Knowledge, skill and flexibility is missing in Australia’s response to China’s rise

Oct 10, 2021
china embassy canberra australia
Australia's relationship with China has rapidly declined. (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Fear of China is rooted in Australian history. But today’s policymakers are ensuring that we will remain the ‘lonely continent’, adrift in an Asia we don’t recognise as part of ourselves, with our identity and geography at odds.
A two-day conference last week on Australia and China became increasingly frustrated. Academics used to analysing rational choices came up against the Australian government’s more visceral choice, rejecting “interest” in favour of an unexamined sense of identity that brooks no dispute.

Myself and two colleagues from the University of Adelaide organised a symposium in which we asked: ‘’Can China and Australia learn from one another?”. Over two four-hour sessions and 19 papers, a group of Australian, Chinese and UK-based academics from a range of disciplines — international relations, trade economics, political science, sociology and cultural studies to name a few — tried to make sense of what everyone agrees is an ever-worsening relationship.

One of our aims was to explore the different capacities of “liberal” and Chinese versions of democracy. There was less of this than we had hoped, as most of the Chinese academics we invited stayed away. Perhaps they felt it was a sensitive topic, or simply that it was no longer worth engaging in a dialogue given the hysterical tone plain to all on social media (and that’s just the academics!). But it was important to hear that China considers itself a democracy, something unthinkable to the current orthodoxy in Australia today. What does democracy mean? Are there other versions — not necessarily China’s — which are more efficient and indeed more democratic? These are no longer questions capable of being asked in this country.

This was a key theme of the symposium — the closing down of questions, the retreat into binaries, the refusal of thought. It is all pervasive. Otherwise intelligent commentators have bought into a us/them binary, sometimes nuanced but never challenged. Stan Grant, responding in heated aggression when a Chinese interviewee, says nuclear subs means being targeted as a nuclear power. ‘’Are you threatening us?’’ he responded to a simple statement of fact. Or Alan Kohler, seeing in Xi’s crackdown on video games and home tuition the ‘’blue jeans and rock’n’roll’’ moment in Cold War II — ‘’one we have to win,’’ he says.

There were criticisms of Chinese domestic and foreign policy tactics, and more generally of China’s drift to authoritarianism, whether from a liberal democrat or left perspective (I’d count myself in this last group). But the dominant theme was not detailed appraisal of this or that option but a collective head-scratching: what exactly did Australia think it was doing?

Everybody knows that the rise of China is going to change geopolitics. The question for Australia is how to respond. There is a range of options, and all should be considered. Mistakes and miscalculations are inevitable, but knowledge, skill and flexibility are essential if we are to navigate the changing waters in our own backyard. Papers tried to chart the deepening rift between the two countries, willing to apportion blame to both sides when necessary, but seeking to identify solutions.

A fearful university in Adelaide abandons academic freedom in attempts to better understand China

For example, James Laurenceson and Thomas Pantle (UTS), talking to their recent report, accepted China was being economically coercive. But economic coercion was weak coercion, and economic interdependence did not inevitably lead to dependency. Apart from wine, the targeted sectors soon found new markets. Iron ore was a threat but in the short to medium term it was hard to see where China would find a new source. Trade is bigger now than before the pandemic. The solution? Ongoing engagement and skillful trade diplomacy.

Professor Yu Lei, from Liao Cheng University, like Colin Mackerras (Griffith) charted recent diplomatic treaties, speaking of the two country’s complex interdependence, the changing landscape, and thus the need for cool-headed pragmatic leaders. Other papers provided such analysis, but the question persisted: where is this cool appraisal in government circles?

Jocelyn Chey (Western Sydney) talked of long-term cultural exchanges now being curtailed, unlikely to revive after the pandemic. Yu Lei of the sidelining of professional diplomats at Foreign Affairs, blocking the informal exchanges of international relations. While China builds 11 new Universities in Guangdong province alone this year, and seeks to expand its ‘geointellectual influence’, Australia is making it as hard as it can to engage with Chinese universities. So too industrial and technological exchanges.

The issue is not about miscalculation, this or that failure of understanding. Our China relations no longer seem amenable to the kinds of realist appraisal on which academics, along with professional diplomats and political journalists, rely. Something deeper was at work, not clumsiness – though there’s much evidence of that – but rather a systemic wilfulness. This course is being deliberately chosen, mostly in secret, and backed by campaigns demonising alternative views.

Any foreign policy involves a complex mix of interests and values. What are these values and interests? Do they align or contradict? How far do we push either one at the expense of the other? These questions are asked all the time, and more powerful countries will have different answers than the less powerful. As Kerry Brown (Kings, London) said, small countries can’t afford “grand diplomatic narratives”. They need to think carefully, yet the sense is that the answers have been fixed, further debate actively discouraged.

The turn against China that began in 2016 (Tony Abbott was eulogising China in 2015) was always predicated on values not interests. Indeed, that this turn was against our economic interests was a sure sign that these values spoke to a deeper truth. It was a repudiation of neoliberal globalisation, familiar now from Trump, Brexit and the elected dictators of the former Eastern Europe. Chinese capitalism would not lead to democracy; China has cheated the system and we have been played by the elites who got rich off it.

This is a common refrain, but Australia’s is a particularly dangerous version, one it has allowed to inform the very fundamentals of its foreign policy. Trump, after all, kept trade going, just as the rest of the Quad have many side agreements with China. The US, fighting a global hegemonic war, has multiple options and is no doubt considering them. The recent events in Afghanistan, as Hugh White recently wrote, should make us a little more clear-eyed about US policy. Instead, Australia has thrown its lot in with the US in the most antagonistic and least flexible way. Why?

The answer lies not in ‘’values’’ trumping ‘’interests’’. Values — democracy, rules-based international order, free trade, human rights — can be debated. The word used by Brown and others was ‘‘visceral’’, and in more formal language, ‘’ontological insecurity’’. At play is a deep-seated fear rooted in Australian history. We are the ‘’lonely continent’’, adrift in an Asia we don’t recognise as part of ourselves, our identity and geography at odds. Beneath the appraisals and the scenario gaming, there’s the fear and anxiety of being left alone.

The post-2016 turn was not accompanied by high-level thinking but a low-level media campaign, beginning with Clive Hamilton, and driven by people who were ‘’waking up’’. The aliens are among us, and it might already be too late! This resonates with the deep fears of a settler nation, insecure about the legitimacy of its possessions, about the others who might seek to take it from them. In such circumstances, as with Israel, we seek to force the hand of our protector, to make it commit to us, as David Brophy has persuasively argued.

But there’s another dynamic. Many of those urging us to ‘’wake up’’ had worked in China, could speak its language, had had many and high-level contacts there. They came back vociferous in their dislike — and this is not just in Australia. Bill Bishop at Sinocism in the US, or Kai Strittmatter of the Süddeutsche Zeitung come to mind. China is not going to converge — the great delusion of the globalists — but is intent on creating its own version of modern industrial society. This is the threat: of a world not in their own image and in which they play little part.

I’m reminded of Amitav Ghosh’s fictional River of Smoke, and Stephen Platt’s historical (and more apologetic) Imperial Twilight, set in Canton during the lead-up to the Opium War. The sense of entitlement, the anger that some despotic Chinaman would block their interests – which of course were not about opium but free trade and empire – finds echoes among today’s woken warriors. As Pankaj Mishra wrote, this is about a white supremacy encoded into the very concept of modernity.

Values must trump interests, we are told. But ultimately these values are about the global universality of the interests of the ‘’West’’, of free markets, returns on capital, of the US hegemony that guarantees ‘‘the rules-based international order’’. When interests and values meld in such an unexamined and unarguable sense of identity and ontology, of our place in the world — that’s when the scary stuff starts.

This is not just about nuclear submarines in Port Adelaide, or the thought of Diggers being sent up to defend the Taiwan Strait. As David Morris of the UN ESCAP Sustainable Business Network suggested, we can see the domestic impact of this kind of worldview. Australia’s post-1960s evolution — opening up to Asia, multiculturalism, social liberalism, social justice, republicanism, the embrace of the demotic vitality of Australia’s own culture — these were an attempted renegotiation of our basic identity, our sense of ontological security. These are also being turned back by Cold War II.

This secretive and increasingly undemocratic government, dominated more than ever by wealthy private-school boys, has imbibed deeply from the US Republican Party well of toxic political warfare. We have glimpses of this culture in the war crimes in Afghanistan, the everyday misogyny in Canberra, the claims that election victories legitimate pork barrelling, and the slow torture imposed on asylum seekers.

Cold War II is not just choosing a defence partnership but a way of being in the world, one which seeks to roll back that other modern Australia which threatens it.

Trade wars are class wars, write Mathew Klein and Michael Pettis in their excellent book about neoliberal globalisation and its impact on both the Chinese and American working classes. But cold wars are class wars too — against the foreigners without and the metropolitan elites, eco-terrorists, unassimilated migrants, and the union wreckers within.

The left, whether fearful of being wedged as soft on defence, or being useful idiots apologising for a second USSR, have abandoned the field. They need to get back on it as a matter of urgency, because there is a world that needs saving and there’s not much time left.

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