The decades since 2001 were defined by the “war on terror”; a new cold war between China and the United States may come to shape those that follow. Unlike the tensions between the USSR and America in the twentieth century, relationships between Western countries and China today are complicated by their close economic ties and the United States’ fear of economic displacement.
Ever the loyal subaltern to the world hegemon, Australia has been quick to sign up for this new cold war. The recently announced AUKUS alliance between Australia, the UK, and the United States signals a significant increase in military spending from the antipodean nation. The centerpiece of this deal is Australia’s purchase of nuclear submarines from the United States.
The foreign threat against which Australia claims to be defending itself is obvious. At any rate, it’s not lost on many politicians and public commentators who are stoking fears about China, from Pauline Hanson on the right to Clive Hamilton on the liberal left.
David Brophy’s book China Panic: Australia’s Alternative to Paranoia and Pandering is a timely intervention into this moment. It stands out from other writings on Australian geopolitics in that it is not written from the perspective of the country’s foreign policy establishment. Brophy’s book does not suggest placating China or reinforcing US regional hegemony. As both an academic specializing in the study of Uighur nationalism and a progressive commentator, Brophy instead writes from a point of view sympathetic to the interests of people across Asia, Australia, and elsewhere. From this perspective, the gravest threat to democracy does not come from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), but from militarization, heightened interimperial rivalries, and, potentially, regional conflict.
Authoritarianism Versus Democracy
The key trope of the new cold war is the opposition between authoritarianism and democracy. From the outset, US policymakers have framed the economic relationship between China and the United States as conditional on China respecting human rights, limiting military buildup, and respecting the national sovereignty of its neighbors, in particular Taiwan. Of course, the United States has not looked as critically at its own domestic and foreign policy.
No country rises from the bottom through trade and investment alone, and China has recognized this. If you challenge the United States’ economic hegemony, then you better have a military deterrent in place.
While Brophy doesn’t welcome China’s new imperiousness, he does bring some needed realism to the discussion. The real issue, he argues, is not China’s authoritarianism, but the threat the PRC poses to US economic dominance. China is acting as you would expect of any emerging power, given the existing global system.
The United States’ rhetoric about democracy is a thin veneer for its own imperial interests. For example, when America imposed measures to contain China’s economic growth, including restrictions on Chinese telecommunications company Huawei, it cited security concerns as a justification. At the very same time, Edward Snowden’s revelations exposed US security agencies collaborating with major US tech companies to access international fiber-optic cables, routers, and switches. They were able to access Huawei servers to spy on both its technology and key personnel.
More broadly, the United States has responded to China’s rise with a military pivot toward Asia. It is not clear, however, that this can contain China’s ambitions. This raises the prospect of regional conflict between the two nations.
To formulate a progressive position regarding Australia in this emerging cold war, Brophy focuses attention on Australia’s role in structuring its relationship to China and the United States. Against those who, like historian Henry Reynolds, lament Australia’s lack of independence, Brophy highlights how the country has deliberately and consciously pursued its interests within the US alliance.
Previously, this saw Australia attempt to balance its economic relationship with China against its political relationship with the United States. However, this balancing act has now broken down. Consequently, far from following America’s lead, the Australian government has begun to actively stoke tension with China. This was the intention behind Peter Dutton’s recent speculation about the prospect of war with China. As Brophy argues, this was designed to keep the United States focused on the region.
At times, Australia has acted like the most enthusiastic lobbyist for the new cold war against China. In part, this is because of the difficulty Australia has encountered in keeping America’s attention focused on the region and its interests. Australia’s need to cultivate close ties with powerful Western countries is a holdover from its foundation as a colonial outpost in Asia. This marginal status has pushed the Australian ruling class to seek a powerful patron to underwrite its position and influence within the region. Sometimes, these efforts bear fruit. For example, earlier this year, the US government credited Australia with helping shape a new, tougher anti-China stance.
Part of the foreign policy debate in Australia revolves around the question of whether China or the United States presents a greater threat to the country’s sovereignty. As Brophy observes, Australia has already ceded far more power to the US government then to China. For example, if the secretive facilities at Pine Gap, Australia, are involved in operations against the PRC, US politicians will be informed about this. Australian politicians, however, will not, despite the possibility that these facilities will draw the country into a conflict with China.
Meanwhile, Australia has embraced an expansive definition of national security to justify making proprietary claims on the Pacific, as a sphere of investment and influence. This is linked with the United States–sponsored subimperial role Australia plays in the region. Hypocritically, Australia’s rulers sound alarms about the malign influence of China in the region. This despite, for example, Australia’s sordid efforts to spy on and cheat Timor-Leste out of its resources in the Timor Sea.
Perhaps most important, Brophy argues that the emerging cold war with China is degrading democracy. A key moment in this process was when the Malcolm Turnbull Liberal government introduced security laws to deal with “foreign interference.” These wide-ranging laws threatened academic freedom, journalistic freedom, and civil rights.
The high-profile cases prosecuted under these laws inevitably involved Chinese actors. In one instance, the Australian government even revoked the visas of Chinese specialists in Australian literature. Brophy doesn’t lose sight of the fact that Australia is increasingly adopting the kind of authoritarian measures usually associated with China.
Brophy also highlights how the growth of Australia’s security agencies has cast suspicion on Chinese Australians, especially those involved in organizations seen as having pro-Beijing sympathies. The Australian Secret Intelligence Organization (ASIO) informed the Weekend Australian that it was concerned about no less than ten Chinese Australians standing for election and their connections to the PRC. Brophy notes how the media is prone to amplify this growing paranoia around the possibility of Chinese state interference in Australian politics. The Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Hartcher has been particularly vocal in his opposition to immigration from the PRC, most prominently in his Quarterly Essay piece “Red Flag.”
China and Human Rights
Because Brophy is an unflinching and independent critic of the Chinese government, his critique of Australian policy is all the more compelling. A specialist on the Muslim Uighur people of China, Brophy has previously drawn attention to the periodic security panics, mass detention, and enforced labor the PRC has subjected Uighurs to. As part of these crackdowns, he also importantly observes that China has adopted the language of Western counterterrorism and has cooperated with agencies such as the Australian Federal Police.
The lesson here is that the emerging cold war — which will lead to further militarization and the growth of security states on both sides — will in fact exacerbate human rights abuses against Uighurs. Indeed, China realizes that Western nations are less likely to press human rights concerns when their economic interests are at stake.
Brophy also examines the 2019 struggle for democratic rights in Hong Kong, noting the hypocrisy of many mainstream Western critics of the PRC. While eager to support the Hong Kong protesters, pro-Western politicians such as senator Tom Cotton were the first to denounce Black Lives Matter protests.
Similarly, in response to the Chinese-backed crackdown against the democracy movement, Australia suspended its extradition treaty to Hong Kong. At the same time, as Brophy observes, the “sad fact is that Australian security laws now serve more as a model than a counter-example for repressive governments in Asia.” Contradictions like this point to both the hypocrisy of Australia’s critique of the PRC and toward the real motivations behind them.
Calling Out Racism
The threat of a new cold war has exercised a considerable influence over some contemporary authors of both fiction and nonfiction, and trickled into their work. Heather Rose’s 2009 invasion novel Bruny and Clive Hamilton’s 2018 Silent Invasion are both deeply troubled by the threat China poses to Australian sovereignty. This often begins with fears that Australia is too dependent on China before crossing over into suspicion and paranoia about Chinese-Australian organizations. In turn, this leads many, including some on the cultural and liberal left, to turn to Australian security agencies for protection against the perceived threat.
Brophy quite rightly pushes back against the inflated claims of the anti-China camp to ask whether settler colonial nations are especially prone to panics over their sovereignty. The fact that First Nations people never ceded sovereignty and still contest it may explain Australia’s anxiety about its continued existence.
Not limiting himself to an analysis of Australian settler colonial racism, Brophy also calls out the country’s anti-Chinese racism. Racism is not, he insists, not just a matter of individual prejudice. It is instead increasingly promoted by the authorities and political commentators.
Anti-China politicians and leaders now routinely challenge Chinese Australians to state where their allegiances lie, just as conservatives have demanded of Muslims since at least the war on terror. Of course, those who make the inevitably racist case for banning immigration from the PRC inevitably conceal their prejudices by pointing to supposedly different “values,” rather than racial differences. Much like the clash of civilizations narrative to which the war on terror gave rise, anti-Chinese sentiment has produced a new war of civilizations. The combatants in this new conflict are a liberal West and an authoritarian East.
Perhaps the most refreshing element of Brophy’s book is the way he addresses himself to the broader public sphere, which he looks to as a counterweight to the emerging great power rivalry between China and America. Precisely because this rivalry contributes to the erosion of democracy and increases the likelihood of war, Brophy argues that progressive opinion should refuse to single China out for criticism. Indeed, it is the job of the Left to object to being caught up in the foreign policy objectives of Australia’s rulers and instead apply its criticism systemically to the domestic and foreign causes of the new cold war.
It’s not a question of democratic values, which are subject to contestation in every country, Australia included. Rather, as Brophy recognizes, it’s an issue of economic rivalry between capitalist nations. This is a very different kind of realism from the ruling class realpolitik that locks us into militarization and support for foreign interventions. Australia is no victim of Chinese imperialism — so long as it retains power, Australia’s ruling class will ensure that the country remains a subimperial adjutant for the United States as long as it is viable.