The Costs of Fear and Greed: Past and Present in Australia’s China Story

Australia’s China policy was the subject of the Sir Peter Cosgrove lecture in History delivered by Professor James Curran on 21 February 2022.

Read the full speech here.

I would also like to pay my traditional respects to the original custodians of the land on which we meet tonight, to their elders past, present and emerging.

Thank you very much Professor Glenn for that kind introduction and can I say how delighted and honoured I am to have been invited by the university to deliver this lecture.

It is of course a tribute to the individual whose name adorns it, General Sir Peter Cosgrove.

Sir Peter’s military and vice-regal life spans the arc of Australia’s national and international life in that crucial period from the virtual end of the Cold War in East Asia to the challenges of the post-Soviet era and the new world of the 21st Century.

A graduate of Duntroon, he fought in Vietnam where he was awarded the military cross for gallantry. An aide to Camp to Governor General Paul Hasluck, he bore witness to Hasluck’s voicing of a new patriotism for Australia in the aftermath of Empire. Sir Peter was closely involved in the remaking of Australia’s defence posture and policy in the 1980s and 1990s and led from the front during Australia’s crucial role in the creation of an independent East Timor. He served as Chief of Army then Chief of the Defence Force before gracing Yarralumla himself.

Sir Peter’s contribution is also found in Australian intellectual life. In his final Boyer lecture of 2009, he contemplated the nature of Australian identity and what might lie in store for notions of social equity and cohesion, our relations with the nation’s indigenous peoples and of course the land and its climate.

The ‘organising principle’ of this country’s identity, he said, was our democracy. And he ventured to suggest that stability and change might well be uneasy bedfellows as the century continued to unfold. He wondered aloud what future generations might make of the contemporary generation of leaders. ‘If I could come back in ghostly form’ he said, ‘I might whisper to them that the greatest legacy we felt we could pass them was the unbreakable strength of the instruments of our democracy’.

Now I imagine that even though Sir Peter’s stately ship of life is anchored presently in more tranquil waters, he will continue to make a highly valued contribution to national debates, as he has done in his most recent book.

This evening I would like to offer a historian’s perspective on Australia’s recent relations with China.

The great French historian Marc Bloch once wrote that the ‘faculty of understanding the living is, in very truth, the master quality of the historian’. He implored those in the profession of history to seek to be more than ‘useful antiquarians’.

Bloch was writing his philosophy of history in the period between the fall of France and his death as a member of the French resistance in 1944. He wrote some of it in captivity, always away from libraries and primary sources, and in circumstances that inevitably interrupted his study of the social and economic history of medieval France.

Bloch knew all too well that the tendency towards absolutes in the analysis of human affairs was at times irresistible. ‘When the passions of the past blend with the prejudices of the present’, he wrote, ‘human reality is reduced to a picture in black and white’. He lamented too that ‘unfortunately the habit of passing judgments leads to a loss of taste for explanations’.

Among some elements of the China debate in this country there has much evidence of precisely what Bloch was talking about.

The central judgment which we hear so often is that it is China that has changed, not Australia.

This is, of course, self-evident. The ideological dimension of China’s actions at home and abroad and the Chinese Communist Party’s unchallenged power under Xi Jinping make the task of adjusting to China’s rise the greatest challenge Australian diplomacy has faced since Japan’s revisionist attempts to remake East Asia in the 1930s.

Yet the problems arising from Australia’s asymmetry with China have always been considerable. As the inheritors of a British imperial past, with a ‘lucky country’ mentality and a long history of sustained economic prosperity, it is not clear that Australia has been well placed to cope with this asymmetry.

Nevertheless, arriving at an understanding of the story of how both countries adjusted to each other from the early 1970s until now is critical. At issue is whether both sides did enough to cultivate a relationship of substance that could withstand the inevitable strains arising from the meeting of two very different countries with vastly divergent civilisational and cultural backgrounds. These deep, underlying differences have been managed well over the years – but more recently they have only been sharpened.

Those differences have risen predominantly from the legitimate and serious concerns raised by Xi’s growing authoritarianism and his prosecution of an assertive brand of Chinese exceptionalism.

This was always going to require targeted resistance. It has done so, and not only in Australia but in countries around the world.

But since 2017, in addition to taking these necessary steps to protect Australian sovereignty, we have witnessed the creation of a heroic narrative: ‘brave Australia’ withstanding Chinese bullying and economic coercion. Canberra is the colossus astride the frontline of a new Cold War. Care is needed here with the chronology: Australian governments have had to make earlier decisions than other countries on questions of foreign interference, the protection of critical infrastructure and cyber intrusion. But these actions have been woven, with seeming relish, into a pre-existing narrative whereby ‘Australia punches above its weight’ in world affairs. The outcome of this position remains to be tested. Only last week a senior Australian national security official was quoted as saying that ‘other countries are going to reach a conclusion: either Australia is offering a successful template for other nations in defying China’s coercion, or we become an example of what not to do”.

But there is a problem with the constant refrain that it ‘China, not Australia’ that changed, is the virtual acquittal this judgment provides to recent Australian governments in their management of the China relationship. Australia does not come to its relations with China empty handed. To the contrary, it brings over a century of historical, cultural and racial baggage in terms of its relations with Asia and China in particular.

Here is the question: does Australia have the courage to look in the mirror? With the onus for the downwards spiral in relations sheeted home entirely to Beijing, the debate has short-circuited any requirement for introspection about what the reaction reveals of the roots of Australia’s geopolitical vision and the longer, complex and rich story of its engagement with Asia and especially China since the beginning of formal diplomatic relations in 1972.

Let me discuss just a fraction of this recent past and its relevance. When in early 1976 Australia’s first ambassador to China, Stephen Fitzgerald, wrote a series of despatches from Peking back to the new Fraser government in Canberra, he faced up to harsh realities and difficult questions arising from the experience of establishing a new diplomatic relationship with the PRC. In his opening cable he threw down the gauntlet. Was the aim of a substantive political relationship with China just ‘too hard?’

Read today, Fitzgerald’s despatches are a corrective to the idea that China was once a simple option. China has always been difficult. Fitzgerald advocated confidence in Australian democracy, resilience and patience. The alternative he said was to ‘drop China into one of a number of intellectually cliched frameworks’, still bubbling near the surface at the time he was writing.

That question, however – are they just too hard? – is clearly worth revisiting. My recent historical survey of the relationship, which will be published as a book by NewSouth press this coming August, has some sobering conclusions in reaction to this question. One is that for most of the bipartisan political leadership in Canberra, for the security establishment, for the high-level Defence force officials integrated in the US armed forces, for others busy in defence on ‘alliance maintenance’, for the culturally Anglophile in the commentariat, press and strategic analysts, the answer to that question is unequivocally yes.

The obstacles to the resumption of a stable political relationship, not least the new confidence, ambition and aggressiveness in China’s behaviour since 1972, makes the challenges of the 1970s appear almost trivial.

The incumbent Australian Ambassador, Graham Fletcher, now faces a number of closed doors wherever he goes in Beijing. No Chinese ministers return calls from their Australian counterparts. China’s list of fourteen grievances distributed by its Canberra embassy which absurdly and insultingly demands authoritarian structural change to Australian democracy as Beijing’s agenda for rapprochement makes meaningful dialogue in the predictable future impossible. The past half century of the relationship has now reached a denouement of silence, recrimination and suspicion. As former Ambassador to China Geoff Raby has argued, Xi Jinping may have very well given up on Australia. And if last week’s parliamentary antics are any guide, Canberra might have well put the prospect of even a low-level functioning relationship with Beijing on ice.

One of the problems for Australia’s policy over how to manage a more assertive China since 2017 is the rapid descent into Manichean terms. Largely because of the tendency to look at China through the prism of the US alliance, along with the wilful ransacking of the back catalogue of spooky Cold War imagery, there has been almost a complete absence of subtlety in Canberra’s thinking about how to deal with Beijing.

As I have stressed, the prosecution of a new form of Chinese exceptionalism has played the major role in feeding this atmosphere of suspicion about long-term Chinese intentions: an exceptionalism defined principally by the demand that the western powers acknowledge China’s century of humiliation, accord it the respect and strategic space commensurate with its economic and military weight, and by the belief that Xi Jinping has established a new political and economic model for the developing world to follow.

But the question is how and why this behaviour has given rise to the airing of extreme fears and warnings about Australia’s future: the fear of a loss of sovereignty; of Chinese regional hegemony; of the destruction of US influence in the region and the end of the US alliance; of invasion, or war: all of which have at various times been voiced by powerful political figures in both the United States and Australia.

Many of these fears have not been substantiated: indeed instead of intelligent, pragmatic diplomacy with clear and defined objectives, Australian governments have lacked guile and sophistication in their attempts to settle on a new framework for dealing with a China that has changed.

Taking the long view, Australia-China relationship has enjoyed three sustained periods of political and diplomatic sunshine, from the 1970s to the late 1980s, from late 1996 to 2007 and then again from the end of 2009-2017. Australia’s China debate cannot live with this history alone, yet it also cannot live without it. These high points of the relationship occurred not only because of astute management by successive governments in Canberra, who recognised that China’s opening was a positive for the national and global economy, but because China was broadly set on a path to gaining global acceptance as a major economic and political power.

During these periods, too, Washington was either distracted by the Soviet Union, the hubris of its unipolar moment at Cold War’s end or focussed on the Middle East in the war on terror. Even so, at nearly every point, even in the late 1950s, the Americans dropped enough hints – privately and publicly – which revealed their nervousness about the warmth of Australia’s China embrace.

And from the mid-1990s and the election of John Howard, successive Australian governments made sure that the alliance was reinvigorated – structurally, institutionally and emotionally.

Doing more for the US, irrespective of whether the Americans will ever concede they are satisfied, has become a default policy setting for both major political parties in Australia. The result is that Australia is little more than an auxiliary in whatever strategic decisions the United States makes. For many in the national security community in Canberra, the American alliance has become a way of life. We now have an official and formal policy of ‘alliance maintenance’.

This is a strategic gamble, possibly the greatest in the history of Australia’s relations with the world. Its politicians bank on a hope that the internal strife in the United States is but a passing phase, that once more America, as it has in the past, recovers its purpose following a period of drift and introspection.

Yet the socio-cultural conflict that predated the coming of Trump, and which he exploited while in power, have thrown doubt on America’s resolve to once more assume the role of world leader. The United States will not turn away from the China challenge – that would be against its very nature, and its primacy is at stake.

But it may well find that the gap between its resolve and its capability widens. As the eminent strategic thinkers Paul Dibb and Richard Brabin-Smith have argued, Biden’s election may have removed much of the uncertainty and volatility that characterised the Trump presidency, but ‘the eventual election of a Trump-like Republican President could well turn the settings of US foreign policy back towards those of the Trump era, or towards general isolationism.’ Moreover they suggest a pressing need ‘to accept in our strategic thinking that America is now a more inward-looking country that will foreseeably give more attention to its domestic social and political challenges.’ This is the danger of treating the US alliance in moral terms – the position of Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton, previous leaders such as Kevin Rudd and John Howard, along with sections of the Australian Labor Party and a raft of vocal analysts across a number of Australian think-tanks.

Elements in the Canberra security community have also forgotten that when their great power friend in Washington does not necessarily see challenges through the same prism, Australia can be relegated to a subordinate role. Historian Neville Meaney warned that too often ‘Australians have allowed sentiment to dictate the lessons drawn from experience. The result has been that, lacking a proper perspective, they have often pursued a crude ‘realism’…which in its one-dimensional single mindedness has often threatened to bring on the very events it professes to avert.’

That tendency is apparent in the government’s call to arms – almost enthusiasm – for military conflict in the Taiwan Straits. The policy creep that took Australian policy from ‘pushing back’ against Chinese cyber intrusions and subversion operations in political circles, university campuses and the Chinese-Australian community in 2017-18, to Australia shifting to a strident denunciation of China in 2018-20, has left Australia with a single, risky strand of policy.

That in turn has produced a coming war narrative unlike anything an Australian government has used since the 1930s. Yet there is little effort to look ahead at what war may mean, and a vast gulf between the rhetoric and actual defence preparedness. If indeed war is a genuine possibility, the country is not being adequately equipped for military conflict in the short term. Canberra is spending 2% of its GDP on defence, up from 1.58% in the period Kevin Rudd was prime minister. Of the new spending of $270bn announced by Prime Minister Scott Morrison in the 2020 Defence Strategic update, only $70bn was new money. This is where Australian defence policy has landed: previous spending commitments are being rebadged and reannounced. A sure case of budgetary claret being poured into new bottles. Any viable strategy going forward will have to grow the defence budget to at least 3% of GDP to ensure that the planned acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines from either Britain or the US does not cannibalise other Australian Defence Force capabilities.

The lack of genuine materiel and personnel preparedness exposes the hollowness of the government’s war talk on Taiwan. If indeed there was a Sino-US conflict over Taiwan in the next 5 to 10 years, Australia’s current weaponry, save perhaps for its jet fighters, would be largely irrelevant to the outcome. This raises the question as to whether Canberra is becoming something of a stalking horse for the kind of rhetoric that Washington will not use. Its elevation of bellicose talk is in stark contrast to the language of the Biden administration, though domestic politics in the US could push Washington in that direction after the mid-term congressional elections. If conflict threatens or arises between the two nuclear powers, Australia would have little influence despite the critical importance of Australian intelligence facilities to US homeland defence – just as the NATO powers during the long Cold War between the US and Soviet Russia had little influence on the course of the Cuban missile crisis.

The deeper question, then, is whether the break with the Cold War after 1989 was ever complete in Australian strategic thinking. The unpalatable conclusion is that policy towards China now constitutes an Australian commitment to a new Cold War, a struggle to which Canberra wants a more overt United States embrace. But there is paradox at the heart of this new Cold War thinking, and not one that has been sufficiently aired.

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. The mental maps of the current generation of policymakers – as Michael Pezzullo has so clearly showed – with his ear for the ‘drums of war’ beating ‘more loudly and ever closer’ – were being shaped as the Cold War wound down.

Yet some of them clearly hanker for its apparent strategic clarity, and perhaps for its romantically recalled heroics. 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. The Australian Defence Minister has said that Chinese missiles can hit Hobart.

But if Australian leaders and commentators are misled by a false history, China has its own problems with the relationship’s past.

It has forgotten the important role Australia played in its modernisation process and the longstanding Australian support for its entry into international economic councils.

It has forgotten the helping hand Australia offered in the form of development aid paid to China in the 1970s and 1980s.

It has forgotten too about a half-century of efforts by Australian diplomats, officials, culture makers and others to bridge the civilisational divide and so help increase mutual understanding.

Like all great powers, it has not thought it necessary to make the effort to understand the nuances of a smaller partner’s approach to world affairs. If it is true that the Chinese had intentions to peel away Australia from the US network of alliances in the region, it failed to understand the deep roots the American relationship tapped in the national strategic psychology.

More recently, its ham-fisted public diplomacy, expressed either through its wolf warrior diplomats or the tabloid mouthpieces such as the Global Times, have often projected a crude and ignorant picture of Australia. It is no wonder that Australian public trust in China has virtually dissolved.

Australia’s broad response to China since 2017, for all its claims to novelty and a unique approach, has in fact been largely consistent with its foreign policy tradition: once more the problems of the world are merged and confused; and once more its policies underline an Australian desire to act as one with the United States in dealing with the world. Political leaders and policymakers believe that Australia is safer in a larger, English-speaking cultural unity.

The renewed impulse for the comfort and familiarity of the Anglosphere is no recent phenomenon.

It has been in the making since the middle of the 1990s. It was there in John Howard’s revitalisation of the US alliance from the time he replaced Paul Keating as prime minister by integrating Australian forces with their US counterparts in the military and security spheres.

It was there in the elevation of the Anzac legend and ‘mateship’ as not only the essence of Australian nationhood but as the spiritual and historical basis for the American alliance, the slouch hat folding into the nation’s strategic doctrine.

In Tony Abbott’s description of the US as ‘family’ and of the UK as ‘home’; and it is there in the application of a Five Eyes intelligence framework to Australian foreign policy.

It was there too in the ambitious claim from Trade Minister Dan Tehan that the signing of a Free Trade Agreement with Britain would ‘right’ the ‘historic wrong’ of Britain’s decision to formally join the European Economic Community in 1973. But try telling that to the ghosts of Doug Anthony and John McEwen!

The announcement of the AUKUS partnership, therefore, was only the latest, if most dramatic stirring of a deeper cultural force in Australian foreign policy practice. And the trend is a potent reminder that, whatever the multicultural reality of today’s Australia might be, its political class – including commentators and analysts – is guided by the assumptions of an earlier era. Ultimately, Australia has responded to China’s rise by rebooting a policy approach it followed consistently from the late nineteenth century: it has continued to believe that obedient solidarity with its great power allies, old and new, is the best means by which to preserve its welfare and well-being.

The pull of forces which have so defined the course of Australian foreign policy over the last century and more – the tension between the imperative of loyalty to a great power ally and the anxiety aroused by regional geopolitical circumstances – have had yet another powerful illustration during the Morrison prime ministership. It arose in June last year during a press conference in Singapore at the residence of its prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong.

Scott Morrison had stopped there before heading to the ‘G7 Plus’ conference in Cornwall, on the Southwest coast of England. He was en route to what is now widely known to have been a crucial meeting with US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson – an encounter which initiated what became the AUKUS partnership.

There was much irony in the bilateral discussions in Singapore. Historical precedents weighed heavily on proceedings. Morrison was treading the very same path that so many of his predecessors had taken in the first half of the twentieth century. An Australian prime minister was once more on his way to the United Kingdom to enjoin them, and the United States, in the defence of Australia in the region. And, much like the prime ministerial passages to Britain of old, he was stopping off briefly in Asia along the way.

But this particular capital had a special resonance in the history of Australian strategic policy. Singapore was the very city which, precisely 80 years before, had loomed so large as the ‘Last Bastion’ between a threatening Asia and a vulnerable Australian continent. The ‘Lion City’ had once stood as the ‘impregnable’ bulwark of the British Empire in Asia: the fortress that would stem the tide of the Japanese menace.

On this occasion the message was unmistakeable for the Australian leader to take away – a message about what awaited him on his return home, regardless of the events that were to subsequently take place on the Cornish coast. The Singaporean prime minister reminded his guest that China – and the need to manage it – were challenges that would still be there. Where Morrison was journeying to the United Kingdom to revitalise a community of culture with Australia’s longstanding Anglosphere allies, Lee Hsien Loong was underlining that a community of interest was to be found in the countries of the region each endeavouring to find a way to deal with the new China. Asked by an Australian journalist for his advice on how Canberra might handle China, he said ‘You need to work with the country:

It is going to be there, it is going to be a substantial presence and you can cooperate with it, you can engage it, you can negotiate with it. But it has to be a long and mutually constructive process…You don’t have to become like them, neither can you hope to make them become like you. And you have to be able to work on that basis. This is a big world, in which there are different countries and [you need to] work with others who are not completely like-minded, but with whom you have many issues where your interests do align and where your mutual cooperation is necessary. There will be rough spots and…you have to deal with them, but deal with them as issues in a partnership which you want to keep going and not issues which add up to adversity, which you are trying to suppress.

Lee, of course, stressed he was speaking only in ‘very general terms’. But he had delivered the Australian prime minister a series of geopolitical home truths. For the preceding four years, the Australian debate had dripped with the language of cooperation with ‘like-minded’ countries: a rallying of democracies against Chinese authoritarianism and assertion. This instinctive cultural reflex is entirely understandable. But here was a regional leader advising his Australian guest that the world was more complicated, the lines not always so clear cut. Lee Hsien Loong could not have put the case for greater diplomatic guile any clearer.

If the past four to five years have been challenging the next will very likely be harder. In all likelihood, Australia will be dealing with an American president who has lost control of Congress. The discipline of the Biden administration in resisting the policies and intellectual environment of a new Cold War will likely be eroded. Then, within the next term of the Australian electoral cycle, the prime minister will need to deal with a United States conceivably led from the White House by Donald Trump himself or a Trumpian figure in his image. And it is possible that this would follow a tightly contested presidential election, with the potential for yet more domestic disarray in the United States. The Trumpian obsession is a managed trade with China, where the US can deal with China but to the exclusion of its allies. This would not only bring further economic costs to Australia, it would have the potential to inflame the European Union and damage US alliances with Japan and Korea.

To dull these concerns Australian governments since 2017 have gone out in front of Washington on ‘pushing back’ against China, appealed to America to rediscover its exceptionalist mission, wrapped the alliance in the sentimental swaddling cloth of ‘mateship’ and looked for additional allies – India, Britain and France – to meet the China challenge. Under Scott Morrison the Australian position has become deeply ideological. By so doing, Australia risks making the same mistakes as its predecessors did in the old Cold War: being left stranded by an abrupt change in US policy; not being consulted on major changes in US thinking and failing to look at the region through anything other than an American prism. The reality is that very little improvement in Australia’s relations with China appears likely before significant changes of policy in both Beijing and Washington. Only then could a government in Canberra adjust its own approach. But this will require considerable skill, and probably from a different Australian prime minister.

To conclude, then, by returning to Sir Peter’s call for the preservation and nurturing of Australian democracy.

How deeply ironic it is that the more muscular in Australia’s China debate are the very same who evince so little faith in the polity we have created here since Federation in 1901.

The lurid warnings that we will wake up one day to find decisions taken in parliament not in our interest.

The dropping of sensational claims about alleged political interference into an already hothouse atmosphere on the cusp of a federal election campaign.

The questioning of Chinese-Australians over their loyalty to Australia, pulling at the very fabric of the cultural cohesion which has delivered remarkable social stability over the last half century since White Australia’s demise.

And last week, the wanton parliamentary destruction of bipartisanship on China at the very time calls are being made for national unity in an era of strategic flux.

Australian governments have had to draw the line where China has been forceful and unreasonable. 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 ceaseless efforts to strike a balance between this nation’s historical roots and its Asian moorings.

Thank you.


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