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The past and the future in Australia-China relations

Published 01 Feb 2021

For its final event of 2020, AIIA NSW was addressed by James Curran, Professor of Modern History at the University of Sydney.  His topic was “What’s old is new again”: problems of the past and the future in Australia-China relations. His theme was that the prospect of China becoming a threat to western strategic dominance dated back at least a century; Australian concern about Chinese dominance (and immigration) was deep rooted. The current deterioration in Australia-China relations required a re-assessment of cold war preoccupations. As in the United States, cultural – even racist – impulses had affected harder-headed policy formulation.

There was no doubt that China under President Xi Jinping had wrapped China’s growing economic might in an assertive, bullying brand of Chinese exceptionalism: the “ideological araldite” of modern Chinese identity. This had been seen in Beijing’s treatment of the Uighurs, its sabre rattling over Hong Kong, its testing of Taiwan’s resolve and its wolf warrior diplomacy. For our part, Australian initiatives on matters like the origin of the Covid pandemic and Huawei’s role in the 5G network, while entirely reasonable, had been unnecessarily trumpeted in an anti-Chinese, pro-American tone giving an impression that Australia was undermining Chinese commercial interests and national unity. Australian policy-makers seemed to have underestimated the possible damage to Australian economic interests. Playing the China card in Australian domestic politics could provoke long-term damage to the relationship and to Australian community cohesion.

Perceptions of China and its possible threat to Australia needed to be separated from older themes of Australian innocence and vulnerability, and from a re-heated cold war rhetoric reminiscent of the invasion scare literature of the late 19th century. In fact, Australian institutions were more than strong enough to resist outside challenges to our policy independence and our democratic structures. Analogies with the appeasement of Nazi Germany in the 1930s were overdrawn.

Australian political leaders had largely not echoed US perceptions dating from the 1980s that China would adopt democratic reforms as it became integrated into the international system, or endorsed a cold war analogy in relation to US-China relations (despite some of the confrontational, containment language used at times  in the Quad). Similarly they had not for the most part perceived China as a strategic competitor to Australia, instead advocating engagement with China in concert with regional neighbours. Applying a cold war perspective to regional security architecture aimed at checking Chinese power revealed a longing for soothing memories of a “war” which had been fought and won against an ideological opponent, like putting on a very old but comfortable pair of strategic slippers.

A persistent sense of geopolitical anxiety had been a factor in our national imagination since the 19th century. But we had to ask to what extent our concerns about the trajectory of Xi’s China and about Australia’s cultural and political geography can be seen as reasonable, prudential assessments of dangers. Have they been, in part, the paranoid responses of a small, western-based nation to a sense of living once more in an uncertain and unpredictable world? As the Chinese historian Chengxin Pan has written, Australia’s close economic ties with China have not been able to sway its historical mindset: “if anything, this geo-economic proximity seems to have aggravated that anxiety”.

Australia had adapted well to changed geopolitical balance in the past, with the arrival of newly independent countries following decolonisation, then Britain’s military withdrawal from east of Suez, and later the end of the cold war. From the 1980s, we had established a productive relationship with China at a time when our trade was growing in importance and the Chinese student outflow to Australia had begun to burgeon.  China had said at that time that there were no outstanding problems with Australia “left over from history”. But those times had passed. Drawing on analyses by Geoff Raby, Hugh White, Gareth Evans, Stuart Harris and Bruce Grant, Professor Curran concluded by calling for a revival of the creative, activist diplomacy Australia had pursued in previous times of change.

In response to questions, Professor Curran agreed that new circumstances might require us to do without unquestioned reliance on the US, as in previous times we had with Britain. He agreed that China was using us as a whipping boy as a response to our criticisms, as it had with Norway and others. We needed to ensure that our interests were not damaged, for example by activism in the South China Sea. We needed to avoid domestic hostility to China, which could put trade at risk and contribute to a drift toward protectionism. Consulting with our ASEAN and other neighbours is of central importance, and we had shown we could lift our game in the South Pacific.

A YouTube broadcast of Professor Curran’s address can be seen here.