WILLIAM BRIGGS. The Chinese threat in far away Hobart.

Oct 15, 2018

Two events in the past couple of weeks have signalled disturbing trends in local and global politics. It might seem a long bow to draw a link between a city council election in Hobart with the sometimes rarefied atmosphere of international relations, but there is a link and it is a serious one. 

What has raised the ire of far too many in Hobart is that an Australian-Chinese woman, Yongbei Tang, an Australian citizen who has lived in Tasmania for 20 years, is seeking a seat on the city council. She is guilty of two things. Firstly, she does not condemn the Chinese government at every turn and secondly, she discovered that international students who are resident in Hobart are eligible to be included on a special electoral list and has campaigned for their support. Non-resident business-owners can also vote but that seems to be beside the point. In a sad aside, the growth in anti-Chinese racist sentiment has prompted a group of local Australian-Chinese to address an ‘open letter’ in the pages of the Hobart Mercury, to prove their credentials and distance themselves from the candidacy of Yongbei Tang.

The usual suspects have raged against her candidacy and the charge has, not surprisingly, been led by Greens MP Cassie O’Connor. The Greens, however, appear to be showing signs of splitting along issues of opportunism based on both accusations and denunciations of racism. A Greens candidate for council election, Holly Ewin, criticised O’Connor and was rounded on by the Greens’ lead candidate. It is not a happy little ship and indicates an inner turmoil that is hardly likely to go quietly away and one that goes deeper than anti or pro Chinese rhetoric.

There is nothing like a good old-fashioned threat to get the Australian blood pumping. It matters little that the threats are generally imagined and lead nowhere. The good citizens of Tasmania have always been more than willing to rally to the cause. Hobart’s most affluent suburb is Battery Point. It is named after the artillery battery put in place to stop a Russian invasion during the Crimean War. The Russians were astute enough to keep their distance. In the 1960s, at the time of the Indonesian ‘Confrontation’, rumours floated, ever so briefly, about Indonesian ships heading for Tasmania. A more enduring threat has been and remains the threat from China. Decades ago Australian elections were won on the unrealised dangers emanating from China, so is it any surprise that political parties of all colours happily return to this well-tested refrain?

While the Coalition or ALP can be expected to continue along the dangerous path of advancing American interests and then claiming them as our own, many are puzzled that the Greens – ostensibly a more progressive option – can come out with material that is so emotionally charged, but there is a sense of history repeating itself. It might seem alarmist to compare what is happening to the politics that dominated the beginning of the last century, but there are disturbing similarities. Not the least of these is the way that ‘progressive’ voices so quickly fell into line and marched to the drum-beat of nationalism and ‘us-ness’.  Economic, political and military interests and objectives all fused into one. Today that drum has an ominous echo.

The Pentagon released a document just a fortnight ago with the title: Assessing and Strengthening the Manufacturing and Defense Industrial Base and Supply Chain Resiliency of the United States. It addresses much of its 146 pages to the question of China, declaring that “China’s economic strategies, combined with the adverse impacts of other nations’ industrial policies, pose significant threats to the US industrial base and thereby pose a growing risk to US national security”.  The importance of this document, published by the military, is in the seamless unity that promotes US manufacturing dominance and US military dominance in the region as one and the same thing, but for the US there is no difference.

Just in case there was any chance of misreading the signs, US Vice President Pence offered further clarity in a speech that came a few days after the near collision between American and Chinese warships in the South China Sea. Pence attacked China for both economic and military aggression against the US, for meddling in America’s democratic processes and ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ in all parts of the world.

There is a problem for a country such as Australia in all of this, or at least there ought to be. At various levels there appears to be a degree of hand-wringing. We have all heard the arguments. We have an economic need of China and yet we have a long-standing relationship with the US and so what do we do?

The reality is that what has been happening in a very unsubtle way over the past decade or so is that America is being supplanted as the dominant force in the region and is doing all in its rather substantial power to remain on top. This includes establishing in the minds of ‘allies’ a sense of threat, and threats can only work if there is a perceived enemy. The tragedy in all of this is that the people are being prepared at all levels to be accomplices in these power plays. The double tragedy is that the political voices of the people are vying with one another to be the most willing beater of rather questionable drums in a way that so mirrors events of a little more than a century ago. In the meantime, the Hobart City Council election continues and in its own way mirrors international politics.

William Briggs recently completed a PhD at Deakin University. His special interests and expertise lies in the area of International Relations, Global Political Economy and Political Theory. A book based on his PhD research is due for publication early in 2019. Prior to this he worked as a teacher for many years and as a journalist.


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