The China Divide: Industry, technology and military relations are all tied up in strategies now unfolding

The most frequently manufactured human artefact in history is the semiconductor.1 Used in computers, medical devices, military technologies, industrial applications and much more, semiconductors are a marvel of modern manufacturing, fabricated by the controlled introduction of impurities and the formation of small structures via multiple layers of growth, deposition, etching and photolithography. They enable the raw computing power we take for granted in our everyday lives. Silicon, the most prominent semiconducting element, has lent its name to our era, just as stones, bronze and iron did to previous ages. 

China’s highest-profile semiconductor company is Tsinghua Unigroup. Under President Barack Obama, the United States blocked its $23-billion offer to buy Micron, a US manufacturer of dynamic random-access memory chips. It also blocked another Tsinghua Unigroup–affiliated purchase of a 15-per-cent stake in hard-drive maker Western Digital. The Obama administration pressured Germany to reject a Chinese bid for Aixtron, a German chip-equipment maker. The Trump administration escalated this policy, blocking key US semiconductor companies such as Qualcomm, Intel Corp, Texas Instruments and others from selling their products to Chinese telco Huawei without special approval. Trump cited national-security grounds for the ban.2

Meanwhile, the US Defense Department’s Indo-Pacific Strategy Report of mid-2019 described China as a ‘revisionist power’ that ‘undermines the international system from within’, ‘militarizes the South China Sea’, ‘employs non-military tools coercively’ and can conduct ‘increasingly complex operations in domains such as cyberspace, space, and electronic warfare operations’.3 Consistent with Australia’s sub-imperial posture, our defence establishment has again signalled its intention to join the United States. A Defence Update released in July 2020 uses concepts that closely resemble the Pentagon’s report. It calls for military cooperation with the United States in the ‘north-eastern Indian Ocean, through maritime and mainland south-east Asia to Papua New Guinea and the south west Pacific’.4 

The new era of strategic competition raises urgent questions: what are the Chinese government’s ambitions? What do the Chinese people think about their one-party state? What does it mean for Australia? 

What is the Chinese government trying to do?

The government of China operates within an intellectual framework underpinned by a desire for national rejuvenation. In its view, China’s great civilisation was humbled by foreign aggression and its own internal corruption and weakness. The Communist Party sees its victory in 1949 as a double liberation: from external aggression as well as from internal feudalism and obsolete patterns of thought. When Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949, the Communist Party of China had 4.5 million members. There were more than three times that number of opium addicts.5 Today, China is the second largest economy in the world—a status it achieved without resorting to slavery, war or colonialism. Chinese foreign policy is on a mission to restore the country to greatness. 

The memory of ‘national humiliation’ is no rhetorical trope; it is central to Chinese perceptions of strategic realities. As Albert S. Lindemann observed, there have been several appalling chapters in human history: ‘All of these were in their own way unique, and all have mysterious, haunting aspects to them, especially to those who identify them as happening to their ancestors’.6 This mix of optimism and pessimism—what William Callahan calls ‘pessoptimism’—informs China’s dream of civilisation and its nightmare of humiliation. It is, Callahan writes, ‘ever-present in the background as a structure of feeling that guides China’s national aesthetic’.7 Vulnerability, as much as a desire for greatness, guides China’s perceptions of strategic realities. In the early decades, China left undeveloped the southern coastal provinces of Guangdong and Fujian, populated by tens of millions of people, because it expected to have to bomb them with its own air force to stave off an invasion by the United States or the regime in Taiwan. In the 1960s, it spent two-thirds of scarce state industrial investment to disperse and conceal its industries from enemy air attack.8 

Today, China is led by the fifth generation of Communist Party leaders. Sixteen of the twenty-five members of the Political Bureau (Politburo) of the Central Committee have backgrounds in politics, international relations, political economy or philosophy. One studied pharmacology and one agriculture. Only four are engineers, the smallest proportion in three decades. In previous years engineers made up 60 to 90 per cent of the politburo.9 The new leadership reflects the party’s assessment of the greater importance of soft power. They wish to strengthen their own legitimacy internally, by articulating nationalist goals and values, and by counteracting unwelcome ideas, such as Western conceptions of democracy, human rights and freedom of religion. Soft power also implies a greater attention to influence operations overseas. 

President Xi Jinping demonstrates the focus on soft power with his promotion of the ‘China Dream’ of national rejuvenation. Xi aims to inspire collective achievement and national glory rather than individual enrichment. This reflects his personality. Xi is described as a large man with the build of an American football player who was sent to the countryside to ‘learn from the peasants’ after his father lost his post during Mao’s purges. He was well known to the farmers as a wrestling champion, and Andrew J. Nathan and Andrew Scobell record that he was ‘renowned for his ability to carry a shoulder pole of twin 110-pound buckets of wheat for several miles across mountain paths’.10 US Embassy cables leaked to WikiLeaks describe Xi as an ‘exceptionally ambitious, confident and focused’ person who ‘in early adulthood demonstrated his singleness of purpose by distinguishing himself from his peers’. He ‘does not care at all about money and is not corrupt’. He apparently believes that ‘rule by a dedicated and committed Communist Party leadership is the key to enduring social stability and national strength’.11 President Xi intends to make the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party in July 2021 the centrepiece of his domestic soft-power offensive. 

China’s most prominent foreign-policy project is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI connects China with Central and South Asia, the Middle East, and Europe via large infrastructure projects to stimulate trade between China and the Eurasian continent. It has agreements with forty-nine countries and regions, and the number is increasing. The project involves a broad range of sectors such as transport, energy infrastructure, telecommunications, smart cities, e-commerce, agriculture, environmental protection, finance, development assistance, civil aviation, accounting and healthcare services. The BRI runs through China’s thirteen western provinces, which occupy three quarters of its land surface but contain only about a quarter of its population. These mountainous or desert provinces contain most of China’s mineral resources. Xinjiang, which means ‘new frontier’, is expected to serve as a BRI hub. The government has no intention of letting Xinjiang’s restive indigenous populations get in the way of its ambitions. It subjects its Uyghur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz and other Muslim minorities in the western provinces to a dense network of surveillance systems, checkpoints, interpersonal monitoring and mass imprisonment. These tactics reflect greater state capacity for surveillance than India possesses in Kashmir or Indonesia in its West Papuan provinces, where a higher level of force is used. 

An under-appreciated aspect of the BRI is that it allows China the opportunity to integrate its technical standards into these agreements. John Seaman writes that technical standards are the ‘specifications or technologies on which other technologies or methods will evolve’.12 The width of railway gauges, dimensions of shipping containers, shape of electrical sockets and wi-fi standard for wireless networks are examples of previous standards that created lock-in effects and path dependency for future products and technological trajectories. International standards-setting organisations were dominated by experts from the United States, Germany, France, Britain and—to a lesser extent—Japan and Russia. In 2008 China became the sixth permanent member of the International Organization for Standardisation, and a Chinese steel-industry executive became president in 2015. That year, a second Chinese official became president of the International Telecommunications Union. The pattern continued in 2020 when another Chinese official became president of the 88-member International Electrotechnical Commission, which publishes standards on electronic items.

China participates actively in setting technical standards to increase the manoeuvrability of its firms abroad. It realises that its failure to act during the telecom ‘standards wars’ of the 1980s cost it tens of billions of dollars in royalty fees. It also wants to limit critical vulnerabilities introduced by foreign standards in strategic, defence-related sectors. Standards are a symbol of societal progress. They are also regarded as a means of technology transfer. Standards setting enables China’s desire to advance from serving as an assembly area or manufacturing hub into an innovative economy that possesses ‘connectivity power’ in ports, high-speed rail, regional smart grids and digital 5G-enabled networks through the so-called Digital Silk Roads.13 The push to climb the technology ladder is very threatening to the advanced powers, who object strongly to what they regard as ‘forced technology transfer’—a form of intellectual-property theft. The American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai issued a report in 2018 that said 21 per cent of 434 respondent member companies had felt pressure to transfer technology in exchange for market access.14 In high-tech industries, the report said ‘44 per cent of aerospace and 41 per cent of chemical companies’ faced ‘notable’ pressure to transfer technology. 

China replied by pointing out that it doesn’t hold a gun to tech companies’ heads. They make a deliberate choice to boost their own incentive-based personal stock holdings by going to China to take advantage of cheap labour to make large profits. Western firms have done precisely this for years. It is no accident that, as Bob Davis and Jon Hilsenrath note, Chinese competition ‘was responsible for 2.4 million jobs lost in the U.S. between 1999 and 2011’, nor that in the 2016 Republican primaries Donald Trump ‘won 89 of the 100 counties most affected by competition from China’.15 The China Dream means being more than a source of cheap labour. China wants the benefits of globalisation too. 

If there has been coercion, then the United States can bring a case to the World Trade Organization. This option, however, is barred by what the American Journal of International Law describes as ‘the persistent US refusal to permit the selection of new Appellate Body members’.16 WTO members with a disagreement are required to proceed through the WTO’s dispute-resolution mechanism. This involves consultations, a panel report, and an appeal before three members of the WTO Appellate Body. Since 2016, however, the United States has blocked the reappointment of Appellate Body members and rejected over a dozen proposals to fill the remaining vacancies. The terms of two Appellate Body members expired on 10 December 2019, leaving only one member remaining. Since three members are needed for an appeal, the process is at an impasse. The United States has ‘responded with disinterest’ to proposals by the EU, China, Canada, Mexico and several other entities ‘although it provided little reasoning as to why the proposals were unacceptable or unworkable’.17

Instead, the United States has responded by cutting off supplies of semiconductors to leading Chinese firms such as Huawei. The move is expected to weaken these firms’ international competitiveness because China relies heavily on semiconductor imports. It spends more on imported silicon than it does on oil.18 Its ability to manufacture advanced-logic chips at scale lags well behind that of the leading US firms. Most of its semiconductor foundry companies are at least one-and-a-half generations behind. It has no tier-one semiconductor equipment firms, defined as direct suppliers to original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). It has just one tier-two semiconductor equipment company, defined as a key supplier to a tier-one supplier.19 Chinese companies depend on software and equipment from US-based corporations such as Cadence, Synopsys, Applied Materials and Lam Research. The United States is determined to stop China narrowing the gap in technological prowess. The new ‘digital iron curtain’ dividing the world into US and Chinese technological zones runs through Australia, which has banned Huawei from supplying equipment to Australia’s 5G network. 

The Australian government has never explained precisely what threat Huawei poses—but the reason is not hard to understand. Information leaked by Edward Snowden shows that the US National Security Agency has undertaken what it calls ‘supply chain enabling, exploitation, or intervention operations’, including ‘hardware implant enabling, exploitation or operations’.20 It intercepts shipments of computer network devices such as servers and routers, unseals them and installs beacon implants directly into these devices. It then repackages them and sends them along to the original destination. The NSA thus gains controlled backdoors in the ‘internet backbone’, providing potential access to an entire country’s core communication infrastructure. Huawei-supplied infrastructure would interfere with the United States’ ability to keep spying at this industrial-level scale—and would potentially allow China to do it as well. 

China is said to engage in cyber-espionage to help it climb the technology ladder. This is unsurprising; as Doron Ben-Atar points out in his study of industrial innovation, ‘Every major European state engaged in technology piracy and industrial espionage in the eighteenth century, and the United States could not afford to behave differently… Political self-determination, economic independence, and technology piracy seemed to go hand in hand’.21 Although China recognises that it is a major power, it also sees itself as first among a group of large developing countries. This stance gives it a set of common interests with developing states on a number of issues. It has called for a more ‘democratic’ international order; it works with like-minded countries to gain a greater say in how international economic and political institutions are structured and administered. Even India, its South Asian rival, aligns its votes in the UN General Assembly more with Beijing’s votes than with Washington’s. China says its relationships with the developing world must go beyond profits to include a ‘sense of justice’—a sentiment that many developing countries find attractive. 

This article is from issue 4 of Arena. Read it in print and help to support independent media…!

What do the Chinese people think about their one-party state?

The Harvard Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation designed the longest-running independent effort to track Chinese citizens’ sentiments about all four levels of government (town, county, province, central government). It collected data in eight separate waves between 2003 and 2016, and recorded the face-to-face interview responses of more than 31,000 individuals in both urban and rural settings. It found a ‘near-universal increase in Chinese citizens’ average satisfaction toward all four levels of government’. Marginalised groups in poorer, inland regions were more likely to be satisfied. The study concluded that ‘there was no real sign of burgeoning discontent among China’s main demographic groups, casting doubt on the idea that the country was facing a crisis of political legitimacy’.22 When Xi Jinping became president in March 2013, he launched the biggest anti-corruption campaign in China’s history, arresting more than 120 high-level party leaders and over 100,000 lower-level government officials. Chinese citizens were generally supportive of Xi’s actions. More than 70 per cent of respondents in the Ash Center study approved of his anti-corruption efforts in 2016. And, while only 35 per cent viewed Chinese government officials as generally ‘clean’ in 2011, 65 per cent did in 2016. 

The Chinese public’s concern about the environment continues to increase, with good reason: they have seen their vulnerability to H5N1 avian flu, H1N1 swine flu and now SARS-CoV-2. A Ministry of Environmental Protection study found that nearly two thirds of underground water and a third of surface water was ‘unsuitable for human contact’, contaminated by fertiliser run-offs, heavy metals and untreated sewage.23 Air pollution causes more than one million premature Chinese deaths a year, and less than 1 per cent of the urban population breathes air considered safe by EU standards. Massive canal systems have been built to transfer water from the southern rivers to the densely populated North China Plain. Global warming will cause northern aquifers to dry up in two decades, at the same time as the melting Tibetan glaciers will reduce the flow of water in the southern rivers. Soil contamination, deforestation, desertification and habitat loss round out the picture. Environmental issues are the biggest motivator of citizen complaints and mass protests. Citizens expect the government to act. In 2016, 75 per cent of the population believed that climate change is real and caused by human behaviour, and nearly 70 per cent supported enacting a nation-wide emissions tax—higher than in Australia (62 per cent in 2019) or the United States (44 per cent in 2018).24 However, the population-planning program has caused an unbalanced sex ratio: there will be 25 million to 40 million surplus males by 2030, with unpredictable consequences for social stability.

The government enjoys a high level of popular support for many reasons. One is the steady rise in living standards. The central government promotes local officials who can do three things: grow the economy, maintain population growth within planning targets, and prevent social protests. (Environmental protection is an emerging theme.) It delegates considerable authority to the local party secretary, who, as Andrew J. Nathan writes, is then held responsible for ‘the police, the courts, the local-level people’s congresses, the population-planning bureaucracy, the Propaganda Department and local media, the agricultural bureau, industry, commerce, and the rest’.25 

The system ensures merit-based promotion; officials have to deliver results in large, complex jurisdictions. Five of China’s thirty-three province-level units have populations larger than 80 million—the population of the largest European country, Germany. The five to eleven most powerful leaders who make up the Politburo Standing Committee have demonstrated not just political talent but a track record of very high managerial proficiency. Sometimes referred to as practising ‘responsive authoritarianism’, the party understood that China had become wealthier in the twenty-first century but also far more unequal than it had been three decades before. In 2003 it began to provide a basic social safety net for China’s disadvantaged populations. Between 2006 and 2011 the percentage of China’s population covered by health insurance more than doubled, from 43 per cent to 95 per cent. By 2011 the government had spent more than ten times as much on rural and agricultural issues than it had in 2004.

A second reason for popular support is China’s ‘never again’ attitude to Western imperialism.26 The education system ensures that all Chinese understand the consequences of weakness in the face of Western power. Unlike in neighbouring India, most Chinese leaders aren’t in thrall to Anglophilia. A third reason is the absence of independent journalism. China has an authoritarian political system. Whoever challenges it takes a risk. Censorship is both overt and covert. 

Yet another important reason is the success of the Central Propaganda Department. Anne-Marie Brady’s scholarly study of this high-level party office shows that Noam Chomsky’s ‘analysis of the American media system’ is ‘extremely influential among propaganda and mass communication theorists in China’.27 Chinese propagandists have studied Chomsky’s work with Edward Herman on ‘manufacturing consent’ and applied it to their own system. As Nathan writes, they encourage ‘diversity and contention within a permitted range of subjects’ in order to ‘render invisible the subjects forbidden by the regime and placed outside the perimeter’. Accordingly, ‘Chinese readers feel they are living in an environment of freedom’ and have ‘no way to break into the monopoly circle that decides on the fundamental issues that confront their society’. There is a ‘social contract that allows the children to have their sly fun so long as the grown-ups run the house’. The ‘end result of this sophisticated cultural programming differs little from the mass media in the West, where just as in China nothing important is discussed’.28 Indeed, as the West has moved from ‘manufacturing’ consent to automating it in digital systems of desire and control, so too has China in its Social Credit System and other digital projects.

The COVID-19 pandemic illustrates the effect of this propaganda system. The Communist Party has turned the pandemic into a political asset by censoring criticism of its early missteps and highlighting its later success in sharply reducing infections. There has been no apology or compensation for the damage caused worldwide, only triumphant rhetoric and claims of selfless altruism. A good analogy to this nationalist mythologising may be found in Eric Williams’ remark that ‘British historians write almost as if Britain had introduced Negro slavery solely for the satisfaction of abolishing it’.29 Internationally, however, views of China have grown more negative across fourteen advanced economies, and unfavourable opinion has soared over the past year. Sixty-one per cent of the people surveyed in the United States, Canada, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan and South Korea say that China has done a bad job dealing with the outbreak; 78 per cent say they have not too much or no confidence in Xi Jinping to do the right thing regarding world affairs. Negative views of China increased most in Australia, where 81 per cent of people view it unfavourably, up 24 percentage points since last year.30 Media coverage is no doubt an important factor in this trend. 

If China’s party-state were replaced by a multiparty democracy, it would continue its military modernisation. It would continue to assert its claims in the East and South China Seas, where it has increased its maritime patrols and built large artificial islands on existing reefs and rocks in disputed waters also claimed by countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam. It has backed these up by combining four of its five maritime agencies into a vast coast guard. It has also developed a ‘counter-intervention’ strategy involving asymmetrical weaponry to blunt the United States’ military advantages. Known to Western military planners as ‘anti-access/area denial’ (A2/AD), China now possesses an arsenal of high-speed ballistic missiles designed to strike moving ships. These so-called ‘carrier killers’ can threaten the most powerful vessels in the US fleet at a considerable distance from China’s coast.31 China’s priority is not to invade or occupy areas of the Asia-Pacific (with the notable exception of Taiwan) but rather to raise the cost of hostile US action.

When Xi Jinping told the US Defence Secretary that ‘We cannot lose even one inch of the territory left behind by our ancestors’, he was challenging the legitimacy of China’s territorial losses caused by Western imperialism. He added, ‘What is other people’s we do not want at all’.32 And indeed there are no signs of preparations to lodge additional claims. China inherited twenty-three territorial disputes at independence. In seventeen cases it judged that the land was not essential for defensive purposes and offered concessions, abandoning claims to over 3.3 million square kilometres of land. It has used force in the other six disputes.33 It seeks stability, not territorial expansion.

What does it mean for Australia? 

Unlike China, Australia has a benign view of Western imperialism. This is understandable; Australia was settled in a far corner of the globe by the greatest imperial power of its time. The settlers benefited from an international order underpinned by the threat or use of imperial military force. They sided with European rule rather than any campaign for freedom or national liberation among the Asian colonies. They began their existence on the winning side of a worldwide confrontation described variously as imperialism versus anti-colonialism, developed versus developing countries, liberal democracy versus the rest, the North–South conflict, and so on. The organising principle of Australian foreign policy is to stay on the winning side of the global contest. 

From this organising principle comes Australia’s sub-imperial reflex of fitting into the global strategy of a Great Power. Australia works with the United States to create an integrated global economy that offers a benign environment for international investors, as well as in the specific interests of some Australian businesses. We reject technology-transfer policies and instead embrace intellectual-property rights—in sharp contrast to China. In 2009 the Labor government rejected a proposal by pharmaceutical companies to produce generic drugs in Australia for export. According to US Embassy cables published by WikiLeaks, the decision occurred ‘in light of Australia’s international commitments on intellectual property and trade’. It said Australia ‘may have preferred to tread lightly on this issue’ because its negotiations on intellectual property during the Australia–United States Free Trade Agreement (AUSFTA) ‘were particularly difficult’.34 AUSFTA permits the ‘evergreening’ of drugs, allowing patents for modifications with a very low level of inventiveness such as new dosages and new methods of using already known compounds. This costs Australian taxpayers—and greatly increases the profits of foreign pharmaceutical companies—while delaying the entry of generic competition into the market.35 

The decision to reject the proposal means that Australian manufacturers will miss a share of an export market worth US$150 billion over the next six years. Australia might have developed a world-class generic medicines industry had it learnt from China’s express exclusions from patentability in order to develop a local chemical industry.36 The status quo also imposes a large cost on Australian consumers. In 2019–20, imports are expected to total A$13.8 billion, more than double the amount of exports (A$6 billion). Furthermore, according to a 2020 IBISWorld Industry Report, ‘the contribution made by exports is considerably less in net terms, once the high costs of imported ingredients used in local manufacturing processes are taken into account’.37

Similarly, Australia’s defence establishment cooperates with the United States almost reflexively when it dials up the level of international tension to create a mood of crisis and induce its allies to shelter under the umbrella of US force. It is no accident that full interoperability with the United States is a core feature of Australia’s military procurement of aircraft, submarines and much else. The most important strategic question is what to do if the United States goes to war against China. Such a question has been discussed candidly behind closed doors. In 2006, opposition leader Kim Beazley told the US ambassador that ‘Australia would have absolutely no alternative but to line up militarily beside the U.S. Otherwise the alliance would be effectively dead and buried, something that Australia could never afford to see happen’.38 Beazley’s candour is important because he didn’t expect WikiLeaks to publish his remarks less than five years later. 

What would such a conflict look like? In 2016 the RAND Corporation published a report about the consequences of a war between the United States and China. It warned that new developments in sensors, weapon guidance, digital networking and other information technologies create the means as well as the incentive for both sides to try to hit first. This would imply ‘fierce early exchanges, with steep military losses on both sides, until one gains control’.39 It concluded that ‘war between the two countries could be intense, last a year or more, have no winner, and inflict huge losses and costs on both sides’.40 Extending this analysis, we can see that the rational option for China would be to support a limited North Korean invasion of South Korea, compelling the United States to commit its land forces to the South’s defence. These land forces would be vulnerable where it matters most—in their logistical chains far from home but very close to China. As Crispin Rovere points out, ‘it is perfectly likely a war that started in the Spratlys could be lost by the US at Busan’.41

The RAND study mentions Australia just twice, and assumes its support for the United States. Missing from its strategic analysis of numbers and types of weapons is the social fracture that Australia would suffer. As casualties mounted, there would be calls from the political fringes for Chinese Australians to be interned in camps. There would also be massive economic disruption to trade in the Western Pacific, since 95 per cent of Chinese trade is seaborne. Australia’s sub-imperial geostrategic reflex tends to work against a serious assessment of these matters. The Defence Update 2020 explicitly refers to North Asia as ‘a region of global strategic and economic significance’. It calls for ‘less risk-averse engagement with industry’ to strengthen the supply of munitions and weapons systems, as would be expected in a high-intensity conflict.42 


More than fifty years ago, then foreign minister Paul Hasluck told a public meeting in Melbourne, ‘In Australia we are content with the existing international order… It is easier for us to be virtuous than it is for some others because the course of virtue coincides with our self-interest’. But many countries ‘are not so pleased with the existing order as we are. Some of them only became nations after the existing order had been established, and they had no part in saying anything about the sort of world into which they were born’.43 This assessment remains true today, as the rise of China ushers in a transformational period in international relations. 

A few days after Kim Beazley assured the US ambassador that he wanted Australia to ‘line up militarily beside the US’, embassy staff met his advisers. One of them was his principal political adviser, Jim Chalmers, who the embassy wanted to ‘Protect’ as an interlocutor.44 He didn’t disagree with Beazley’s assurances. That was fifteen years ago. Chalmers is today described as an ALP leader in waiting. He has yet to be questioned publicly on whether he still agrees that ‘Australia would have absolutely no alternative but to line up militarily beside the U.S.’. The last time Australians were killed by enemy air power was in Salamaua in Papua New Guinea in 1943. The last time Australia was involved in a high-intensity war was in Korea, almost seventy years ago. For the last two decades, many Australian politicians have adopted a bumper-sticker approach to military matters: ‘support the troops’, ‘lest we forget’. There has been little substantial debate, let alone disagreement, about the nature, length, objectives and strategy of our presence in Afghanistan. China is not the Taliban, which lacked even the most basic form of air power. A clash with China may be a turning point in Australian history. The prospect requires intensive debate in the Australian parliament and the broader community; and parliament, not the government, must vote on whether Australian troops are to be placed in harm’s way. 

Fuelling ‘The China Threat’

Scott Burchill

Sep 2020: 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.


1. David C. Brock, ‘How Moore’s Law Came to Be’, Core Magazine, The Computer History Museum, 2015, p. 33.

2. White House, Executive Order on Securing the Information and Communications Technology and Services Supply Chain, 15 May 2019.

3. Department of Defense, Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, 1 June 2019.

4. Defence Update 2020, p. 6.

5. R. K. Newman, ‘Opium Smoking in Late Imperial China: A Reconsideration’, Modern Asian Studies, 29(4), October 1995, p. 787.

6. Albert S. Lindemann, Esau’s Tears: Modern Anti-Semitism and the Rise of the Jews, Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 507–10.

7. William A. Callahan, China: The Pessoptimist Nation, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 193.

8. Andrew J. Nathan and Andrew Scobell, China’s Search for Security, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012, p. 17.

9. Andrew Scobell, ‘Something Old, Something New: Continuity and Change in China’s Foreign Policy’, testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 9 September 2020.

10. Nathan and Scobell, China’s Search for Security, p. 61.

11. Portrait of Vice President Xi Jinping: ‘Ambitious Survivor’ of the Cultural Revolution, 09BEIJING3128_a,

12. John Seaman, ‘China and the New Geopolitics of Technical Standardisation’, French Institute of International Relations, January 2020, p. 6.

13. Seaman, ‘China and the New Geopolitics of Technical Standardisation’, p. 27; James Kynge and Nian Liu, ‘From AI to Facial Recognition: How China Is Setting the Rules in New Tech’, Financial Times, 7 October 2020.

14. American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, 2018 China Business Report,

15. Bob Davis and Jon Hilsenrath, ‘How the China Shock, Deep and Swift, Spurred the Rise of Trump’, Wall Street Journal, 11 August 2016.

16. ‘Contemporary Practice of the United States’, American Journal of International Law, 113(4), 2019, p. 826.

17. ‘Contemporary Practice of the United States’, p. 826.

18. Eamon Barrett, ‘China will spend $300 billion on semiconductor imports as U.S. squeezes chip supply’, Fortune, 27 August 2020.

19. President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, Report to the President: Ensuring Long-Term U.S. Leadership in Semiconductors, Washington, D.C., January 2017, leadership_in_semiconductors.pdf

20. Computer Network Exploitation Classification Guide / 2-59 [Online], available from:

21. Doron Ben-Atar, Trade Secrets: Intellectual Piracy and the Origins of American Industrial Power, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004, pp. 35, 148.

22. Edward Cunningham, Tony Saich and Jesse Turiel, ‘Understanding CCP Resilience: Surveying Chinese Public Opinion Through Time’, Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Kennedy School, Harvard University, July 2020.

23. David Stanway and Sue-Lin Wong, ‘Smog may be easing, but in parts of China water quality worsens’, Reuters, 18 November 2016.

24. The Australia Institute, Climate of the Nation 2019, December 2019,; ‘Is the Public Willing to Pay to Help Fix Climate Change?’, Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC) and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research,

25. Andrew J. Nathan, China’s Search for Security, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012, p. 40.

26. Mark Tischler, ‘China’s ‘Never Again’ Mentality’, The Diplomat, 18 August 2020,

27. Anne-Marie Brady, Marketing Dictatorship: Propaganda and Thought Work in Contemporary China, Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009, p. 69.

28. Andrew J. Nathan, ‘Medals and Rights’, The New Republic, 9 July 2008.

29. Eric Williams, British Historians in the West Indies, London: Andre Deutsch, 1966, p. 233.

30. Laura Silver, Kat Devlin and Christine Huang, Unfavorable Views of China Reach Historic Highs in Many Countries, Pew Research Centre, 6 October 2020.

31. Steven Lee Myers, ‘With Ships and Missiles, China Is Ready to Challenge U.S. Navy in Pacific’, New York Times, 29 August 2018.

32. BBC World News, ‘China won’t give up “one inch” of territory says President Xi to Mattis’, 28 June 2018,

33. M. Taylor Fravel, Strong Borders, Secure Nation, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.

34. 09CANBERRA686_a, GOA Rejects Proposal to Manufacture Generic Drugs for Export, 27 July 2009,

35. Hazel V. J. Moir, ‘The Patent Price of Market Access in the AUSFTA’, Australian Journal of International Affairs, 69(5), 2015, pp. 559–76.

36. Hazel V. J. Moir, ‘Reviewing Patent Policy: An Exercise in Futility?,’ Prometheus, 33(4), 2015, pp. 431-43.

37. Arna Richardson, ‘Pharmaceutical Product Manufacturing in Australia’, IBIS World Industry Report C1841, March 2020, p. 22.

38. 06CANBERRA1366, Ambassador’s Introductory Call on Opposition,

39. David C. Gompert, Astrid Stuth Cevallos and Cristina L. Garafola, War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable, Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2016.

40. Gompert, Cevallos and Garafola, War with China.

41. Crispin Rovere, ‘A Review of RAND’s War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable’, Lowy Institute, 24 August 2016.

42. Defence Update 2020, p. 29.

43. Paul Hasluck, ‘Australian Foreign Policy’, Current Notes on International Affairs, 38(1), January 1967.

44. 06CANBERRA1517_a, Opposition leader Beazley will fight PM Howard for the political center, 26 September 2006

About the author

Clinton Fernandes

Clinton Fernandes is in the Future Operations Research Group and is a Professor at the University of New South Wales. His research focuses on emerging war technologies and advanced materials and manufacturing methods. His most recent book is Sub-Imperial Power: Australia in the International Arena, published by Melbourne University Press in 2022.

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Independent publications and critical thought are more important than ever. Arena has never relied on or received government funding. It has sustained its activities largely through the voluntary work and funding provided by editors and supporters. If Arena is to continue and to expand its readership, we need your support to do it.