world. With race uppermost in the national psyche Australians came naturally to assume that Japan had hostile intentions towards them. On the other hand the idea of racial affinity, of the blood tie with Britain, fortified loyalty to the Empire. The fact that Australian leaders knew very little about Japan and had no diplomatic representation there – or anywhere else for that matter – helped perpetuate their inability to make pragmatic decisions about the world in which they lived.
Imperial government leaders knew how to exploit Australia’s widely known phobias. Their overwhelming ambition was to encourage the country to spend more on defence and above all to train an expeditionary force which would be ready for service overseas to augment Britain’s own small professional army. Given their alliance with Japan they found Australia’s fears jejune but useful. If they privately played the Japanese card Australia would willingly mobilise a force for Imperial service in Europe and the Middle East. And that was the way it turned out.
The irony of the Great War was that it was, above all else, a white man’s war. Japan fought with the allies, Turkey fought beside the Germans. Both France and Britain brought large numbers of Asians and Africans to Europe to assist the war effort. The Japanese believed that as a result they would now be accepted as equals among the great powers and humiliating racial prejudice would be left behind. Woodrow Wilson’s speeches about equality and self-determination were widely read in Japan and encouraged the hope that the projected League of Nations would enshrine the principal of racial equality. The question dominated domestic debate in Japan for months in late 1918 and early 1919.
The Japanese delegation arrived in Paris early in 1919 expecting to have their concern about racial equality recognised in the Covenant of the League of Nations. They received considerable support from assorted delegations and early encouragement from the Americans. The British delegation, having shown initial interest, moved dramatically in the opposite direction driven by the vociferous opposition of the white settler dominions – Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa. For his part Wilson kept an anxious eye on opinion in California, Washington and Oregon which were politically important to him. The opposition of the white settler societies was sufficient to defeat the Japanese proposal. Wilson overrode the considerable body of support by declaring that such a significant innovation required a unanimous vote. The Japanese were devastated and there was a widespread sense of national humiliation. No one was more jubilant than Australian prime minister Billy Hughes, who had been the most outspoken and unrelenting opponent of racial equality. He came away from Paris convinced that he had, almost single-handedly, defeated the commitment to racial equality which he asserted “95 out of 100 Australians rejected”. But what was clear was that the British and other dominion leaders as well as the Americans were only too happy to let the swaggering Hughes carry the heavy responsibility for defeating a proposal with widespread support around the world.
Hughes stood up to Japan provoking hostility that hadn’t been there before. A hundred years later Scott Morrison has played the same card with China. Like Hughes he has had little diplomatic experience. His brash manner which works well at home can appear oafish off shore provoking needless offence. And in many parts of the world, whether justified or not, Australia still has to live down its notorious history of racism. Clearly no one would seriously suggest that 95 per cent of contemporary Australians were opposed to racial equality but habits of thought that once grew from racist roots have survived in modified form. Many people find it hard to come to terms with the great changes that are currently underway and the shift of power and wealth away from the Western Europe and North America, developments foreshadowed by the earlier rise of Japan. It seems to be very hard for Australians to believe that China is entitled to the respect accorded to great powers. Many clearly see the Chinese as upstarts.
These ideas manifest themselves in a variety of ways. Chinese investment whips up opposition from people who have never hitherto taken a stand against the massive foreign ownership of our resources. There was the ill-disguised hostility to the rapid growth of Chinese tourists and students in the years before the pandemic and there have been many reports of an increase in racial abuse and attacks in the streets and on public transport.
But of greater long term consequence is the sudden and rapid growth of the belief that China indeed has hostile intent and is a serious threat to our sovereignty and security. The echoes of our earlier obsession with assumed Japanese hostility are all too apparent. We have clearly not learnt that if you assume we have an enemy and act accordingly, that eventuality will come to pass. And as we did at Versailles 100 years ago we turn for security and reassurance to the white Anglo-Saxon members of the exclusive Five Eyes Club.