The Depths of Australia’s China Problem

The Depths of Australia’s China Problem. By Salvatore Barbone.

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”.

 

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.

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. …

Three Australians who have thought long and hard about the Australia–China relationship are Peter Hartcher, Geoff Raby and David Brophy. …

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.”

Peter Hartcher … 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. …

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. …

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. …

One self-respecting Australian who does seek a return to China engagement is Geoff Raby. … 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. … 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.

It’s not just Australia’s China problem, but the world’s. Covid is just the latest episode. What’s next?