Books

David Brophy
China Panic: Australia’s Alternative to Paranoia and Pandering

Thoughtful, principled and free of hyperbole are not descriptions that have been associated with Australia’s China debate in recent times. David Brophy’s new book, China Panic: Australia’s Alternative to Paranoia and Pandering, has done the country a great service by casting a critical eye over the causes and consequences of our increasingly overheated national rhetoric about China.

In a welcome contrast to some recent contributions that assert that all our troubles are of Beijing’s making, Brophy offers both a critique of Australia’s current China policy and of “what the politics surrounding China is doing to Australia”. As befits a historian, he examines how Australia has arrived at this point, identifying how deeper structural forces have influenced recent policy.

The book’s central recognition is that foreign policy and national security are fundamentally about politics. Much of the debate, as Brophy correctly notes, has been driven by the two constituencies with the greatest power in shaping policy: the country’s national security and business elites.

After the Cold War, both constituencies were imbued with the optimistic neoliberal consensus that economic globalisation went hand-in-hand with political liberalisation. The national security elite, much like their counterparts in Washington, DC, believed China’s integration into the global economy would mitigate the potential for strategic conflict, while Australia’s captains of industry unsurprisingly sought to profit from the economic opportunities it offered. This paid short-term dividends throughout the 1990s and 2000s, with American primacy unchallenged in Asia. It also served to bolster former prime minister John Howard’s stance that Australia would not have to choose between the United States or China.

But this wager has come unstuck. China’s translation of its increasing economic power into military and strategic heft is one factor. Another is the relative decline of American power. The bulk of Brophy’s book is concerned with how these deeper dynamics have been interpreted and instrumentalised by Australian political and economic elites. As Brophy says, the tenor of debate has been framed by a sense of betrayal that China’s trajectory has not followed the neoliberal consensus.

This has led to a fallback on essentialist framings of China. A telling vignette is former prime ministerial adviser John Garnaut’s 2017 assertion that contemporary China was ruled by a new “totalitarian” communist ideology that had been “grafted” onto “the classical Chinese dynastic system”. As Brophy dryly notes, this highly debatable interpretation has been eaten up “by those who anticipate an inevitable showdown with China” as it “obviates any need to look for more proximate, contingent factors to explain China’s direction today. China’s been that way since ancient times – what do you expect?”

This framing is central to many of the recent controversies in Sino–Australian relations, from tumult over Chinese “interference” to more recent instances of ministers and senior bureaucrats proclaiming China has set the “drums of war” beating in our region. For Brophy this is a symptom of a “China panic” that seeks to “cultivate an image of China as a uniquely dangerous country”.

Brophy argues persuasively that this “panic” is the result of an independent choice by Australia’s political and national security elite “to wrench Australia away from … engagement with China” in favour of assuming “an active role in a campaign to preserve American dominance in the region”. Loud declarations of “standing up” to China are thus not diplomatic mistakes but rather done deliberately to advertise to the US and other allies that Australia is “getting tough” with China.

The problem here is not that there isn’t a need to “get tough”. Through discussions of Chinese repression of Uygurs in Xinjiang and democracy activists in Hong Kong, Brophy underscores how Beijing is an increasingly assertive and chauvinistic state under Xi Jinping’s leadership. The problem is what Australia’s China policy may do to Australia itself. Brophy provides a detailed dissection of major controversies such as Chinese interference in Australian politics and Chinese influence on Australian universities. In each case he demonstrates that while the threat is real, government responses are inadequate, undemocratic or counterproductive: either ceding more power to national security agencies or stigmatising Chinese Australians and students at Australian universities.

Brophy offers principles with which to navigate this challenge that reflect the author’s explicit commitment to a progressive politics. He rejects the battle cry of the new China hawks – “strategic competition” – with its “heavy reliance on security measures, the increasing use of inscrutable ‘national interest’ determinations and an implicit … view of PRC citizens as a fifth column”. The “accommodationist” tone of some of Australia’s business elites is no more satisfactory, placing corporate profit over principle.

Brophy suggests instead that we focus on “the interests [that] ordinary people in Australia and Asia share in both combating oppression and resisting warmongering”. Given the pathologies of the current China debate, such a noble objective seems to be far from achievable.

The core claim of the national security elites on China policy is as simple as it is disingenuous: “trust us”. Yet their track record – from enthusiastically committing to American misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan to assenting to the brutalisation of asylum seekers – does little to inspire trust in their capacity to manage one of the great geopolitical challenges of our time.

Brophy’s book thus reminds us of the importance of “speaking truth to power”: not only by holding China to account for its abuses but also “those with power in our own country”.

Michael Clarke

La Trobe University Press, 272pp, $32.99

La Trobe University Press is a Black Inc imprint. Black Inc is a Schwartz company

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 26, 2021 as "China Panic: Australia’s Alternative to Paranoia and Pandering, David Brophy".

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Reviewer: Michael Clarke