China and the Politics of Appeasement

There is little doubt the most pitiful character in European history is Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister who went to Munich in September 1938 to negotiate a settlement with Adolf Hitler. Despite Hitler’s ever-increasing displays of aggression throughout the 1930s — the Rhineland, Kristallnacht, Anschluss and Sudetenland — Chamberlain returned to Britain holding aloft a document proclaiming “peace for our time”. He described his policy as “appeasing” Hitler, that is, making concessions to avoid what would otherwise be war. But as Chamberlain soon learned to his own and Europe’s great cost, appeasement was interpreted by Hitler as free rein to do whatever he wanted. Chamberlain’s policy was thereby part of the cause of the horrendous war that quickly followed.

Today, Australia has a similar figure in the person of Richard Marles, Labor’s Deputy of the Opposition and former Shadow Minister for Defence. Thanks to some shrewd detective work by the Liberal Party’s Senator James Paterson and some deft investigative journalism by The Australian’s Sharri Markson, Marles’s own document verifying his status as a true disciple of Neville Chamberlain is now online.

The document is the text of a speech Marles made in China in September 2019 to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Communist Party’s ascension to power. Invited by a Chinese lobby group, Marles delivered the speech to the Beijing Foreign Studies University. He put the text up on his personal website but some time later took it down. It remained out of sight until Senator Paterson uncovered it and posted it himself. Markson pursued the issue further and found Marles had made similar sentiments in a mini-book Tides that Bind published last August.

In his Beijing speech, Marles advocated not only economic relations between China and Australia, but also defence co-operation. Here is how he described the “strategic dimension” of the relationship:

Our starting point has to be that we respect China and deeply value our relationship with China. We must seek to build it. And not just in economic terms, but also through exploring political co-operation and even defence co-operation. To define China as an enemy is a profound mistake. To talk of a new Cold War is silly and ignorant.

This respect and valuation, he said, should extend to approving China’s recent attempts to establish a presence in some of the Pacific Islands that have traditionally been regarded as critical to Australia’s security. Marles said he had known of this since 2012 when he was “very cognizant of the growing role that China was playing in providing development assistance in the Pacific.”

Let me be crystal clear: that was and has been a good thing. The Pacific needs help and Australia needs to welcome any country willing to provide it. Certainly the Pacific Island Countries themselves do … Australia does not have an exclusive right to engage with the Pacific. The basis of our interest in the Pacific cannot be about attempting to engage in the strategic denial of others. This is not a foundation upon which to build better relations in the Pacific and in any event it will not work … we need to change the trajectory of development in the Pacific; one that is acutely alert to the impact of development assistance and financing on local communities and local priorities. And any country, including China, which shares this awareness and is willing to help in this endeavor should enjoy Australia’s support.

In Tides that Bind, Marles dismissed concerns about China establishing itself in the Pacific archipelago. It would be an “historic mistake”, he said, to object to Chinese access to the region:

Australia does not have an exclusive right to engage with the Pacific. The basis of our interest in the Pacific cannot be about attempting to engage in the strategic denial of others. This is not a foundation upon which to build better relations in the Pacific and in any event it will not work … we need to change the trajectory of development in the Pacific; one that is acutely alert to the impact of development assistance and financing on local communities and local priorities. And any country, including China, which shares this awareness and is willing to help in this endeavour should enjoy Australia’s support …

Rather than worrying about the prospect of foreign military bases in the region, our real call to arms must be the Pacific’s performance against MDGs (Millennium Development Goals), and the associated and real risk that it will become entrenched as the least developed part of the world.

Now, if the Chinese role in the Pacific could somehow be guaranteed to remain confined to “development and financing”, this would be hard to dispute. But it is naïve to think China’s interest in establishing bases in the Pacific derives from the goodness of Xi Jinping’s heart or his concerns for the welfare of Melanesians and Polynesians. Marles knows this as well as anyone and so he is plainly adopting the kind of logic that rendered Neville Chamberlain such ignominy. He hopes that, if we are nice to Communist China and its present mindset, they will reciprocate. This is not the basis of a sound strategy for national security, but if Labor wins the forthcoming election then Marles, until recently the Shadow Minister for Defence, is likely to be the guy who makes the policy.

How, then, should Australia respond to China’s territorial ambitions in our region?

In the April 2020 edition of Quadrant, the military strategist Michael Evans, of the Australian Defence College in Canberra, points out that these objectives are not just the obsessions of the Chinese dictator Xi Jinping. They are backed by an array of Chinese intellectuals such as Liu Mingfu, author of The China Dream: Great Power Thinking and Strategic Power in the Post-American Era (2015), and Yan Xuetong, author of Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers (2019). These and several other intellectual advisors provide an agenda through which Xi’s China is seeking to displace the United States in world affairs.

Evans argues that the history of great powers in the Pacific region provides part of a road map that reveals how these ambitions can be achieved. He uses this to demonstrate the prospects of the current Chinese projection of power into the Pacific islands, and the predicament in which Australia now finds itself.

Australia, Evans observes, has faced great power encroachment in our region before. Between 1919 and 1939 Australia was seriously threatened with invasion by the mounting imperialist power of Japan. It had nominally been on the side of the British Empire during the First World War from 1914 to 1918. As the war progressed, Japan took advantage of Germany’s immersion in European events to seize its possessions in our region. Adding to its previous conquest of Korea and Manchuria, Japan emerged from the war in control of German colonies in eastern and northern China, we well as German New Guinea (then occupying the north-eastern quarter of the island), together with virtually all the islands of the south-west of the Pacific north of the equator, especially the Caroline Islands where they established a major naval base on Truk Lagoon.

In 1919, at the victors’ carve-up at Versailles, which recognised Japan’s status as a world power by appointing it one of the five victors to draft the peace treaty, Japan said it wanted to inherit all of Germany’s Pacific territories, including those south of the equator. This led to major objections at the peace conference by Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes, who successfully lobbied for German New Guinea to be declared a mandate of the League of Nations under Australian control, and for none of the islands south of the equator to be retained by Japan. He persuaded the other victors to recognise the Hughes Doctrine that any great power which gained control of the archipelagos between Java and Fiji threatened Australia:

It is proper that a doctrine be promulgated on behalf of Australia [that] in order that Australia be safe, it is necessary that the great rampart of islands stretching around the north-east of Australia should be held by us or by some power in whom we have absolute confidence … The archipelagos [are] as necessary to Australia as water to a city. If they were in the hands of a superior power, there would be no peace for Australia.

Evans points out that the Hughes Doctrine was still influential in Australia both during and after the Second World War. When the Cold War began in 1950, Australia’s Minister for External Affairs, Percy Spender, reaffirmed the doctrine, saying Australia had a duty to itself to ensure there was no threat to its security in the island chain.

In my book The White Australia Policy (2004), I argue that, in the inter-war years, when Australia identified Japan as “the yellow peril”, this was not the product of some irrational national anxiety, as leftist university historians hypothesized, but a rational concern for national security. In the 1920s and 1930s, Japan made a point of studying Australian security arrangements. It conducted its own surveys of the coastlines of northern and eastern Australia, much like those made in February this year by the Chinese spy ship shadowed by HMAS Supply from the Torres Strait down to Sydney.

The teams of Japanese divers who worked in the interwar years in the pearl shell industry around Broome and Thursday Island contained a number who dressed as sailors and workmen but who spoke fluent English and whose books and tastes displayed tell-tale signs of English and American academic education. On Thursday Island they funded the local hospital and joined its board. In 1920 they boasted their navy knew the Torres Strait better than the Royal Australian Navy and that Japanese charts of the Great Barrier Reef were more accurate than those of the British Admiralty.

On January 23, 1942, just seven weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbour, the Japanese Navy steamed into Rabaul, the capital of the then Territory of New Guinea located on the island of New Britain. Their invasion force numbered several thousand who quickly overran the small Australian garrison, capturing and executing those who could not flee in time. It became Japan’s major base in the South Pacific until the end of the war, housing no less than 110,000 troops at its peak in 1943.

The bloody, destructive and drawn-out six-month battle on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands in 1942 between American and Japanese navies and marines was primarily designed to gain control of Henderson Field, the crucial local airfield that served as the principal southern protector of the base at Rabaul. And even though the Americans eventually prevailed on Guadalcanal, they decided to leave the heavily defended Rabaul base as it was, and did not attempt to take it back until the war was over.

Honiara, the seat of government of the Solomon Islands, is located on Guadalcanal and anyone with knowledge of the war in the Pacific in the 1940s can see how attractive it still would be to an Imperial China seeking to command the South Pacific today. After the 2019 election returned Manasseh Sogavare as Prime Minister he succumbed to Chinese diplomacy, rejected his country’s previous recognition of Taiwan and switched it to mainland China. Since then he has been inundated by Chinese flattery and ideology. China has duchessed him with formal inspections of troops in Tiananmen Square, generating impressive photos to show the folks at home.

Sogavare has obviously read at least some of the same Chinese intellectual literature that has so impressed Xi. He now talks about the declining place of the United States in Asia and the Pacific and the rise of China to great power strength. When two of Joe Biden’s diplomats visited him in April to try to persuade him to reject Chinese pressure for a military base on his island, Sogavare told them: “We placed the country on the right side of history, and here we are.”

In other words, Sogavare has adopted what amounts to a South Pacific version of appeasement. But just like Chamberlain and Marles, he seems oblivious of the fact that history has fated him to be the tool of another great power’s ambitions. He should have reflected on the fact, obvious to outsiders, that if something akin to the events in the Second World War in the South Pacific is repeated, one of the first places to be reduced to a military waste land would be the island of Guadalcanal.

Keith Windschuttle is the editor of Quadrant

17 comments
  • Botswana O’Hooligan

    Thank you Sir, I flew all over the “Islands” from the early 1960’s until Gough gave it all away and saw the wreckage left behind, most of the metal cleaned up by Japanese scrap merchants so in reality they had a win, win, situation when one thinks about it. We don’t need a Celestial influence there and if the peoples of those areas knew their history, nor would they.

  • Sindri

    10 years ago Liu Yuan, then a prominent general in the PLA, opined that ”history is written by blood and slaughter” and called on China to get in touch with its martial culture:
    https://www.smh.com.au/world/chinese-general-rattles-sabre-20110522-1eyyu.html
    As a news item it sank without remark at the time. Imagine, just imagine, the global reaction if a high-ranking American General had publicly called on the US to “rediscover its ‘military culture”, or opined that ”history is written by blood and slaughter”, “war is a natural extension of economics and politics” and that ”man cannot survive without killing”.

  • Adam J

    “Since then he has been inundated by Chinese flattery and ideology. China has duchessed him with formal inspections of troops in Tiananmen Square, generating impressive photos to show the folks at home…
    “He now talks about the declining place of the United States in Asia and the Pacific and the rise of China to great power strength. When two of Joe Biden’s diplomats visited him in April…”

    In other words China rewards its new converts while the USA-in-decline sends two bureaucrats to have a chat. There will also be no consequences for this betrayal.
    I’m of the opinion that such islands should have been annexed to Australia and run as autonomous territories.

  • ianl

    An uncomfortable question:

    how will Australia react (not proact) when China bribes Port Moresby ?

  • pgang

    Adam J, how dare you be so imperialist!

  • Gordon Cheyne

    I wonder if Chamberlain has been unduly maligned: could his policy of appeasing Hitler have given Britain a chance to re-arm and prepare for the eventual war?

  • RB

    We will wring our hands and do nothing.

  • Macspee

    And when, as they will, locals take to attacking and possibly killing Chinese will Honiara call in the Chinese troops or the Federal police. One way will lead to destruction.

  • Lewis P Buckingham

    ianl – 27th April 2022
    Australia already ‘supports’ Port Moresby’.
    https://png.embassy.gov.au/pmsb/cooperation.html
    ‘Australia will provide an estimated $491.1 million in bilateral funding to Papua New Guinea in 2020-21. Total Australian Official Development Assistance (ODA) to Papua New Guinea in 2020-21 will be an estimated $596.0 million.’

  • geoff_brown1

    Neville Chamberlain had a number of factors against him. Popular opinion was bitterly opposed to another war, the British Army was not equipped to fight a war in Europe, the Royal Air Force was approaching block obsolescence, and the Dominions would not have joined England.

  • john.singer

    We once had politicians who understood threats and acted accordingly with wisdom and foresight. When our legislators were planning for the site of a National Capital they laid down a few factors which were not open for negotiation. Principal among them was the Requirement than the National Capital was to be wholly within the Borders of NSW, was to have access to the sea and [this is the condition recognising external threats] beyond the range of Russian guns.

  • whitelaughter

    It is a sad truth that Chamberlain went to his deathbed convinced that history would vindicate him.

    And no, Gordon, he did not buy time to rearm. Each Nazi annexation granted vast resources to Germany changing the balance of power in their favour. Remember that when Hitler moved into the Ruhrland his troops had orders to retreat if the French moved in response: he knew then that he could not face *one* of the major powers. But with the factories of the Ruhrland, people of Austria, arms from Czechoslovakia – he had the resources to devastate Europe.

  • pmprociv

    Sad reflection on Marles that he can’t admit that maybe one’s views should change with changing circumstances, and that he then tries to hide it.
    But I can’t help agreeing with Macspee (4 comments up): having spent time in various parts of the Pacific, I found the Solomons people, while friendly and generous, to be very expressive and short-fused (and were headhunters not all that long ago). They know (and resent) just how corrupt their politicians are, they’re pissed off by just how much of their natural resources (forests, fisheries) are being pillaged by mainly Asian interests (the environmental destruction has to be seen to be believed), and they harbour residual resentment against the Japanese. What we don’t seem to hear is that, in the recent violent unrest in Honiara, the prime targets of violence were Chinese shopkeepers.
    This all bodes unfavourably for any long-term Chinese military presence on those islands. You can be sure that there won’t be any benefit for the “ordinary people”, who won’t even score jobs from it. It shouldn’t be too long before unfriendly interactions between intruders and locals degenerate into open hostility, and violence. China will then have to either withdraw, or strongly fortify any of its bases there, fomenting more local anger and hostility. And, with lurking US missile subs, such bases would be extremely short-lived should a serious war break out. It definitely won’t be “Guadalcanal 2”!
    The public angst about Chinese bases might be a typical, electioneering, political storm in a teacup; we’ll see if it fades away once the votes are in.

  • Watchman Williams

    World War 2 was the changing of the guard in the West from the UK to the US. Alas, the US had neither the diplomatic experience nor the strategic vision to safeguard Western culture; instead, it relied exclusively upon military muscle. At the same time, Western culture has been degraded by the moral depredations promoted by US “cultural” institutions, so that the hegemony of the West has been surrendered by severing itself from its spiritual roots.
    The reality is that China is, and will be, the dominant power in the Pacific and Australia is destined to be nothing more than a tribute state of China, providing resources and materials for the Chinese people and Chinese factories. In other words, China will become to Australia what the UK once was in the colonial era.
    Of course, modern Chinese culture, to which every Australia knee will be required to bend, will not be as amenable to Australians as that of Britain, but the apathy of Australians will inevitably reap what their politicians have sown.
    As a politician, Richard Marles clearly recognises this and is positioning himself accordingly. Others, such as Vidkun Quisling and Lord Haw Haw, have done the same in the past. In the event, they picked the wrong side, and paid a steep price fore their miscalculation, but I will be very surprised if Mr. Marles hasn’t picked a winner. After all, we will soon have an ethnic Chinese as our Foreign Minister and we should also remember that Prime Minister Paul Keating once described this as the “Asian Century” and urged Australians to embrace “Asian Values”, whatever that means.
    How they must be laughing in Beijing!

  • Watchman Williams

    World War 2 was the changing of the guard in the West from the UK to the US. Alas, the US had neither the diplomatic experience nor the strategic vision to safeguard Western culture; instead, it relied exclusively upon military muscle. At the same time, Western culture has been degraded by the moral depredations promoted by US “cultural” institutions, so that the hegemony of the West has been surrendered by severing itself from its spiritual roots.
    The reality is that China is, and will be, the dominant power in the Pacific and Australia is destined to be nothing more than a tribute state of China, providing resources and materials for the Chinese people and Chinese factories. In other words, China will become to Australia what the UK once was in the colonial era.
    Of course, modern Chinese culture, to which every Australia knee will be required to bend, will not be as amenable to Australians as that of Britain, but the apathy of Australians will inevitably reap what their politicians have sown.
    As a politician, Richard Marles clearly recognises this and is positioning himself accordingly. Others, such as Vidkun Quisling and Lord Haw Haw, have done the same in the past. In the event, they picked the wrong side, and paid a steep price fore their miscalculation, but I will be very surprised if Mr. Marles hasn’t picked a winner. After all, we will soon have an ethnic Chinese as our Foreign Minister and we should also remember that Prime Minister Paul Keating once described this as the “Asian Century” and urged Australians to embrace “Asian Values”, whatever that means.
    How they must be laughing in Beijing!

  • Brenden T Walters

    I believe China has a 99 year lease over the Port of Darwin. Who signed off on that. It’s a bit rich for us now to be winging about the Solomon Islands. That self-righteous, idiotic plunge into the genesis of the Covid virus claiming the high moral ground for no earthly reason was stupidity in the extreme. What do we care where the virus came from, we still don’t know, All that did was to inflict financial pain on some of our exporters to our biggest trading partner.

  • abrogard

    good one. I’d upvote you if it were available.

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