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  • Writer's pictureMike Lyons


Australia’s leaders invoke “National Interest” and “Sovereignty” as justification for this country’s growing hostility to China. This attitude is driven by Australia’s historic dependence upon and protection from USA, and in no small measure by its enduring racist and cultural prejudices. By putting its economic well-being at risk, the country undermines its National Interest and endangers its Sovereignty.

Ever since Scott Morrison became Prime Minister of Australia in 2018, he has invoked Australia’s “national interest” and the defence of its “sovereignty” as justification for his government’s challenges aimed at China, while aligning more closely with the USA.

National interest” refers to the interests of a nation state, and is often used by politicians when seeking support for a particular course of action, especially in foreign policy. The term invokes an image of the nation defending its interests within the international system where the interests of the nation are always at risk![i] It is an emotional appeal, directed at the (often gullible) voting public.

Henry Kissinger talked of principles of national independence, sovereign statehood, national interest, and non-interference[ii]. With the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), the concept of state sovereignty was established and the right of every state to determine its own fate was affirmed. For more than 200 years, the resulting balance of power kept Europe from tearing itself to pieces as it had done during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648).

Foreign Interference

The United States vision has rested, not on an embrace of the European balance of power system, but on the achievement of peace through the spread of democracy, by invasion and enforcement – the very opposite of sovereign recognition. This is evident from the many wars in which the US has engaged, including: the Korean war 1950-1953; Cuba Bay of Pigs 1961; Vietnam war 1961-73; Afghanistan 2001 and ongoing; and the Iraq war 2003.

Inherent in the Treaty of Westphalia is the principle that states do not interfere in the affairs of other states. Although well understood by Australia, and reflected in Australia’s recent National Security Legislation, is aimed at deterring foreign interference in Australia’s domestic affairs, Australia’s interference in China’s affairs is not new. In 2019, Geoff Raby (a former Australian ambassador to China) talked of Australia’s counter-productive “megaphone diplomacy”, and he suggested that it was time for diplomats to be put back in charge of Australia’s foreign policy.

The Asia Times[iii], (Morrison digging a grave for Australia) wrote that “By yielding to US pressure to antagonise China, Australia risks being buried alive”. China’s economic embargo against Australia is the result of Australia’s many provocations. In 2018, Australia announced its ban on Huawei. In April 2020 Morrison called for an enquiry into the origins and spread of Covid-19. In May, Australian Foreign Minister Payne expressed “deep concern” over Beijing’s proposed new national-security law in Hong Kong. In June 2020, Australia announced measures to block foreign investments which might compromise its national security, widely seen to be aimed at China. In July 2020, Australia announced that Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea had no legal basis.

In the meantime, China’s Global Times, accused Australia of being like a dog “barking at China” at the behest of America whilst, at the same time looking for benefits from China.

The China Threat

For 30 years, Australia has enjoyed a stellar economic performance, not on the sheep’s back, but riding on the shoulders of China. And yet, during recent years, the “China Threat” has emerged as an almost all-pervading fear of the risks and threats to Australia from its most important trading partner. Hugh White rightly asserts that there is no evidence that China seeks to impose a harsh or oppressive hegemony, forcing changes to Australia’s political system.[iv]

Bruce Haigh[v], argues that there is no independence of thought in Australia’s foreign or defence policies, with Australia simply following the US lead. Morrison talks about defending our sovereignty against China, but Haigh argues that Australia’s sovereignty has already been ceded to America. Australia clings to the ANZUS Treaty “which it views as an insurance policy requiring regular contributions” providing troops for service in Vietnam, and later sending Australian troops to join US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. That was when Australia became America’s “deputy Sherriff”.

Since its founding in 1776, the US has been at war for 93% of the time. The US has launched 201 out of 248 armed conflicts since World War II. It maintains more than 700 military sites around the world, including Australia. The US is the most aggressive and dangerous country on the planet. In a recent speech, respected public intellectual, Noam Chomsky, referred to the US as a leading purveyor of “international terrorism” describing it as a “terrorist state”[vi]. Australia’s greatest risk of war with China is its continuing to act as a proxy for the US in America’s dispute with China. Australia’s long-term future depends on relations in its own region, not reliance on a dangerous and distant ally[vii].

In November 2020, the Asia Times wrote that Australia had discovered that being a self-appointed US “deputy sheriff” comes with a high price. China is the only country that can realistically make Australia the “Lucky continent” again. The article concluded “It is time for “adults” in Australia to push back against the anti-China crowd that is the main culprit responsible for burning the country.”

Anguish about the rise of China and Australia’s continuing to cling to America led former Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser to call attention to the following paradox: “Our leaders argue that we need to keep our alliance with US strong in order to ensure our defence in the event of an aggressive foe. Yet the most likely reason that Australia would need to confront an aggressive foe is our strong alliance with the United States. We need America for defence from an attacker who is likely to attack us because we use America for defence!”[viii]

In a 2017 essay, Australia’s Hugh White made this chillingly real observation: Although the US could leave China a smoking ruin, America’s losses in a nuclear exchange, although smaller than that of China, would be unimaginably large. China’s small nuclear forces could destroy the centres of a dozen major US cities and kill perhaps 1 million people. It would be small consolation to Americans that China had lost even 100 cities and 10 million people!

Challenging China – Australia’s Dystopian Future

Geoff Raby argues convincingly that [ix]China does not threaten Australia militarily, nor does it threaten Australian values. Australia’s economic security is the cornerstone of its national security and Australia is utterly dependent on China for its economic well-being. Raby contends that Australia’s strategy for managing the rise of China has been incoherent and reactive, and that Australia’s foreign policy has become weaponised with respect to China as its intelligence, security and military establishment has taken control of Australia’s foreign policy.

Raby describes Australia’s clinging to USA as a policy of “triumph of hope over experience”. China is the dominant power in East Asia whilst Australia continues to look back to the US led Liberal International order. Raby sees Australia facing a dystopian foreign-policy future tied to the US, while the US pursues its own interests without regard to its allies. This is plainly contrary to Australia’s National Interests[x].

Raby concludes: “If we regard China as an enemy, it most certainly will become one.”

Australia’s Historic Prejudices

For almost a century, China has had to put up with White Australian insults. Australia never got rid of its White Australian prejudices, especially towards the Chinese people[xi].

In December 2020, Louise Edwards[xii], speaking at the ANU-China in the World Annual Lecture, talked about Australia’s relations with Asia being stuck in a time machine with many leaders labouring under the misconception that Australians are white and hail from Liverpool, Limerick, and London. She suggested that our current leaders’ vision is clouded by an Orientalist veil of out-dated racial and cultural hierarchies. Australia needs to lift the Orientalist veil and draw back the “bamboo curtain”.

In an ABC News Post on 22 November 2020, Australian International Affairs Analyst, Stan Grant made the point that China’s rise has been peaceful, that it is a member of the WTO and WHO and is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. China has underwritten Australia’s 30 years of uninterrupted economic growth. The CCP looks at America, ravaged by the virus and deeply politically divided, and unsurprisingly claims that China’s model of authoritarian capitalism is superior. The view from Beijing is that we (Australians) are a white Western country, clinging to a world of Western dominance that China does not believe in.

Respected journalist, Paul Kelly wrote that Australia has no national interest in making China our enemy. He describes Australian’s belief that it is an innocent party as a “self-deluding fallacy”[xiii].

Australia’s Security Agencies

In December 2020 Hamish McDonald reported[xiv] on a suggestion by Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s (ASPI’s) loose cannon in chief (my description, not McDonald’s), Peter Jennings saying, “Australia has a brilliant opportunity to shape Joe Biden’s strategy for the Indo-Pacific in a way that will secure a major increase in American military power in the region” suggesting that part of the US first Fleet should operate out of Western Australia and the Port of Darwin. The following week, Jennings went further suggesting a priority list for Australia’s defence Minister Payne to apply Australia’s new veto powers against China.

China’s Inexorable Rise – Leaving the USA Behind

Analysts see Asia’s recent Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) as a Chinese victory over Washington’s efforts to isolate it, with the opening of China’s market to practically everyone except the US. Australia has signed up to RCEP despite its trade dispute with China[xv]. RCEP brings China, South Korea, and Japan together in a multilateral trade agreement. By clinching RCEP with the 10 members of ASEAN together with US allies (but not USA), Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, Beijing has successfully positioned itself at the centre of the region’s trade and investment networks[xvi].

On 31 December 2020, the Asian Times reported that the incoming Biden Administration had tried but failed to stop the European Union from signing the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) with China, referring to this as Beijing’s second major achievement in economic relations in two months following the signing of RCEP.

China has seized the multilateral lead over the US with four geo-economic summits compressed into one week. The signing of RCEP, the BRICS meeting hosted by Moscow, the APEC meeting hosted by Malaysia, and the G20 hosted by Saudi Arabia. President Xi Jinping emphasised China’s priorities: multilateralism, support for WTO reform, and international cooperation on vaccine research and production. China also accepted the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the successor to the TPP which was detonated by Trump. Beijing not only mastered containment of Covid-19 but is recovering economically at lightning speed.

At the January 2021 World Economic Forum, China’s President, Xi Jinping criticised wilful decoupling and the creation of isolation saying that “We cannot tackle common challenges in a divided world” stressing that “solutions to our current plight must be multilateral”, saying “Difference in itself is no cause for alarm. What is alarming is arrogance, prejudice and hatred.”[xvii]

Australia Must Urgently Work to Restore Its Relationship with China

No other country offers Australia anything like the same export opportunities in the decades ahead. Managing the China relationship will be the most important diplomatic challenge Australia has faced. Repairing the relationship with China will in no way undermine Australia’s sovereignty nor threaten its democracy.

Craig Emerson[xviii] talks about the great coupling, initiated by the Hawke and Keating governments, now threatening to become a “great decoupling”. In 1983, Bob Hawke and China’s Premier, Zhao announced an agreement to integrate Australia’s and China’s steel industries. The Hawke-Keating reforms were designed to take full advantage of the coming Asian century. In March 2013, with Emerson as Australian Trade Minister, a new strategic partnership agreement was signed between Australia and China.

Today, in 2021, Australia seems unable to grasp the need to urgently re-establish its ties with China due to its close ties to America. There may be a silver lining with the recent appointment of Dan Tehan, a former diplomat, as Australia’s Trade Minister. Tehan will need the support of his colleagues in government but not comments from Prime Minister Morrison saying that he would not be willing to make concessions in order to secure talks with Beijing.

[i] [ii] World Order by Henry Kissinger, 2014 (Introduction) [iii] Morrison Digging a grave for Australia, Asia Times, 22 Sept 2020 [iv] Without America, published in Quarterly Essay 68/2017 [v] Published in Pearls and Irritations on 17 December 2020 [vi] RT News 24 January 2021 [vii] John Menadue A.O. - Australia’s Aggressive and Violent Ally (28 December 2020). Menadue was formerly head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet 1974-1976 and served as Australian Ambassador to Japan 1977-1980. He launched his public policy Journal, Pearls and Irritations (P&I) in 2013 [viii] Dangerous Allies by Malcolm Fraser 2014 [ix] Raby served as Australian Ambassador to China (2007-2011) and ambassador to the WTO (1998-2001). His 2020 book is entitled “China's Grand Strategy and Australia's Future in the new Global Order [x] Colin Mackerras, Emeritus Prof, Griffith Uni (specialist in Chinese History) – Pearls and Irritations Dec 2020 [xi] Gregory Clark – P&I Dec 2020 [xii] Edwards is Professor of Chinese Studies at UNSW [xiii] The Weekend Australian 21 November 2020 [xiv] Read all about our Media Expertise on China! Published P&I 18 Dec 2020 [xv] David Goldman, Asia Times 25 Nov 2020 [xvi] William Pesek, Asia Times 20 Nov 2020 [xvii] Asia Times 26 January 2021 [xviii] Emerson, former Australian Trade Minister (2010-2013) writing on 2 September 2020 in the Australian Financial Review

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