China debate borrows language from the Cold War

10 December 2020
Examining the Australia-China relationship
Professor James Curran at the University of Sydney delivered an address at the Australian Institute of International Affairs in Sydney about the current problems in Australia's relationship with China.

He outlined why despite the emphasis on the newness of the strategic circumstances Australia faces – and they are indeed new and troubling – many arguments are clothed in the rhetoric of the 1890s and the 1960s.

“As the Australia-China relationship continues to deteriorate, it becomes more imperative to understand why it plumbs the depths it has but also how Australia might think afresh about its role in a new strategic order. We know China has changed – that is not disputed. It is also time for a searing examination of why successive governments have adopted a stance of being the leader of the pack in ‘pushing back’ against China, and what factors may be driving that stance," Professor Curran said. 

Professor Curran from the Department of History makes two key points: 

  1. the language used by some commentators in describing China often borrows heavily from the 19th Century and,
  2.  the Cold War era and Australia’s role in the new world order has changed. 

Language in describing China

“So many of the paradigms and rhetoric of the late 19th century and the Cold War - especially those relating to ‘invasion’, ‘threat’, ‘subversion’ and ‘containment’ - have once again been resurrected and deployed in the domestic political and foreign policy debate,” Professor Curran said.  

“The Prime Minister has explicitly rejected these frameworks, but their prevalence in the wider debate has cramped the space in which political leaders can attempt to achieve something of an equilibrium in Australia-China policy. This gives the debate a simplistic good versus evil narrative and imposing a poisonous fault line between the advocates of engagement and the acolytes of aggression. And it has led to the brazen, offensive questioning of the loyalties of Australians of Chinese background, and others.” 

Australia’s role in the new world order

“This era is indeed totally unlike anything Australia has faced in its history. Australia has in the past had to undergo a fundamental rethink of its position in the world. But at each stage we did so with a great and powerful friend placing a comforting paw on the shoulder,” Professor Curran said.  

“Now as we find ourselves closer to the centre of these new geopolitical forces, and with doubts about the growing gap between American resolve and capability in Asia, we must face up to the hard thinking of what that new order, already taking shape, might look like and what our role will be.” 

Australia’s recent position on issues with China 

Professor Curran described Australia’s recent outspoken views on issues with China, including Huawei’s 5G network, the foreign interference legislation and the inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 as “positioning Australia at the vanguard of a wider ‘pushback’ against China”.

In his address, he questions “why impulse and emotion have at times been allowed to override a strong Australian tradition of pragmatic, reason-based diplomacy”. 

He said our current relationship with China has “become captive not only to domestic politics, but also to the myopic vision of immediate experience and the uncritical mythologies by which events in the present are understood”. 

“The China threat narrative emphasises a sense of sometimes feverish alarm over what it sees as Beijing’s capacity to gradually erode the democratic foundations of Australia, thus rendering the nation hopelessly weak in the face of China’s growing economic and strategic weight, a predicament reminiscent of the invasion scare novel literature of the late 19th century and the lurid imagery of the height of the Cold War. This depiction betrays a rather lamentable lack of faith in the resilience and robustness of Australia’s democratic institutions,” Professor Curran said.  

You can read his speech in full here

Related articles