JAMES CURRAN Our China panic is stepping into the world of paranoia (AFR 10.12.2019)

The China debate is close to losing all sense of rationality and proportion. Where’s the confidence in our institutions?

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s increasingly aggressive embrace of Chinese exceptionalism, coming at the same time President Trump continues to weaken American credibility in Asia, only intensifies the dilemma for countries like Australia in managing relations with Beijing.And it heightens the level of our national strategic anxiety.

Unless those two phenomena are seen and understood in tandem it is impossible to understand why Australia has become the first and loudest country in criticising Beijing, and why its language on the American alliance has lost all measure of ambiguity and qualification.

The problem is that the ‘China threat’ rhetoric has now morphed not only into a classic red scare but also a paranoid syndrome. Let us be clear: Australia must continue to robustly protect its institutions, its technology, data and people from unwanted foreign interference. It has been doing so. But reviving old fears and phobias along the way is not conducive to the making of sound policy. We are very close to being told to start looking under beds again.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison publicly states that he does not see China as a strategic threat but a dominant section of the intelligence services and the media pushes in the opposite direction. The chance for sober, authentic management of the relationship is fast slipping away.

What is being lost is all sense of rationality and proportion, and with that comes an ideological bias in strategic intelligence and the degrading of diplomacy.

Even allowing for the periodic bouts of panicked agitation that have characterised Australia’s China debate since late 2016, these last few weeks have been nothing short of extraordinary.

Witness former ASIO head Duncan Lewis saying that the Chinese are readying to ‘take over’ the country. Echoing the alarmism of the 1890s, Lewis believes that we ‘might wake up one day and find decisions made in our country that are not in the interests of our country’.

Ministers and officials now talk openly about the need for ‘scalps’ from the foreign interference legislation introduced by the previous government. Journalists report that the creation of a new intelligence taskforce puts the country on a virtual ‘war footing’. Liberal MP Andrew Hastie goes rogue and calls for an alleged Chinese spy to be granted asylum before his case can be formally assessed, then issues a feverish, Clausewitzian clarion call for the West to engage in ‘political warfare’ and ‘define victory’.

Peter Hartcher’s recent essay on this subject hails John Garnaut’s apparent realisation that it was ‘his mission to assist the awakening’ of Australia to China’s ‘plans for the country’. For some, this is becoming a crusade. ‘Loyalty’ and ‘allegiance’, terms which so disfigured Australian political culture during the conscription debates of 1916/17 and the Cold War, have again become epithets in the debate.

Some are also now prone to bragging a little too ostentatiously that Australia is now out ahead of Washington in countering the Chinese ‘threat’ – not following the US, but leading it: the leaders being Garnaut and academic Clive Hamilton with their evidence before US Congressional committees and from their talks with American officialdom last year.

The irony here is that the prime minister has been clear, in rhetoric and on some policy fronts, as to where Australia’s perception of China’s rise differs from that of Washington. Yet Australia’s toughness towards China is now seen as a credible way of winning kudos in American eyes.

This narrows the prism through which Australia’s China relationship is debated and assessed. All this machismo makes for desirable headlines. Yet it habitually depicts Australia’s democratic system as being hopelessly brittle before the rush of an oncoming red tide. Why, it must be asked, do some officials and scribes evince so little faith in Australia’s institutional strength? By so ramping up the China threat, they risk undermining the very democracy they claim to defend. So far, the checks and balances are broadly working. Granted there is a necessity for constant vigilance, but we can surely do without the trench-coated sentinels baying from their imaginary watchtowers.

It is not clear whether the government has simply determined that given it is a major US ally in our region, China is likely in any case to lean on it. And that therefore Canberra has no option but to take to the megaphone. There are, no doubt, a range of more complex views being put to the prime minister’s office, but for the time being, the China ‘threat’ exaggerations appear to be in the ascendancy.

While these are new and troubling circumstances in which Canberra finds itself, they have their roots in Australian identity and strategic psychology. Like all island states, fear of invasion has loomed large. Thus the imperative of loyalty to a great power and the prospect of betrayal have been the axis around which Australian foreign policy has revolved. But the US is in relative decline and China is coming to once again embody the fear of the unfamiliar and the foreign.

In short, the lunging red arrows of Cold War cartography are back. Those maps were rolled up in the early 1970s, the arrows snapped in two by Whitlam and his successors and duly tossed aside. The question begging to be answered now, however, is whether the fear of China in the national strategic imagination ever truly went away.

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7 Responses to JAMES CURRAN Our China panic is stepping into the world of paranoia (AFR 10.12.2019)

  1. Charles Lowe says:

    There’s just one thing that everyone has missed.

    In March 2018, the Chinese Communist Party appointed Xi Jinping as Party Leader for Life.

    We’ve dealt with communists for decades. But we have not dealt with a Constitutional dictator for decades. Far less one who heads our chief trading nation.

    One human being. Upon whom all depends.

  2. Sam Lee says:

    Is China threat? Most definitely (and defensibly so) to the elite minority whose dominance, power, money, influence rely on the imperial neoliberal and conservative order challenged by the rise of the PRC. For the majority of us who benefit (much less as it may) from the trickle-down scraps of this imperial neoliberal and conservative order the PRC represents an incredible opportunity for easy money and (unjustified) sense of superiority vs ‘second-tier’ countries and their citizens who don’t have as readily an opportunity to engage with the PRC … and yet at the same time the PRC represents an incredible threat for (the majority of) us to becoming cannon fodder for the elite minority in a war of convenience. But is this practical analysis of self-interest well-understood or even accepted by (the majority of) us? Or like the UK elections (and Trump and to some extent our own ScoMo-ment) it doesn’t matter and another war to end all wars is inevitable?

  3. Mike Scrafton says:

    Excellent piece.

  4. Colin Cook says:

    ‘Peter Hatcher’s …………………. hails John Garnaut’s apparent realisation that it was ‘his mission to assist the awakening’ of Australia to China’s ‘plans for the country’.
    John Garnaut is a Fellow of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute; he and other ASPI people frequently appear and are quoted as sources of news and analysis in the media including the ABC – two on the Drum recently with another the following day on news – and SBS.
    It would be worth readers looking on the ASPI website and seeing how many familiar ‘media names’ are shown under the headings of Experts, Fellows and Council. Do they all share John Garnet’s mission?
    Also listed on the ASPI website are their sponsors; global corporations of the military/industrial conglomeration are very well represented. Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, SAAB, Raytheon are among the Major Sponsors follow by other big corporations amongst the Gold and Silver ones; our Federal Government is a Bronze Sponsor.
    Whilst claiming to be independent it is difficult to see that much of ASPI anti-China’ output is not coloured by the interests of the sponsoring corporations; it is worrying that ASPI seems to have become the ‘go to source’ for China news and analysis for our public broadcasters.

  5. Anthony Pun says:

    Many thanks to James Curran for writing an objective piece with distilling clarity about our China Panic in Australia.
    In reading the article, the state we are in about China is more akin to Paranoid Schizophrenia, complete with auditory hallucinations (hearsay voices from the US), and paranoid delusions (China is out to harm us).
    The delusions: the Red Peril (Cold War), the Yellow Peril (White Australia Policy) and now China Panic, both Red and Yellow – the Pink Peril.
    Such delusions, if unchecked, would make a self-fulling prophesy that China is the enemy and let’s beat the war drums and march northwards with our American allies. Unfortunately, when the person finally wakes up from the delusions, he finds himself alone in the middle of the battlefield.

  6. Niall McLaren says:

    Henry Mencken: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”
    So what’s new? And decisions taken in this country are not in the country’s interest? Like all the decisions to date on global warming?

  7. Evan Hadkins says:

    The confidence in our institutions.

    Like parliament not even mentioning climate change.

    Like the financial regulators not pursuing banks.

    Like political parties whose membership are narrow elites.

    Like the MSM not holding politicians to account.

    Like Centrelink victimising the poor.

    Our institutions over the last couple of decades have been trashed by these institutions. No we don’t get the government we deserve – this trashing is not the workers of voters, it is the work of the elites and those who control the institutions.

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