Despite decades of contact, something in the Australian DNA makes it impossible to think rationally about China.
In 1968 I published a book, ‘In Fear of China.’ I tried to understand the hysteria over China which saw Australia enter the Vietnam War. Now, fifty years later the hysteria is back, with details even more lurid than before.
Here are some sample quotes:
Hasluck, June 1964: ‘There is no doubt that …part of this (the Vietnam War) is the determination of Communist China to establish hegemony throughout South-East Asia, working in the first place through the agency of her North Vietnamese puppets.’ (Three months later he went to Moscow where he was told the Chinese were not doing enough to help Hanoi.)
Menzies, April 1965: ‘The takeover of South Vietnam …. must be seen as part of a thrust by Communist China between the Indian and Pacific oceans.’
The book also tried to deal with some other causes of the anti-China hysteria, for example, the claim that China had attacked India in 1962 (in fact India had attacked China) or that China had no valid claim to Taiwan (in fact the US at one stage had accepted the claim), and so on.
Now, fifty years later, and after killing large numbers of the Vietnamese upon whom we now rely to help protect us from a still allegedly aggressive China, the hysteria is back, with details even more lurid than before. Despite decades of contact, something in the Australian DNA makes it impossible to think rationally about China.
Our media recently told us about a Chinese official, Mr Wong, said to be part of a Beijing spy operation in Australia. But when placed before the TV cameras it would have been obvious to anyone who spoke Chinese that if he was a spy he was a very junior one, very inexperienced and probably very interested in getting a visa to stay in Australia with his family.
The media and their ASIO sources tell us much about the Chinese in our midst seeking to peddle influence. But the same is true where ever Overseas Chinese do business. Yes, but they are members of the Chinese Communist party, we are told. Yes, and so are 90 million other Chinese.
Some commonsense is needed. For over eighty years now the Beijing regime has been under threat of attack from outside. Three times it was under nuclear threat from the US. It has seen Taiwan rearmed, and its trade embargoed. For more than 50 years the US has been running spy flights and ocean bottom surveys up and down the Chinese coast. Out of Hong Kong, the UK runs constant communications and spy probes into China. Australia with its Five Eyes and other operations cooperates.
And now we are supposed to be surprised if Beijing wants to take counter-measures against this constant hostile activity.
South China Sea: For the moment forget about nine-dash lines and other historical proof of Chinese ownership. The fact is that the islands in this area, the Spratly and Paracel island groups specifically, were handed over by default to the Nationalist Chinese government by the US, and Australia, under peace treaties of 1951 and 1952. Washington and Canberra talk about a ‘rules-based’ international order. But they are happy to ignore the treaty rules they do not like.
True, the claims of other Asian nations have since become relevant. But ignoring a strong Filipino claim, Taiwan has taken over by far the largest of the Spratly islands in dispute – Taiping or Itu Aba (the Philippine name). No one in Canberra complains. Some rules can be flexible, it seems.
A UN Tribunal assembled in dubious circumstances and with no Asian members decreed in 2016 that Taiping island was a ‘rock’ with no viable economic activity and therefore no right to an exclusive economic zone (EEZ). In fact, it has an airport and a population of over 200 people.
Meanwhile, Japan has taken two bed-size pieces of rock in the Pacific, built them up with concrete so they remain above water, and now claims it is an island, Okinotori-shima, with an EEZ and continental shelf reaching far south towards Australia. Already it has begun to hassle local fishermen. Canberra says it opposes China’s artificial island creation but seems hardly to have noticed this development – more rule-based flexibility, no doubt.
Like other nations with political or ethnic groups unwilling to accept the rule of the majority, China has its Uyghur problem. And like most, it makes offers – autonomy, representation etc – as it tries to calm the rebellious groups.
But inevitably there will be some who do not accept those offers and begin to resort to violence. Xinjiang is a typical example.
What to do? Assuming a grant of independence is not possible, the central government usually feels it has no choice but to rely on massive counter-violence until the group either submits or is wiped out (as we saw with the leftwing rebel groups in Latin America), or forced to flee (as we saw with the Rohinga people in Myanmar), or brutalised into submission (as we saw in Chechnya), or resorts to guerrilla war (as in Vietnam, Afghanistan, etc).
In Xinjiang, Beijing has largely stayed away from violence. Instead, it is trying to educate or brainwash much of the population to change its way of thinking. Obviously that is not easy, given the intensity of Muslim beliefs and heavy-handed way Beijing usually goes about these things.
But what would the critics prefer – having the authorities rely on torture and dumping broken bodies into the ocean as in Latin America? Or setting up water-boarding camps like Guantanomo? Or endless wars as in the Middle East? Take your pick but at least try to be realistic. Hand-wringing is not an option.
In the process focus on the real problems – how to stop murderous attacks on Han Chinese by Uyghur anti-Beijing fanatics such as we saw 2014, or how to ease the Han Chinese over-presence in Xinjiang. Neither is easy.
As we approach the end of the current disturbances I would argue it is surprising how tolerant Beijing has been over Hong Kong considering the ugly way Britain seized this territory from China back in 1842 and the way it has been used since for anti-Beijing activities. Compare this with how India set out in 1961 to recover the very similar colonial territory of Goa occupied by Portugal in 1510.
At 04:00 (December 18, 1961), the Indian assault commenced with artillery bombardment on Portuguese positions.
On the morning of 18 December, the 50th Para Brigade of the Indian Army moved into Goa in three columns.
End of problem.
China’s massive trade surpluses and the deindustrialisation they cause to others must be stopped. But first, admit that it was the Western free trade dogmas of sixties and seventies that helped create this trade colossus.
The dogmatists, obsessed by their theories of comparative advantage, managed to ignore the greatest advantage of them all – what I would call ‘national economies of scale.’ This says that the more a nation produces the easier and cheaper it becomes to produce even more. China started with the natural productivity of its workforce and the enormous size of its domestic market. From there its progress was guaranteed – the growth of anyone industry encouraged and sustained the growth of others.
From the start, Beijing should either have been forced either to appreciate its currency or else accept imposts on its exports to cancel out its productivity advantage.
But as I know from being involved in efforts in Canberra to protect Australian manufacturing from Japanese export onslaughts in the seventies the chances of persuading our free trade economic rationalists of this logic are close to zero. Today we have to live with the unpleasant consequences.
But blame ourselves, not China.