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.