Moral certitude, wrong-headedness, and ignorance inform what passes for debate about China in Australia today. There’s so much grandiose proselytising born out of flawed history and tired tropes. Considering how ill-informed the most prominent Australian commentators are about China, it’s quite a feat that they’re often more deceived about their own nation.
David Brophy is a rare exception. His book China Panic: Australia’s alternative to paranoia and pandering doesn’t do what a lot of bad Western writing about China does: it doesn’t set out to explain China to a foreign audience. Nor does it assume, in the manner of most Sino-Australian foreign policy literature, that there is a stark choice between embracing China’s rise or resisting it. There are many things the book is not, and the tendency to think of it in this way – asthe antithesis of the bulk of contemporary commentary – is a mark of how quickly a hostileconsensus about China is forming. There is a symbiotic relationship between the political class and the media, and what little room there is for disagreement and debate is shrinking. This is reflected in Brophy’s tone; a sense of urgency pervades China Panic. The book often reads as a direct response to those peddling what he considers dangerous narratives: people such as Clive Hamilton, author of Silent Invasion (2018), Peter Hartcher, political and international editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and Geoff Raby, former ambassador to China; think tanks like the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI); and politicians from across the political spectrum, including Greens senator Nick McKim, self-declared Sinophile Kevin Rudd, the Coalition’s informal group of China hawks (known, unironically, as the Wolverines), and Pauline Hanson.
When it comes to China, there is a reflex among some commentators to inflate the incidental, as if a quote from Mao or an aphorism from Confucius alone holds the key to understanding China. They thrust it forward like a kind of Chinese Rosetta Stone. One such banality is to point out that China (zhong guo) literally means ‘middle kingdom’ or ‘middle country’ and, as such, reflects how China sees its place in the world, as the centre of civilisation or, when updated, at the centre of global affairs.
Yet, it’s often Australian politicians and commentators who seem to harbour this delusion of grandeur; they unquestioninglyaccept the centrality of a sparsely populated island nation to the machinations of international relations. This fantasy goes largely unremarked upon until its absurdity can’t be ignored, as when US President Joe Biden forgot Scott Morrison’s name at the AUKUS nuclear submarine announcement last year. At such moments, the ridiculousness of Australia’s over-sized sense of its place in world affairs becomes plain. The reality check soon passes, though; like all entrenched self-deceptions, it’s not easily displaced. And so it was that a few weeks later in October Tony Abbott gave an extraordinarily bellicose speech at the Yushan Forum, in which he suggested that war with China is imminent. Australia’s ‘determination to exercise a decisive influence on its wider region’, writes Brophy, ‘reflects the instincts and practices of a great power. Instead of a “middle power”, a more accurate description of Australia’s role in the world is that of a great power writ small, whose ability to act in such a way is enabled by, indeed dependent on, its relationship with an actual great power.’
Brophy rejects the terms on which the China–Australia debate is being conducted. Instead, he suggests, ‘we need to recentre it on the interests that ordinary people in Australia and across Asia share in both combating oppression and resisting warmongering’. It’s not simply that nationalism should be spurned; rather, the primacy of the nation-state in the debate ensures that a descent into nationalism is, if not inevitable, then likely. This is as true for Australia as it is for China and the United States. All nationalism is beholden to certain myths; to ‘outsiders’, these can seem self-evidently fatuous and incomprehensible, while to ‘insiders,’ their ‘truth’ is assumed, woven into the fabric of everyday life and, thus, largely unquestioned. These myths manifest as values and these, China hawks warn, are what’s at stake. But if ‘Australia claims to have “shared values” with communist Vietnam, but very different values from communist China,’ writes Brophy, ‘it’s hard not to conclude that talk of “values” is simply code for political alignments.’ He continues:
When Australia fails to live up to its values, it’s still our aspirations that are said to represent a deeper truth about our system. In China’s case, by contrast, we identify its values in its practices, not in its professions of virtue. To embrace ‘Australian values’ or ‘democratic values’, therefore, is to adopt not so much a distinct set of values as a willingness to excuse hypocrisy.
China Panic is, in part, a project of demythologisation; an attempt to reveal the hypocrisies and distortions on which Australia’s China policy is constructed. The US alliance and the national security establishment, corporate interests, and a credulous media are all, in Brophy’s account, edging Australia towards a dangerous future, one in which war with China begins to seem inevitable and thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Teju Cole has written that ‘the prophetic is, simply, a fierce ability to see the present’. Brophy, at times, is bracingly prophetic. The likes of Hamilton, Hartcher, and ASPI defend the preoccupation with a potential future conflict with China on the grounds that they are just realists, analysing the situation as it is. They claim that their mission is a responsible one; they’re sounding the alarm about a threat that too many people are willing to ignore. But this orientation towards, and obsession with, strategic competition is part of the problem and often leads, writes Brophy, to Australia being ‘encouraged to respond to the threat from authoritarian China by becoming more like China’.
While the foreign policy establishment offers top-down solutions – increased military spending, a fleet of nuclear submarines, regional strategic cooperation, and doubling down on the US alliance – Brophy provides his analysis from below. Such an approach opens itself up to the charge of naïveté (after all, ‘realists’ are so called because they’ve monopolised the terms of the debate; anyone who rejects them is, by definition, fantastical). Whereas the ‘realists’ offer concrete solutions, confident they have all the answers, Brophy, in looking towards the future, refuses to proffer neat predictions. His hopes and expectations are more abstract – ‘to put forward a progressive, transformative vision of international relations’ and to make ‘a conscious commitment to dismantling the drivers of competition between states’ – and his nuances are at odds with partisan politics and the commercial media, which increasingly rely on fear-mongering and soundbites.
We should be wary of blindly following those who are most certain about the future; such prophets are often the most deceived about the present.
(This was originally published in the May 2020, n.o. 442 of the Australian Book Review.)