by Nick Economou

Throughout Australian colonial and post-colonial history, China has loomed large in the national consciousness. During the gold rushes and in to federation, fear of Chinese migration became the catalyst for some quite dramatic, racially oriented legislation. The newly created colony of Victoria, for instance, passed colonial laws outlawing Chinese migration to the goldfields, and the Race Immigration Restriction Act – the legislative basis for Australia’s infamous ‘white Australia policy’ – was one of the first pieces of legislation passed by the newly created Australian national parliament.

In more recent times fear of China could take on an ideological dimension. In the aftermath of the successful assumption of power by Mao Zedong and the Communists in 1952, Australia feared “Red” China and joined with the United States to try to prevent communist hegemony in Korea and Vietnam through military mobilisation. Diplomatically Australia refused to recognise communist China until the change of policy that occurred with the election of the Whitlam government in 1972.

At about this point of time China was in the midst of its Cultural Revolution as Mao Zedong and his allies sought to head off political challenges from critics within the communist party including Deng Xiaoping, who is remembered from this period after his re-appearance from prison after Mao’s death commenced a recovery in his political influence. This, in turn, would mark a Chinese re-engagement with the outside world that would include a resumption of economic trade. This would mark the emergence of China as an economic power which would be followed with the rise of Chinese military power.

The rise of China as an economic power has been of some importance to Australia. China has become one of this country’s most important trading partners, and the flow of Chinese people to partake of this country’s education industry has been of such dimensions it has affected Australia’s balance of trade. This important economic reality has had an impact on Australian foreign policy and, until comparatively recent times, the art of Australia’s China policy lay in the balance sought between closer economic cooperation on the one hand, yet maintaining an alignment with the military dominance of the United States as part of the Australian response to rising Chinese military power.

This approach succeeded for as long as the United States took a similar approach to balancing geo-strategic and economic considerations. The election of Donald Trump as US president has upset that balance, however, mainly because of the way the US is now seeing China as a threat to its economic interests and that this has now resulted in what can only be considered as a trade war. The problem is exacerbated by the tendency of the Trump administration to conflate its bellicose approach to trade with cross-reference to its military power. The consequence has been an increase in the sense that a deterioration in US-China relations might take a military form notwithstanding the essentially economic nature of the dispute between the two nations.

This is where Australian foreign policy might run in to difficulty, particularly if there is a sense that the Australian government seeks to align itself with the US approach as defined by the Trump administration. Prime minister Scott Morrison’s recent trip to the United States has sent precisely this message. While at one level Mr Morrison’s policy towards the United States represents a traditional Australian approach that has been pursued by both sides of Australian politics, it seems that the prime minister has been a little less careful about the message his approach is sending to China.

Given the extent of Chinese economic interest in Australia, and given the extent of the population interaction between the two nations, it might have been wise for the Australian head of government to have constructed a more nuanced approach. As important as important being seen to be confirming Australian alignment with US military power might be for reinforcing the key elements underpinning its defence policy, Australian interest are probably not best served by giving being seen to be endorsing the totality of the US approach. In other words, Australian economic interest are probably better served by defending the notion of free trade rather than seen to be aligning with the US in its trade war with China. The prime minister might say in his defence that there was no explicit shift in the Australian approach on trade. Then problem is that being seen to be such a strong support of Mr Trump might be construed as giving uncritical support to the US across the all of its policies, including trade.

It is interesting to note that concerns about the impact of China on Australian politics have peaked in recent times mainly as a consequence of developments in domestic politics. Leading the charge has been the reaction to the election of Liberal member for Chisholm, Ms Gladys Liu, in which much angst has arisen over her former associations with various Chinese advocacy groups and how these were linked to her fund raising activity on behalf of the Liberal party. This has all led to expressions of concern about Chinese influence in Australian politics. Interestingly, many accusations about this alleged influence have been made but little proof of actual interference has been provided to back up these claims. That paranoia about China that has been around in Australia since colonial times appears to be alive and well in contemporary Australian politics.

Dr Nicholas Economou teaches politics at Monash University’s Clayton campus in Melbourne, Australia.

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