Sinophobia has a long history in the West, especially in Washington. It has always contained xenophobia, racism and Cold War animus in roughly equal parts. In Washington’s China, James Peck documents how since the 1950s, the national security establishment in the United States has used the fear of China to thwart any challenge to Washington’s vainglorious and limitless ambition to rule the world.
The so called “rules-based international order” has always been little more than a euphemism for a US-run world, which Australia has sometimes benefitted from (WW2, intelligence sharing) and often paid a very high price for (involvement in Washington’s wars). China is now seen as the disrupter of this “order”, though the US and allies such as Israel do not consider themselves bound by these so-called “rules” or international law generally: they are self-exempted.
Even in Australia, US military preponderance is considered normal and desirable, though in the Orwellian tradition it is described as “balanced” power. Realists in International Relations privilege the “balance of power”, but because they strongly identify with the nationalism of their own states, they insist on a power “balance” in their country’s favour – a fundamental contradiction in terms. For many American and Australian realists, US preponderance seems “balanced”. The same applies to the Western world’s views of Russia and NATO’s eastward expansion after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Accordingly, many realists and conservatives cannot understand why a “rules-based order” designed by and for the US (and to a lesser extent its friends and allies) would be resisted by Washington’s rivals. They make no attempt to see the world through Beijing’s eyes or Moscow’s. Whether naïveté or deep indoctrination is suddenly producing this moral panic, realists should be lauding the rise of China as a counterweight to US military preponderance in East Asia. Patriotism, however, tends to trump theoretical purity.
Double standards and hypocrisy rule diplomacy. The US can increase its already massive arms budget and militarise much of the world (ever expanding military bases, even outer space), while China cannot build airstrips in the South China Sea close to its homeland. The construction of new airstrips and bases in the region is rightly condemned but it doesn’t come as a surprise to clear-headed observers. It is a rational response to the West’s latest attempt to contain China.
The United States can launch illegal wars of aggression in Central Asia and the Middle East, break multilateral trade rules and start a trade war with China, abandon nuclear arms control treaties with Russia and a related agreement with Iran, unilaterally walk away from the Paris climate change agreement, move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem in breach of international law, and attempt to overthrow the legitimate government of Venezuela. And yet it is China that threatens the “rules-based international order”.
Australia has never seriously engaged China on political issues. As Beijing knows, its role is to balance our current account and trade deficits. We have never shown any interest in their political liberalisation. We engaged with China in the 1990s without any expectation that it would develop into a liberal democracy. We knew about human rights abuses in Tibet, the totalitarian nature of its political system and the travesties of its legal system and re-education camps. We witnessed the massacre of students in Tiananmen Square in 1989. None of these were deal breakers. We were more interested in their money. Australia strongly supported, enabled and enormously benefited from the economic rise of China, despite knowledge of its features which some now find objectionable.
Unfortunately, the appalling treatment of the Uighur in Xinjiang Province, the ongoing repression of political dissidents, and the growing personality cult of Xi Jinping are not new trends. They continue the modern currents of Chinese politics. Allegations that China has become significantly more authoritarian over the last decade are therefore misleading, but they have become a pretext for the latest outbreak of Sinophobia by jejune politicians and journalists. Oddly, this did not appear to concern them during the global financial crisis (GFC) in 2008 when mineral exports to China helped stave off a recession in Australia. Or in the years before the GFC as China simultaneously became Australia’s largest source of imports and largest destination for our exports.
As Brian Toohey points out in his new book Secret: The Making Of Australia’s Security State, the latest moral panic about China takes many forms. Banning Huawei from 5G telephony and the NBN, claims that Chinese students in Australia’s universities are spying for Beijing, hysteria about Confucius institutes in our higher education sector, opposition to large property purchases by offshore Chinese interests, and allegations of territorial expansion in the South China Sea are either overblown or mostly nonsense. However, they persist and tap into nineteenth century racist fears of Chinese hordes descending on Australia.
Recent protests in Hong Kong are cited as further evidence of Chinese repression, despite Beijing’s restraint and reluctance to intervene. Undoubtedly both Taiwan and the foreign investment community are watching these events closely, but the lesson to be learnt to this point is that protesting against the Chinese Communist Party in China is permissible.
Recent criticisms of China in Australia seem designed to please the Trump Administration in its self-declared trade war with China, and new attempts at military containment of the Middle Kingdom. This is despite the fact that Australian and American interests are not necessarily aligned here. Canberra has long promoted free trade and opposed protectionism, and the containment of China seems as unnecessary as it is provocative, leading to regional instability. One thing is certain: the Morrison Government should not think that the Trump Administration will do Australia any favours out of gratitude.
There is nothing wrong with backbench MPs and journalists belatedly discovering the nature of Chinese politics and expressing concerns that close observers have been publicly noting for decades. But a confected moral panic, designed to ingratiate ourselves with a reckless ally that is dedicated to its own very different interests, is not in ours.
James Peck, Washington’s China (University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst 2006)
Brian Toohey, Secret: The Making Of Australia’s Security State (Melbourne University Press, Carlton 2019) – available from 3 September, 2019