Fuelling ‘The China Threat’

In a perspicacious address last November, former Australian ambassador to China Geoff Raby said ‘today, the Australia–China relationship is at its lowest point since diplomatic relations began forty-six years ago’. At the level of official contacts, especially at heads-of-government level, Beijing has put Canberra in the deep freeze. Raby said the blame for this state of affairs is shared by both countries, though not evenly given the spate of diplomatic errors made by recent Liberal–National Party governments. According to the former ambassador, ‘Australia needs China more than China needs Australia’; Canberra has mistakenly adopted Washington’s hostile view of China; and our neighbours ‘all seem to be handling the rise of China and finding their feet within the new international order better than Australia seems to be doing’. 

If any reinforcement of this view were required, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s attack on Beijing’s influence over the World Health Organization (WHO) and his call for an independent inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 virus in China midway through the pandemic was not just very odd timing. It was difficult to understand what Australia could possibly gain from such a unilateral demand, beyond pleasing Washington. 

It is easier to see what Australia stands to lose. Immediately, a market for Australian barley has vanished, restrictions have been imposed on beef exports to China, and Beijing officials have warned Chinese students contemplating study at one of Australia’s cash-strapped universities that they will face racist abuse. Potentially, much more damage may be done to our most important trade relationship. All pain and no gain—for what? 

The Morrison government seems reluctant to make independent decisions in foreign policy. It would appear that almost every foreign policy of significance must be cleared with Washington first. Just to take policy concerning Israel and the Palestinian territories as an example, on behalf of the United States and Israel, Australia has unsuccessfully attempted to persuade the International Criminal Court (ICC) not to consider Palestine a party to proceedings against Israel. The Morrison government has proposed moving the Australian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, opposed self-determination for Palestinians in the UN Human Rights Council and refused to criticise Israeli plans to further annex—more accurately, colonise—Palestinian land in the West Bank.  

Because of public concerns about President Donald Trump, the US lobby in Australia is at pains to distinguish between the current White House incumbent and the United States–Australia alliance as it was when George W. Bush was president. The problem for alliance boosters in Australia who want to separate the strategic relationship from the transient White House incumbent is that Trump, while extreme in so many ways, is not such an anomaly. Most US presidents start illegal wars, intervene in other states and become mass murderers who are never brought to account for their crimes. Compared with that of his predecessors, Trump’s foreign policy is unusually restrained. 

Regular meetings produce ritual incantations by ministers about ‘shared values’, a ‘close friendship’, and the dubious claim, repeated by one of Washington’s foremost boosters in Australia, that ‘the United States remains, overwhelmingly, a benign force…in the world’—unless you happen to live in Venezuela, Palestine, Bolivia, Iran, Syria, Cuba, China, Mexico, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Central America, Vietnam, Pakistan, Lebanon, North Korea or Russia, where the United States is regarded as the greatest threat to world peace.  

Canberra says that it remains committed to a rules-based international order and in July told the United Nations that, consistent with an International Court of Justice ruling, it formally rejected China’s ‘historic rights’ maritime claim to contested waters in the South China Sea, a claim it considered to be in violation of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. 

However, Canberra remains conspicuously silent about its ally’s efforts to rip what’s left of the rules-based international order to shreds, including Washington’s extraordinary attacks on the ICC, the WHO and the World Trade Organization; its withdrawal from arms-control and environmental agreements; and its explicit support for Israel’s numerous violations of international law. 

There was a brief glimmer of independence. In light of the 2003 weapons of mass destruction (WMD) scandal, where unsubstantiated claims of Iraqi WMD were used to justify an illegal invasion and occupation of that country, Australia’s intelligence community considered that acceptance of evidence-free intelligence from the United States about the origins of the coronavirus outbreak was a step too far. No links between the virus and a laboratory in Wuhan were produced, despite attempts by the Trump administration to blame China for creating the virus and distract attention from its tardy domestic response to the contagion. 

When Australia’s foreign and defence ministers, Marise Payne and Linda Reynolds, eschewed teleconferencing during the pandemic and flew to the United States to meet their US counterparts for Australia–United States Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) in late July, they were accused of complicity in Washington’s new cold war with Beijing. The appearance of taking instructions from Washington forced Payne to reveal a nuanced, if not fundamentally different approach from that of ultra-hawkish US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. There was some product differentiation, with Australia’s foreign minister declaring that Pompeo’s ‘speeches are his own’, that ‘Australia’s positions are our own’ and that Australia and the United States ‘are very different countries’. Alliance management allows for limited rhetorical differences of this kind, especially when the dire consequences of joining Pompeo’s crusade for regime change against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are better understood in Australia. Senior CCP officials, however, are unlikely to be swayed. They regard Canberra and Washington as co-conspirators in recent attacks on Beijing, and nothing Payne or Reynolds said in Washington is likely to change their minds. 

Forgotten background 

A resurgence of Sinophobia, anti-communism, the ‘yellow peril’ and ‘the China threat’ has gripped the media, academic and political classes in Australia, so some context and background are in order. Seventy years after Mao Zedong came to power, a number of journalists, politicians and commentators in Australia have only just noticed that China is ruled by a communist party. It is not immediately clear why Cold War concerns of the 1950s and 1960s are suddenly being revived in 2020, though most of the noise comes from a new generation of jejune ideologues who have no personal memories or experience of those days.  

Oddly, these self-described ‘wolverines’ rarely expressed any fears until eighteen months ago, and certainly not during the 2007–08 Global Financial Crisis, when China became Australia’s most important trading partner, helping to eliminate a serious trade deficit and stave off recession. Remarkably, this new generation of China critics—including think tanks such as the Australian Stategic Policy Institute (ASPI), which is funded by both government and the arms industry—seems to have missed all of the academic discussions about the rise of China—a topic endlessly debated at Australia’s universities for two decades. 

Like Soviet leaders during the last years of their revolution, the Chinese political elite do not believe in Marxism-Leninism or communism, and they haven’t for decades. They know that economically it does not work, even if they ritually incant its nostrums to justify one-party rule. The only people who take the idea of Chinese communism as an expansionist ideology seriously are Cold War warriors in the West—ambitious people who have carved lucrative bureaucratic, journalistic and academic careers out of anti-communism. The CCP is full of ruthless pragmatists who use the repressive, authoritarian nature of their rule to enrich themselves and their friends. However, the party is not monolithic, and just below the surface it is riven by factional battles over both the direction of policy and the quest for political supremacy. Like those of their counterparts in the West, the ideological predilections of the Chinese ruling class are overwhelmingly for state capitalism, following an act of grand larceny in the 1980s and 1990s only matched in scale by privatisation in post-communist Russia. 

As Susan Shirk and others have argued, the CCP is rightly preoccupied with serious domestic challenges, including poverty and inequality, human rights abuses, corruption, and the prospect of diabolical demographic shifts if economic growth suddenly subsides on the eastern seaboard. For a great power, it has been unusually reluctant to manipulate events beyond its shores, in contrast to the promiscuous interventions of the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Despite the fears that have been stoked by intelligence briefings to receptive journalists, China’s military and technological strength remains decades behind that of the United States. 

Two broad theoretical approaches explain the foreign-policy behaviour of states. Endogenous approaches stress internal political and economic factors such as the political culture of liberal democracies, one-party authoritarian rule, the needs of capital and tyrannical monarchies. This is the approach of liberal internationalists and Marxists alike: the internal political complexion of states determines their external behaviour. This is Peter Hartcher’s approach to China. He explains China’s external behaviour in terms of CCP ideology and the growing personality cult of Xi Jinping. This account assumes that the CCP is a unified entity, not a contested space in which power shifts and swirls, leaders frequently change and ideology is reinterpreted. 

Endogenous approaches tend to be binary in structure. They were common during the Cold War, and are still popular on both the Left and Right of the political spectrum. The neo-conservatives under George W. Bush are more recent exemplars of this approach, as is Pompeo. 

The alternative exogenous explanation is known as realism. Realism largely ignores the internal political and economic complexions of states. For realists, states are socialised into the anarchic international system, a self-help world where there are no guarantees of survival. Regardless of their internal natures, the foreign policies of states are homogenised by the common quest for survival in a dangerous, uncertain world. Military power and alliances are the only protections available in this world, and they are not guaranteed to be permanent, so states that look very different internally behave very similarly externally: they must prioritise their security. Power is the key, and great powers such as the United States and China exploit their disproportionate means to achieve their national aims. 

The counter to Hartcher’s argument is that China’s external behaviour—the projection of its power, seeking greater political influence and economic opportunities—has little to do with its political system or the CCP. It is simply the way all great powers have always behaved. In this sense, China is little different to the United States, though its capacity to influence the world is much less. What has it done to and in Australia that the United States hasn’t effectively achieved in more subtle ways? The new moral panic about ‘the China threat’, and the comparative indifference in Australia about significantly more intrusive forms of foreign interference by the United States and the United Kingdom, for example, is orientalist and often racist: China is not a member of the Western club, so it is suspect. 

The irony of this, which is completely lost on China’s new right-wing critics, is that it has been the country’s transition from a centrally planned command economy to state capitalism over the last three decades that has enabled the Middle Kingdom to become one of the largest economies in the world and assert its authority as a great power. This is an achievement that economic-development conservatives in the West would normally applaud. What Martin Jacques has called ‘hegemonic angst’ in the West at the end of Pax Americana is a product of China’s success in the state-capitalist game. 

Policy development and outcomes in liberal democracies are often hotly contested. Bureaucratic demarcation disputes, battles between the permanent arms of government (sometimes called the deep state) and the transient executive, as well as straightforward differences of opinion, are normal. In Australia, China policy has been characterised as a struggle for supremacy between the hawkish national-security agencies (the Department of Defence, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, the prime minister’s office) and the more dovish approach of economists and diplomats (Treasury, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade): according to Raby and former prime minister Paul Keating, the hawks are currently ascendant. The unanswered question is why things have suddenly changed when China’s economic importance to Australia—as its largest export market and source of imports—has never been greater or more profitable for the Australian business community. 

China’s GDP says more about its population size than its economic might. Corporate wealth—ownership of the world economy—is in many ways a more meaningful metric. Through its transnational corporations the United States effectively owns about 50 per cent of the world economy, including a very large proportion of ‘Chinese’ manufacturing. The extent to which Chinese manufacturing is actually Chinese is, of course, widely debated, and in the manufacturing sector it is no longer clear how any state can accurately define its own exports in purely nationalist terms. 

One thing we can be sure of is that power has increasingly shifted from the global workforce to private capital. Since the adoption of neoliberal economic policies in the 1990s there has been a steady decline in the share of wealth held by workers around the world. China’s economic rise, like India’s, is accelerating and exacerbating this trend. 

China is ranked eighty-sixth on the Human Development Index, which is a good measure of how difficult life there is for ordinary people. It is one of the most unequal societies on the planet. Western media coverage of China rarely ventures west of its glamorous eastern seaboard, so internal disparities of wealth and income are largely hidden from external observers. 

China’s immense foreign reserves, mostly held in the form of depreciating US dollars, and its willingness to keep buying US Treasury bonds, has allowed the United States to spend beyond its means, including the funding of wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. Even if there were no other factors, such as extraordinarily high levels of US direct investment in China, the fact that Beijing is underwriting Washington’s growing and unsustainable debt ensures that both countries will remain economically intertwined regardless of fluctuating strategic perceptions of each other or short-term trade ‘wars’. Suggestions from within the Trump administration that the United States could ‘break with China’ are nothing more than a populist fantasy. 

Leaders of the CCP know just how important economic globalisation and interdependence are for China’s economic stability and their own prospects of staying in power. It would be irrational for them to endanger this by reckless foreign adventures or significantly harsh repression in Hong Kong. Keeping trade routes open through the Straits of Malacca is, first and foremost, in Beijing’s interests. 

Imputing motives from capabilities is an age-old strategic mistake. Yes, China is spending more on its intelligence-gathering capabilities inside and outside the country, but this is commensurate with its growing economic resources. There is no evidence that its strategic objectives have significantly changed. Chinese and Russian efforts to interfere in the domestic politics of Western countries pale into insignificance when compared with interventions by the United States and United Kingdom around the world for decades, including the overthrow of democratically elected governments that are not congenial to Western interests. The dishonesty and hypocrisy of this debate in the West—particularly the feigned outrage at Russia—is a breathtaking tribute to propaganda in so-called free societies. 

To take one obvious comparison, why isn’t Turkey subject to sanctions for illegally occupying northern Cyprus, when Russia is for incorporating the far more strategically important Black Sea ports of Crimea? Does anyone think that this double standard is lost on Beijing? 

How the West imagines China 

The United States has viewed China with hostility since the middle of the last century. According to historian James Peck: 

In the 1940s, Washington labelled China a ‘puppet’; in the years of the Sino-Soviet alliance, the early to mid-1950s, Beijing was Moscow’s ‘independent junior partner’; in the 1960s, it became an expansionist force and a feared ‘revolutionary model.’ Other Chinas followed: China the skilled geo-political player in the Soviet-American-Chinese triangle of the 1970s; the human rights violator with economic development potential of the 1980s and 1990s; and now China the uneasy ally against terrorism and, at last, economic behemoth. 

Each of Washington’s Chinas has been a simplistic ideological formulation largely intended for domestic audiences. As Peck argues, none was ever accurate: ‘they were assessments of China not as it was but as Washington needed it to be in order to pursue specific strategies’. Even before 11 September 2001, Washington designated China the greatest long-term challenge to US ambitions to retain global hegemony. 

This remains the case today, with Western leaders lecturing Beijing about the role it must play in complementing Washington’s strategic and economic interests. The ‘rules-based international order’ is little more than a euphemism for a US-run world, which Australia has sometimes benefited from (the Second World War, intelligence sharing) and often paid a very high price for (involvement in Washington’s wars). China is now seen as a disrupter of this ‘order’, though the United States and allies such as Saudi Arabia do not consider themselves bound by these ‘rules’ or international law generally: they are self-exempted. 

In Australia, US military preponderance in the Asia-Pacific 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. 

Accordingly, many realists cannot understand why a ‘rules-based order’ designed by and for the United States (and to a lesser extent its friends and allies) would be rejected by Washington’s rivals once they had the power to do so. They make no attempt to see the world through Beijing’s eyes, when, for theoretical consistency, they should be lauding the rise of China as a counterweight to US military preponderance in East Asia. Patriotism, it seems, trumps theoretical purity. 

Double standards and hypocrisy also rule. The United States can increase its already massive arms budget and militarise much of the world (through ever-expanding military bases, even the colonisation of outer space), while China cannot build airstrips in the South China Sea close to its homeland. The construction of new air force bases and landing strips in the region is rightly criticised, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise to clear-headed observers. It is a rational response to efforts by the West to contain China and maintain US preponderance. 

The United States can launch illegal wars of aggression in central Asia, Central America and the Middle East, break multilateral trade rules to 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, unilaterally recognise the legality of Israel’s illegal settlements on the West Bank, and attempt to overthrow the legitimate government of Venezuela, and probably that of Bolivia, too. And yet it is China that apparently threatens the ‘rules-based international order’. 

Canberra has never seriously engaged China on political issues. As Beijing knows, its role is to balance Australia’s trade deficit. Nor have Australian governments ever shown any interest in China’s political liberalisation. Australia engaged with China in the 1990s without any expectation that it would develop into a liberal democracy. It 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. Australia witnessed the massacre of students in Tiananmen Square in 1989. None of these were deal-breakers. Canberra was only interested in China’s money. Australia strongly supported, enabled and enormously benefited from the economic rise of China, even though the domestic repression that some younger politicians and journalists now suddenly find objectionable was well known. 

The genocidal treatment of the Uighur in Xinjiang Province, the ongoing repression of political dissidents, cyberattacks, and the growing personality cult of Xi are not new trends. They continue the modern currents of Chinese politics. Claims that Beijing has become significantly more authoritarian over the last decade are misleading and unsupported by concrete evidence, but they have become a pretext for the latest outbreak of Sinophobia by impressionable and ambitious backbenchers and journalists. The former head of ASIO, Duncan Lewis, told Peter Hartcher that foreign interference in Australia (by China) represents an ‘existential threat’. This risible, fear-mongering charge only further damages ASIO’s reputation. There is no possibility that China, or any other state, could ‘take over Australia’ as Lewis claims.  

As Brian Toohey and Geoff Raby have argued, the latest moral panic about China takes many forms. Banning Huawei from 5G telephony and the National Broadband Network, claims that Chinese students in Australia’s universities are spying for Beijing, hysteria about Confucius institutes in the higher-education sector, opposition to large property purchases by offshore Chinese interests, suspicions that the federal parliament has been infiltrated, and allegations of territorial expansion in the South China Sea are either overblown or just unsupported nonsense. They persist, however, and tap into nineteenth-century racist tropes of Chinese hordes descending on Australia. 

Political protests in Hong Kong are cited as further evidence of Chinese repression, despite Beijing’s relative restraint in the face of increasingly violent provocations and its reluctance to intervene—compare its response with the behaviour of the Saudis in Yemen and the Israelis in Gaza (both materially and diplomatically supported by the West), to say nothing of Indonesia’s state terrorism in West Papua, domestic repression in the Philippines, or India’s violence in Kashmir (about which the West remains largely silent). Can anyone imagine authorities in Melbourne or Sydney allowing Hong Kong levels of violence and destruction of public property to occur without more coercive intervention by authorities, especially when foreign states have celebrated and actively encouraged the rioting?  

In response to China’s imposition of new security laws in Hong Kong, Australia and several other Western states have cancelled their extradition treaties with the former British colony. This is understandable, but it is yet another barrier in the path of resuming a policy of cooperative coexistence between China and the West. Much of the discussion of events in Hong Kong during 2019 has been ahistorical. As Martin Jacques reminds us: 

Hong Kong never had democracy under the British. For 156 years, it was ruled from Britain and was a British colony. There was never universal suffrage in Hong Kong. In fact, it was only right at the end of British rule that they even began to mention these things because basically it was being handed over to China. So Hong Kong’s never been democratic. It had the rule of law, it had a relatively free media, but it never had any kind of democratic system. Hong Kong can’t look back in that sense to the romantic days of democracy, because they never had any democracy. This is a complete illusion.  

Undoubtedly both Taiwan and the foreign investment community are watching these events closely, but political liberty in Hong Kong and the growing intrusion of direct rule from Beijing may not upset the business community for very long. The Australian Financial Review’s correspondent reports: 

as business professionals absorbed the news [of Beijing’s more direct rule], an opposing view emerged. The prospect of an authoritarian clampdown on protests that last year turned increasingly violent is seen by some as good news for the city’s battered economy. While some US and other foreign investment is expected to leave the city, the mainland Chinese money is returning. 

Who said capitalism needed political liberalism? 

Recent criticisms of China in Australia are designed to support and please the Trump administration in its self-declared trade war with China and in new attempts at military containment of it. This is despite Australian and US interests not being aligned here. Canberra has long promoted free trade and opposed protectionism. The containment of China seems as unnecessary as it is provocative, self-defeating and likely to lead to regional instability and uncertainty. 

In an election year where President Trump needs a distraction from the United States’ growing COVID-19 death toll and unemployment levels not seen since the Great Depression, China is a convenient scapegoat. As China displaces the United States as the most powerful player in the world economy, Trump’s protectionism may be the only card left for him to play, a sure sign of diminishing US economic influence. Of most concern to Washington is that China, like Russia, doesn’t take orders from the United States and, although disobedience is a sin never accepted or forgiven inside the beltway, on this occasion and at this time, there is little that Trump or his successors can do beyond pulling faces at the CCP. 

Beijing wants to peel Australia away from the US alliance. It won’t work, but it makes perfect diplomatic sense to try. And there is nothing wrong with backbench MPs and journalists belatedly discovering the nature of Chinese politics and society, expressing concerns that close observers have been publicly noting for decades. If they have been asleep for thirty years and have failed to notice countless university studies and courses that have focused on the implications of China’s rise for the world, they should, as Hartcher urges, ‘wake up’. But a self-defeating panic about a rising great power in the region, designed to ingratiate ourselves with a dangerous and reckless ally that is dedicated to its own very different interests, is not in Australia’s short- or long-term interests. 


About the author

Scott Burchill

Scott Burchill is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Deakin University and is most recently the author of Misunderstanding International Relations (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).

More articles by Scott Burchill

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