Saving Australia from China?

Dec 19, 2023
Australia and China flags with Speech Bubbles. 3D Illustration

Talks in public forums of saving Australia from China are disappointingly unrealistic.

It is quite understandable that a world hitherto dominated by Western hegemony feels insecure in the light of China’s meteoric economic rise. However, such insecurity if not checked can lead to fear that compromises a person’s ability to make rational judgements.

Fear arises from anticipation of the unknown. The crux of the problem is that China remains largely an unknown entity only because the people who perpetrate such fears have not done enough of the due diligence that justifies the claim to know. Much of what has been claimed has been derived from the reading of intentions. However, the reading of intentions is difficult in itself even among people of a similar culture and history. It becomes very problematic when it is applied to a people with a different geography, culture, history and philosophy. The threat from China has unfortunately been based on flawed reading of the Chinese mind. Historian John K. Fairbank (1976; China Perceived) says wisely “…Chinese circumstances and perspectives have always been different and interesting. Today, it is essential to know their view of us and so get a perspective on ourselves and our view of them.” Unfortunately, the reading of Chinese intentions is underscored by nostalgia for the old order which brought unprecedented prosperity to the Western world, an order which they attempt to maintain; but one which subjected the Chinese to extreme humiliation for almost a century. It was an order colourfully described by Fairbank in the following manner, “Our national interest was to keep up with the Joneses, and also with the Wangs and Lins whose house the Joneses were breaking into. In the end, our Open Door doctrine was our way of defending the treaty system against European rivalry that threatened to dismember China through spheres of influence. One of its primary aims, as noted above, was to keep the treaty port system intact.”

China is knowable. One of the more empirical and reliable ways to understand the Chinese is through the reading of their history for consistent behaviour patterns. Cognizance that written history can be biased necessitates the reading of a variety of sources and the motivations of the writers. For a good part of China’s 4,000 years of history it has demonstrated a tendency to close its doors whenever it felt threatened by outsiders. That long and continuous history had engendered a certain worldview and behaviour pattern that, if correctly read, would contribute to a safer reading of their intentions.

As has been said, traditionally, whenever China was confronted by an external threat, its instinctive reaction was to close itself off from the outer world. The earliest proof of this attitude is attested to by the Great Wall. The Great Wall was built to keep hostile foreign marauders out of China. The building of the wall stretched from the 3rd century BC to the 17th century AD, about 2,000 years of the attempt to keep invaders out of the Central Kingdom. It was last added to during the Ming Dynasty (1388 to 1644). However, when the Manchus of the Qing Dynasty took reign, it was helpless against the guns of the Western nations and Japan. Through two Opium Wars, 1839-1842 and 1856 to 1860, its doors were forced open to foreign trade by the British. They were labelled and accepted as opium wars because the British forced the Chinese government to allow opium from their Indian colony too be used in exchange for Chinese goods. Manufactured goods from their factories flooded Chinese markets, putting traditional craft based industries out of business. Other nations like Japan, Russia, the US, Germany and France followed suit, carving up bits of the best trading centres for themselves. An empathetic historian, John K. Fairbank, wrote in 1976 that “Until the 1840’s a self-sufficient Chinese empire called the tune in its foreign relations. During the subsequent century of unequal treaties, the outside powers dictated the terms of contact.”

Fingers have been pointed at China’s taking of the Paracels and Spratly Islands as evidence of “expansionism”. As a long term observer of China and its history, I can offer two good reasons, notwithstanding accusations of being a China apologist, why it had done this. Firstly, the surrounding of China with more than eighty military bases by the US and its allies could well motivate it to find a backdoor to defend itself, especially its main maritime trading route. The other reason is that in much of its history, especially during the Ming Dynasty and the era of Admiral Cheng Ho’s voyages, China dominated the area. Chinese trading vessels plied the South China Sea. Many of the countries in the region were Chinese vassals. The second Sultan of Brunei, Abdul Majid Hassan Ibni Muhammad Shah passed away in China during this period and was buried there. China lost control over those regions against the onslaught of Western colonization. No claims were made for the islands until the 1970’s when it was rumoured that there were large deposits of oil under these islands. I was aware of it because I was still in Malaysia when it too claimed to some of the islands. From the Chinese point of view, it could well mean that they were taking back what was theirs before their humiliation by the West and Japan. Even in regard to the three wars that China fought after WWII, there were no expansionist intentions. The Korean War was fought to prevent its then “enemies” from getting too close to its border just as the Russians are fighting a war against the Ukranians. In the war against India in 1962 and the war against Vietnam in 1979, the Chinese, after gaining ground, withdrew back to what it felt was its legitimate border.

Another Chinese trait, if noticed, is its dearth of alliances. Alliances lead to war rather than peace. One good example is the First World War in 1914 when the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by a Serbian escalated into a world war because countries were drawn into the conflict by their obligation to their allies. Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire fought against Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Romania, Canada, Japan and the United States. Today, although China and Russia profess to be comprehensive strategic partners, they have wisely not committed themselves to becoming formal allies. If they were, the Ukraine War could well be graver than it is. China, by its policy of non-interference in the affairs of other nations and its non-alliance status, shows unequivocally that it is not interested in wars or any other form of physical conflict.

There is no evidence or logical premise that Australia needs to be saved from China. Australia was not a party to China’s century of humiliation. By any economic calculation, Australia has been thriving because of, and not in spite of, the rise of China. In a comparable misreading of intentions, the US committed itself to fighting the Vietnam War. Callous US politicians concocted an imaginative theory called the Domino Theory through which they imagined democracies in South East Asia falling one by one like dominos. The only outcome of that war was the loss of above a million lives, some say two million depending on the source of estimates. Years later, on the 11th of September, 2023, President Joe Biden visited Vietnam to court Vietnamese friendship.

In conclusion, I will turn to Fairbank for these astute observations, albeit that it was said in 1976:
In short, the Chinese in the 1940’s, the Vietnamese in the 1960’s, have been telling us that they don’t see their salvation in gunboat-era efforts to be like us. We may still feel that our expanding world of trade and contact monopolizes their future, but superior firepower will no longer prove it. Must we not accept the novel thought that our present is not their future?”

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