Making an enemy of China: how we got into this mess

Dec 28, 2021
china embassy canberra australia
Australia's relationship with China has rapidly declined. (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Australia’s attitude to China has many contradictions. As Australia beats the drums of war, it continues to sell its iron ore to China.

Australia’s charges against China are often not premised on rational arguments. Since the Hawke/Keating era, I have seen Australia’s attitude towards China morph from friendly, to benign tolerance, to end in utter hostility. How is it possible that Australia keeps beating the drums of war but continues to sell its iron ore to China? These are the contradictions that leave a person utterly confused. Set out below is a paradigm of paradoxes.

If Australia accuses China of using its economic clout to bully other countries, why is it not bullying when the US imposed economic sanctions on Iran, cruelly depriving children of adequate nourishment and essential medicines? By the same token, if Northern Ireland were to the United Kingdom as Taiwan were to the People’s Republic of China, would the United States and its allies (Canada and Australia) say to the UK: “Northern Ireland is part of the UK, but if you dare to take it, you will have to face war with us.” The euphemism for that kind of bullying is “ambiguous policy”.

In a recent Press Club address, Peter Dutton said that Australia does not want to be a tributary state of China. For several decades now, countries around the world send their best produce to the US to service American needs eg. timber, minerals (tin from Malaysia), oil and gas, seafood, agricultural produce such as cocoa, coffee, bananas, rubber, palm oil and other products with an American demand. Based on such a logic, most countries around the world trading with the US could be considered American tributary states. Anyway, Australia can’t be a tributary state of China if it is already a tributary state of the US.

Why is Australia taking every opportunity to pick a fight with China? Over the 14 point grievances made infamous by the Australian mainstream media and politicians, most countries would have called in the Chinese ambassador to explain and resolve the matter quietly. Instead it was touted as a list of “demands” with China wanting to compromise Australia’s sovereignty. According to The Guardian “Prime Minister Scott Morrison even showed it to counterparts at the G7 in Cornwall in June”. Is Australian diplomacy in its death throes? Or has “washing dirty linen in public” or “crying wolf” become the new geopolitical fashion?

We often hear top ministers asserting how Chinese Australians are model citizens before they launch a verbal attack on China. It is political correctness so transparent that the voluptuous flesh beneath the veneer leaves little to the imagination. The pretence was revealed when Eric Abetz demanded that three randomly invited Chinese from the community condemn the communist party of China, a gratuitous act of bullying not related with the matter at hand? (Old story but refreshing reminder). This incident leaves little doubt in the minds of Chinese Australians that they are still considered a fifth column of China. As to whether this politically ritualised praise of Chinese Australians has any effect on the person on the street, my own experience indicates that people generally do not make a distinction between Chinese (as per country), Chinese people, Chinese Australians, genetically Chinese people or even other East Asians. People consume lamb daily without making any cognitive association between the meat on the plate and the woolly and cuddly lamp running about in the field.

With a dearth of crimes to indict China, the US and Australia are now pointing fingers at China over human rights abuses in Xinjiang; and highlighting the charge with an official boycott of the Winter Olympics. While everyone suspects human rights abuses, there is little evidence to justify calling it a genocide. Moreover, what about Australia’s own human rights abuses of Indigenous Australians and asylum seekers who arrived by boat; and its participation in US initiated wars in the Middle East? Millions of innocent people have been killed, maimed or displaced as a result of American initiated wars. What happened to their human rights? What about the human rights of the prisoners sent to Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib to be tortured? What about the human rights of our fellow Australian Julian Assange? Didn’t the Bible teach: “Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thy own eye?” (Matthew 7:3)

If Australian hawks are so eager for a war with China, have they given any thought to the consequences? Even in contemplating the outcome, one has to assume the impossible. If the impossible happens that the warmongers can “contain” such a war to a “limited” one, imagine the destruction and the dislocation it would cause to a region with the biggest population in the world. East Asia and South-East Asia’s population of about 2.36 billion. The Middle East has a population of 411 million people. Conflicts in this region generated 3 million refugees and asylum seekers. Assuming a war with China would generate a similar proportion of refugees and asylum seekers (from China and other countries in the region with economies damaged by the war), a population of about six times that of the Middle East would generate at least 18 million refugees and asylum seekers. And this is just one of many possible scenarios.

Why is Australia so intent on making an enemy out of China is a moot question. With its short history of slightly more than 200 years, perhaps it is still learning to live with its neighbours. Perhaps it is an addiction of the government of the day. For this dilemma, Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong’s advice to Scott Morrison seems particularly useful:

“You don’t have to become like them, neither can you hope to make them become like you. You have to be able to work on that basis, that this is a big world in which there are different countries and work with others who are not completely like-minded but with whom you have many issues where your interests do align and where your mutual cooperation is necessary.”

Each time we attack another person, we reveal something of ourselves.

If Indonesia were growing monstrously instead of China, Australia would have a similar problem with the “other”. Perhaps even more so because of its proximity. Many Australians are looking expectantly to India to grow economically as a replacement for the Chinese buyers of Australian products. If and when it grows too big economically and militarily for the comfort of the US, will they need permission to grow further? Please explain.

The American philosopher W.V.O Quine says:

“The totality of our so-called knowledge or beliefs, from the most casual to the profoundest laws of atomic physics … is a man-made fabric which impinges on experience only along the edges”

Reality and legitimacy lies in the eyes of the beholder. It is the intention that matters.

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