Cosgrove lecture questions Australia’s China policy

The risks of Australia’s China policy were examined in the Sir Peter Cosgrove lecture given by Professor James Curran at ACU.

Professor Curran delivered the lecture The Costs of Fear and Greed: Past and Present in Australia’s China Story to an invited audience on 21 February at the Peter Cosgrove Centre on the North Sydney Campus.

He told the audience that Australia needed to move beyond a Cold War narrative to an understanding of a challenge on our own doorstep.

“Australia’s China challenge of the 21st century is still largely understood and framed in the vernacular and imagery of the Cold War of the 1950s and 60s,”. And it is uniquely coloured by older cultural assumptions of the fear of China, many of which first surfaced in Australia in the nineteenth century. And so a vastly different challenge from China under Xi Jinping – as an economic and political great power – has been grafted onto an old strategic paradigm,” he said.

Professor Curran said some policymakers appeared to hanker for the strategic clarity and romantic heroes of a simpler Cold War narrative.

“All of this has made a ‘China threat’ narrative essential to be sold to a deliberately alarmed public, understandably troubled by Beijing’s behaviour in the Taiwan Straits, Hong Kong and Xinjiang; but also by the turmoil in America and the consequent doubts about American resolve.

“Seen from one angle, the situation is familiar. Australian political leaders are concerned that their great power ally will not be there to protect it from a rising Asian menace.

“Yet the circumstances today are nothing like the old Cold War. Global trade is intimately linked to China and its economic networks spread through East and South East Asia. If Peter Dutton should prove tragically correct then the conflict will take place on the Australian doorstep, not in Europe. The incantation of the old Cold War rites and rituals in political rhetoric fire up the public to be ready for war, yet they do so with blithe indifference to the catastrophic consequences of such tumult on Australia and the populations and economies of the region.

“Australia is being stirred now to a consciousness of its vulnerability far more extreme than the 1950s and 1960s, yet governments talk little of the likely long-term effects of war or heightened hostilities, especially for Japan, China and Taiwan, but also for Australia. These effects would very likely continue to be felt until the end of the century, regardless of the winner of any military conflict.

“During the old Cold War, Australia’s policy was to keep the threat from Asia as far from its shores as possible: and for much of that era, at least until British military withdrawal from Southeast Asia in the late 1960s, Australian governments enjoyed the strategic nirvana of having both its great power allies engaged in the region to its north. While the language of monolithic Communism threatening ‘the Australian way of life’, was common, only those at the extremities of the political culture forecast an invasion of Australia by China. Today that very fear is being whipped up by a broad section of the political and policy communities.”

Professor Curran said difficult policy decisions on China were inevitable, but Australia did not need to be drawn back into old paradigms or sensationalist fears.

“Australian governments have had to draw the line on foreign interference, critical infrastructure and cyber intrusion. Dealing with a new China that is disturbing the strategic equilibrium will bring more challenges, not less. But what Canberra could have avoided was letting loose the demons of an older worldview, one which generations of leaders and policymakers had done so much to transcend in their efforts to find that balance between this nation’s historical roots and its Asian moorings.”

Read the full speech


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