The Depths of Australia’s China Problem

This time they’ve gone too far. China’s Global Times newspaper has long had it in for “evil Australia”, which it characterises as being “not even a ‘paper tiger’ [but] only a ‘paper cat’ at best”. It demands that “as a warhound of the US, Australia should restrain its arrogance”. Perhaps reflecting on an unfortunate tourist encounter with the local wildlife, it informs us that “Chinese people feel as if they have swallowed a fly when hearing about Australia”. And describing “Australia’s interference into China’s internal affairs, its inflicting damages on China’s interests, and its trade discrimination against China”, it quotes China’s foreign ministry as saying that “Australia is sick, however it is asking others to take medicine”.

We all remember the doctored photo shared by the Chinese foreign ministry that depicted an Australian soldier slitting the throat of an Afghan child clutching a sacrificial lamb. When Australia called in the Chinese ambassador to protest, the Global Times editorialised that Scott Morrison was a “ridiculously arrogant … political hatchet man hired by the US akin to a mafia” who “should kneel down on the ground, slap himself in the face, and kowtow to apologise to Afghans”. The editors later opined that Australia has “a rude and arrogant government and a group of political and opinion elites who don’t have a clear estimation of themselves”.

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Well, maybe they have a point on that last one. In any case, “all rational people understand that under the impact of the pandemic, Australia should not push China”. But if there’s one person even China can’t push around, it’s teen climate activist Greta Thunberg. In May, the Global Times went gunning for Greta, claiming that she “may lack enough knowledge to correctly understand climate change”. Having skipped school every Friday to protest global warming, she “is short of sufficient academic knowledge study, and lack of sound self-judgment capability”. How dare they! Truth is no defence against defamation. China should know that better than anyone.

The Global Times is the foreign policy mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party. It is an official publication of a ruling party that brooks no internal dissent. Often dismissed by China apologists as an inflammatory tabloid that should not be taken seriously, it is in many ways a more authoritative voice of state power than the foreign ministry itself. After all, it is a Party paper, and in China, the Party doesn’t just govern the state; the Party is the state. And if the Chinese state really does believe that Australia is “a bit like chewing gum stuck on the sole of China’s shoes” (to quote Global Times editor Hu Xijin, who still has his job), that should prompt Australians to reflect deeply on their country’s relationship with China.

Three Australians who have thought long and hard about the Australia–China relationship are Peter Hartcher, Geoff Raby and David Brophy. Hartcher is the political and international editor of the Sydney Morning Herald and the author of Red Zone: China’s Challenge and Australia’s Future, published in May by Black Inc. Raby is a former ambassador to China who now runs a self-described “boutique advisory firm” with “strong relationships with senior leaders in government and corporations in China” and the author of China’s Grand Strategy and Australia’s Future in the New Global Order, published last November by Melbourne University Press. And Brophy is a senior lecturer on modern Chinese history at the University of Sydney and the author of China Panic: Australia’s Alternative to Paranoia and Pandering, just published in June by Black Inc for La Trobe University Press.

These three authors and their three books run the gamut of intellectually respectable Australian public opinion on Australia–China relations. Hartcher is a hawk but not a wolverine; he advocates a robust response to the China challenge, but does not indulge in martial fantasies or plots to overthrow the Party regime. Raby represents the frankly pragmatic materialism (he would say: realism) of Australia’s diplomatic corps and business elite. Brophy is a dove but not an apologist; his non-confrontational approach to China is driven more by an idealistic yearning for a more moral world than by desire to appease the Party’s totalitarian oppression. Many readers may hold views that fall outside this spectrum, but all practical policy-making is likely to occur within it.

For the most part, all three authors agree on the facts. As Raby puts it, “Australia’s relations with China are based on strategic mistrust.” He offers a succinct summary of the sticking points in the Australia–China relationship:

The tardiness with which Australia joined the AIIB [Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank]; its refusal to participate fully in BRI [Belt & Road Initiative] activities; its strident position on the South China Sea; it being the first of only a few countries to put a blanket ban on all aspects of Huawei’s involvement in a local 5G network; its call for an international investigation into the origins of COVID-19.

Notably, these issues all have to do with Australia’s behaviour, not China’s. And indeed all three books reviewed here are ultimately about Australia: its rights, its interests and its ideals—and, inevitably, its abiding but ambivalent relationship with the United States. Perhaps like the authors themselves, all three books seem as conflicted about the future of US–China relations as they are about the present of Australia–China relations. And all three books offer aspirations for a better Australia, whatever happens with China.

In the light of the Global Times editorial line, backed up by similar (if less evocative) statements from the Chinese foreign ministry, it can be hard to see how any self-respecting Australian can make the case that Australia should seek to return to the good old days of China engagement. Some still try. Not Peter Hartcher. His Red Zone is an absolute philippic. In a book that is somewhat pretentiously dedicated to “Australia, a life raft of liberty in a rising tide of tyranny”, he argues that Australia “needs to concentrate on strengthening itself” against Chinese aggression. And although most of his prescriptions focus on protecting Australian democracy from Chinese interference, he does not draw the line at purely internal reforms. He advocates defence modernisation, and even believes that “there is a powerful case for moving toward readiness” in acquiring an autonomous nuclear deterrence.

It’s hard to imagine a nuclear Australia, never mind a nuclear-armed one, but the fact that a respected member of the journalistic establishment is seriously speculating about it surely says something. Hartcher doesn’t start at that extreme. He ends there, after 300 pages of carefully reviewing the last five years of Australia–China relations. The book has the feel of a second draft of history: not quite in-the-moment journalism, but a long-form journalistic review of events that are more or less familiar to those who have lived through them, but who may not have considered them carefully. Red Zone is something like an Australian version of the American 9/11 Commission Report, with two differences: Hartcher really does connect the dots, and Australians have their warning now, before it’s too late.

In something of a cruller of a classical allusion, Hartcher opens his book by likening Australia to the land of the lotus-eaters from Homer’s Odyssey, lulled into complacency by the narcotic effect of Chinese money, then closes it by comparing China to the giant cyclops who traps Odysseus in his cave, calling him a likeable nobody whom he will eat last of all. Considering that Odysseus gave his captor wine, poked him in the eye, then escaped under an unshorn ram, perhaps the metaphor is apt. Hartcher might profitably have thrown in the Trojan horse for good measure: Huawei’s too-cheap-to-be-true networking gear, the on-campus Confucius Institutes for language-learning, and Chinese state-owned enterprises bidding over the top for leases on critical infrastructure all suggest a hidden agenda.

A key strength of Hartcher’s Red Zone is its comparative perspective. Hartcher is one of the few participants in Australia’s China debate who fully understands that Australia is not the only country to face a concerted campaign of Chinese bullying. As Hartcher tells it, the “countries punished were, in chronological order, France, Japan, Norway, the Philippines, Britain, Taiwan, Mongolia, South Korea, Palau, Canada and Australia”. Their offences ranged from hosting the Dalai Lama (France) to arresting a Huawei executive on an American warrant (Canada). France gave in, and enjoyed a return to China’s good graces. Canada held firm, and has seen its citizens held in arbitrary detention, its exports blocked, and its diplomatic contacts frozen. Any Australians who feel singled out by China need only look to Canada for company.

Red Zone is the indispensable guide to China’s assault on Australian institutions and Australia’s pushback against it. Whether or not one agrees with Hartcher’s conclusions, or even his interpretations, his telling of the facts is so compellingly comprehensive that no one can intelligently weigh in on Australia’s China debate without referencing Red Zone. The only major shortcoming of the book is its lack of notes: given that much of Red Zone is clearly based on Hartcher’s own reporting, it wouldn’t have been much work for him to refer readers back to his original articles. Still, in the internet age it’s easy enough for readers to look them up for themselves. Red Zone is a surprisingly fast-paced 360 pages; the lack of notes only leavens the narrative.

One self-respecting Australian who does seek a return to China engagement is Geoff Raby. In China’s Grand Strategy, which he cheekily dedicates to COVID-19 (for giving him the time to write it), Raby makes a persuasively pragmatic case for a “foreign policy … based on realism” that engages with China “in ways that avoid war and maximise benefits”. Raby’s realism is premised on an assumption that “the old order shaped and led by the US is over”. Whether or not that assumption is correct, it is widely held—in fact, shared by all three authors under consideration in this review. Raby worries that Australia “has cleaved ever more closely to the US with policies that look like the triumph of hope over experience”. He believes that the United States “is displaying characteristics of a failed state” and that the coronavirus pandemic “is likely to highlight China’s strengths and the US’s weaknesses”. Well, maybe.

It’s hard to disagree with Raby’s frank assertion that “Australia’s interests are best served by a policy of engagement with China, not containment”. He is certainly right that Australia now “looks set to be locked into an unproductive relationship with China that will destroy value in trade and investment”. He is also rightly sceptical of “Thucydides trap” theorists who see China’s rise as a zero-sum game that will inevitably lead to war with the United States. Instead, he envisions a future in which China dominates East Asia and increasingly shapes multilateral institutions, whether or not those institutions include the United States (or Australia). Without whitewashing the fact that “China has behaved badly”, Raby is resigned to living in a world in which “big powers do that, and smaller ones suffer what they must”. That includes Australia.

While acknowledging that “China’s behaviour has lacked subtlety and has for many countries reached a point where it must be resisted”, Raby does not seem to include Australia among those countries. Truth be told, Australia is not an immediate (or even a long-term) target of Chinese territorial expansion. China’s many border disputes don’t directly impinge on Australia, and China is hardly likely to use its coming dominance over the South China Sea to cut off its own trade with the world. And China often offers Australia infrastructure and other finance on excellent terms. As Raby argues, a straightforward analysis of Australia’s national interest, leaving aside weaselly qualifiers like “true”, “real”, or “broad” to focus on the tangible facts of profit and security, does suggest that Australia should do whatever it can to mollify China.

China’s Grand Strategy is an impressive book, marrying deep international relations insights with a no-nonsense understanding of international economics. It is much more about Raby’s vision of the emerging global order than specifically about Australia’s place in it: an implicit acknowledgment that Australia’s policy options are in many ways shaped by others. One does not have to embrace Raby’s defeatist resignation to appreciate the high intellectual calibre of his arguments, and although few readers will be inspired by the book’s unprincipled materialism, all will be enlightened by his impressive scholarship. Still, there’s more than a whiff of But think of all the money! to the book. If that’s all there is to national interest, then maybe those qualifiers are worth a look in, after all.

National interest is a notoriously slippery concept. Indeed, David Brophy claims in China Panic that “there’s really no such thing as a single national interest”. Decrying the strategic games that “serve elite interests” but “deplete public resources and endanger political freedoms”, he argues that Australia should refocus its China debate on “the interests that ordinary people in Australia and across Asia share in both combatting oppression and resisting warmongering”. Before Australia can improve relations with China, it must “drop the constant accusations that China is bent on compromising Australian sovereignty and independence”. No doubt the Global Times would agree.

Brophy claims that China shares Australian values of “freedom, equality, democracy and the rule of law”. It is a “misconception” to believe that Australia “is a victim of Chinese imperialism”; the true “Pacific empire-builder” is Australia, which is brought “into conflict with Beijing” by its local support for global American imperialism. In Brophy’s view, Australian sovereignty has already been compromised, “not by China, but by its relationship with the United States”, and the presence of American signals intelligence facilities on Australian soil represents a surrender of Australian sovereignty that is “far more serious than anything China is said to have been responsible for in recent times”.

In a very real sense, he is right. The United States does seek to impose its own vision of world order on global governance institutions. Australian elites do benefit from participation in American corporate networks. Australia does grant American military equipment manufacturers access to its economy, universities and government agencies. Somewhat gratuitously for a book on Australia–China relations, Brophy is also broadly correct when he claims on twelve separate occasions that Israel often takes actions that many people around the world find objectionable. What Brophy doesn’t accept—repeatedly, emphatically, passionately does not accept—is that most “ordinary Australians” are quite comfortable with these arrangements. And although many Australians are sceptical of American motives, nearly all of them believe that the United States plays an important role in guaranteeing Australia’s national security.

China Panic is an important book, but one that is chock-full of insidious moral equivalences padded with selectively potted histories that scrupulously avoid being technically incorrect. For example, Brophy correctly reports that Australian and Chinese leaders have not spoken since 2016, without mentioning that China has ignored repeated Australian requests for meetings. He correctly reports that the United States has prosecuted “Chinese American academics for failing to disclose collaborations with PRC institutions” while failing to mention that the most prominent target of these prosecutions has been the decidedly non-Chinese Harvard chemist Charles Lieber. A dozen more examples might be cited. They seriously undermine the moral power of what might otherwise be an intellectually stimulating, if perhaps over-idealistic, alternative analysis of Australia’s China problem.

Each of the books reviewed here gets some minor facts wrong. Contra Hartcher, Julius Caesar was never the “king” of Rome (read the play!). Contra Raby, the Chinese Communist Party is not “by far the largest political party ever to have existed”; that would be India’s BJP. Contra Brophy, China’s fourteen-point manifesto to Australia was not delivered by “Chinese journalists”, but by Chinese embassy officials. But that’s quite a short list of errata for 856 pages of quality Australian writing. These are all books you can argue with, engage with, really sink your teeth into—perhaps literally. They are the products of a free society engaging in a hard-fought and highly consequential debate over its own future. That’s how things should be.

Obviously, that’s not the way things are in China. For seven decades, the Chinese Communist Party has suppressed any hint of open debate in China, sometimes with mass bloodshed, always with mass terror. Sadly, that’s nothing new in China. This July, the Party will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of its founding in Shanghai’s French Concession—the relative liberality of the foreign colonial enclave making it one of the few places in China where the organisers could meet. The delegates to that first meeting of the Party’s central committee, including the twenty-seven-year-old Mao Zedong, slept at the dormitory of the Bowen All-Girls School (presumably without the girls). The Comintern picked up the tab.

These days it’s more likely to be the Chinese Communist Party picking up the tab. Some Australians may be comfortable with the idea of living off the Party’s largesse, confident that their liberties are secure in their own colonial enclave at the bottom of the world. That seems reasonable, if somewhat complacent. Others may worry that Australia could someday share the fate of the French Concession. That seems, frankly, unlikely. But even if the true stakes of Australia’s China debate are perhaps lower than these three books assume, the moral hazards of dealing with China are correspondingly higher. The China challenge isn’t fundamentally about Australia’s national interest. It’s about Australia’s national soul.

Red Zone: China’s Challenge and Australia’s Future
by Peter Hartcher

Black Inc, 2021, 360 pages, $32.99

China’s Grand Strategy and Australia’s Future in the New Global Order
by Geoff Raby

Melbourne University Press, 2020, 232 pages, $34.99

China Panic: Australia’s Alternative to Paranoia and Pandering
by David Brophy

Black Inc/La Trobe University Press, 2021, 264 pages, $32.99

Salvatore Babones is the Philistine


8 thoughts on “The Depths of Australia’s China Problem

  • pmprociv says:

    Brilliant review! This is the most succinct, lucid and sensible analysis of Australia’s relationships with China that I have yet read. Many thanks, Philistine – you should be one of our National Treasures!

  • whitelaughter says:

    [nods] very useful article

  • Harry Lee says:

    It’s about Australia’s national soul?
    Now, a dominant faction of the ALP is clearly working to make Australia a vassal state of China-
    -in which ALP commissars run the place, so they think.
    But no, the place will be run by Chinese commissars.
    Also on “national soul”:
    A multiculturalist nation cannot survive as a “nation” -multiculturalism is contrary to the very essence of a “national soul”. This is true despite what is said by politicians, by educators, by media people, by legal people, and esp by anti-Westernists and naive globalists in all walks and stations of life.
    And let us deal in reality: All assessments of China’s grand strategy and its public stances must be based on assessments of the truths of China’s vulnerabilities. China’s natural resources are exceedingly short of what China needs to feed its peoples. China is the world’s biggest importer of food. It must also import massive quantities of oil, coal, iron-ore, bauxite and much else, mostly by sea. And it must export massive amounts of manufactured goods. China needs the rest of the world, esp Europe and North America, to continue to grow their consumption of China’s exports. For China to eat, the rest of the world must increase the buying power of their conumsers.
    In all of this, one must grasp that China needs the rest of the world vastly more than the rest of the world needs China. And so, China huffs, puffs and blusters.
    Funny thing, but the truth can only be seen by those with eyes to see.

  • ianl says:

    >” … Some Australians may be comfortable with the idea of living off the Party’s largesse, confident that their liberties are secure in their own colonial enclave at the bottom of the world. That seems reasonable, if somewhat complacent.”

    Perhaps 15-20 years ago, when even I had hope that Chinese enterpreneurial ability would modify the powerlust of politicians sufficiently to allow some productive interactions.

    That’s over now. Too jittery for confident balance.

    Salvatore B remains about the best of the essayists here.

  • Ian MacKenzie says:

    If David Brophy believes that the CCP shares Australian values of “freedom, equality, democracy and the rule of law”, then he’s an idiot. Ordinary Chinese citizens might aspire to those values, but the CCP believes in none of them. In fact it’s a pretty good list of the things that the CCP most wants it’s citizens not to have.
    Babones is correct that mass terror and mass bloodshed are nothing new in China. Tragically for the Chinese the CCP have adopted and adapted the worst aspects of the old Empire, when they could have adapted those best aspects of Chinese culture that have made Taiwan and Singapore such success stories. Until recently the same could be said of Hong Kong, but what of their “freedom, equality, democracy and the rule of law” now?
    Interestingly, given that Morrison is such an appeaser of the Left domestically, he seems to get the balance about right on China. In the battle to win hearts and minds in Australia he has of course unique assistance from the CCP, whose current diplomacy seems to be expertly crafted to alienate Australians. It is hard to imagine anything worse at persuading Australians than the bellicose nonsense spouted by the likes of the Global Times or indeed Chinese diplomats. That’s why polling numbers in Australia for Xi and the CCP have tanked in the last year. Consequently Morrison has all the support he needs to pursue his current course. Revulsion at the actions and attitudes of the CCP is spreading, and they have only themselves to blame.

  • Harry Lee says:

    Main matter is if the key authorities in Australia deal in reality.
    Academics and “ambassadors” of the Anglosphere mostly think in terms of how nice it all would be if the peoples of the non-West would all engage in lovely liberal democracy, and you know, at least talk about the wonders of freedom, equality, and the rule of (Anglosphere) law.
    Well, only a very tiny number of peoples of the non-West think in those terms. And their political elites think that stuff is all bunk and anyway would not work in in the non-West.
    So main thing is:
    Do the staffs of PMC, DFAT, Immigration/Refugees, AFP, ASIO, ASIS include a couple people who deal in the actual realities of the non-West, and in the realities of the motives and actions of non-Westerners who now reside here.

  • PT says:

    I totally agree Ian MacKenzie! Brophy is either completely delusional, a total idiot, or a shameless CCP propagandist to write such tripe. The People’s Republic doesn’t allow multiparty elections, does not have an independent judiciary, or any concept of free political discussion amongst its population! The actions against Hong Kong are proof if any were needed that they don’t value these things!

    Consequently I fail to see how the author can claim that book is a “valuable contribution to the discussion on relations with China”! If the author can make such a fundamental error/lie nothing can be taken seriously! All it is is an example of how divorced from reality Chinese appeasers are!

  • Harry Lee says:

    Why not focus on the clear and present Chinese assault on Australia?
    This Chinese invasion consists of the infiltration of our institutions by CCP agents, and is well-advanced.
    These agents are people of Chinese origin -and also European-Australians, esp those with affiliations with the ALP and certain major corporations.
    All recitations of cliches, speculations, and declarations by journalists, academics, and others, that do not focus on this infiltration, serve as diversions and smokescreens that aid our enemy, China.
    China’s task of feeding its peoples, with its severely limited natural resources, means that China will always seek to enslave the peoples of countries with excess natural resources and clueless residents.
    Examples: Africa is now fast being colonised by China. And Australia too. But who’d know, given that this “news” is totally suppressed. And even if it were not suppressed, there are only a few very Australians who could grasp the implications.
    China is a zero threat in military terms. But it is effectively taking over here, aided by the combo of cluelessness and malignity among politicians, public servants, investors, academics, journalists, and business executives, and the drowsiness of civilians.

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