Oz-China chills in SecWorld, EcWorld, SocWorld, DipWorld & PolWorld
7 May 2018|

The new Oz–China icy age blows through many Australian worlds: security, economics and trade, social, diplomatic and political.

The orbits of these worlds converge, shifting political tides and disrupting social weather.

Traditionally, dragon slayers worry about China as a security threat, a revisionist power eating at Australia’s interests. The slayers tend to come from the security and counter-espionage realm—SecWorld—but other worlds feel dragon alarms.

Panda huggers dominate the economic realm of EcWorld—the trade numbers deserve warm embrace. Two-way trade is worth $150 billion (more than trade with the US and Japan combined). David Uren sees Australia’s most intense trading relationship since dependence on Britain faded in the early 1950s: ‘China takes a third of our exports of goods while its students and tourists provide a quarter of our services income. China also provides more than a fifth of our imports.’

As geostrategic and geoeconomic concerns grow, gravitational wobbles make EcWorld and SecWorld snarlier and snappier, and iciness spreads to other worlds.

SecWorld has upset the usual role of the diplomats from DipWorld, according to a former deputy secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and ambassador to China from 2007 to 2011, Geoff Raby.

As China adopts ‘an increasingly muscular foreign policy stance’ and challenges US pre-eminence, Raby writes, many in Canberra have taken fright:

In response, the Security Establishment (Defence, ONA, ASIO, ASIS, PM&C’s International Division, and the think tanks they fund such as ASPI) some time ago concluded that the China relationship was too important to trust to DFAT. The Foreign Minister’s, and hence her department’s, role in managing this critical relationship has become inconsequential.

More than a Canberra turf wrestle, this is worlds converging. As Raby notes:

China today permeates Australian society—some form of Chinese is the second most widely spoken language in Australian homes; fee-paying Chinese students largely support Australia’s higher education sector financially, while Chinese tourists have long been the biggest spenders. They are now also the most numerous. All of these trends will continue to deepen.

The line about ‘permeates Australian society’ points to a notable difference between this fifth icy age and the previous four. Much of today’s action is on Australian domestic turf—social and political—in SocWorld and PolWorld.

The chill intrudes into Australian internal interests. We’re arguing about ourselves as well as China: the way we do politics, how we run and pay for universities, the life of a multicultural society.

The policy issues become personal as they rage through SocWorld and PolWorld. The 2016 census found that 2.2% of Australia’s population were born in China and 5.6% of the population have Chinese ancestry; China ranks in the top five in Australia in such categories as languages spoken at home, country of ancestry and country of birth.

Introducing the legislation to widen the reach of foreign interference and espionage law in December, Malcolm Turnbull said the focus is on foreign states and their agents, not the loyalties of Australians from a foreign country: ‘There is no place for racism or xenophobia in our country. Our diaspora communities are part of the solution, not the problem.’

It’s a valiant but unsuccessful attempt to keep SecWorld separate from SocWorld.

The parliamentary review of the proposed legislation, the subsequent government amendments, and the range of public submissions all show the impact on a range of Oz worlds.

Consider the arguments in the clash of petitions between two groups of Australian China scholars.

Coming from the panda-ish side, the Concerned Scholars of China see no evidence that China aims to compromise Australian sovereignty, and disagree with key claims about Chinese influence made in support of the national security legislation:

Instead of a narrative of an Australian society in which the presence of China is being felt to a greater degree in series of disparate fields, we are witnessing the creation of a racialised narrative of a vast official Chinese conspiracy. In the eyes of some, the objective of this conspiracy is no less than to reduce Australia to the status of a ‘tribute state’ or ‘vassal’. The discourse is couched in such a way as to encourage suspicion and stigmatisation of Chinese Australians in general. The alarmist tone of this discourse impinges directly on our ability to deal with questions involving China in the calm and reasoned way they require. Already it is dissuading Chinese Australians from contributing to public debate for fear of being associated with such a conspiracy.

A response letter from the dragon’s direction from Scholars of China and the Chinese diaspora said the debate isn’t driven by ‘sensationalism or racism’ but responds to ‘well-documented reports about the Chinese Communist Party’s interference in Australia’, offering this checklist:

  • Espionage and other unlawful operations by Chinese officials or their proxies on Australian soil
  • Attempts to interfere in political elections
  • Direct and indirect control of Chinese-language media in Australia
  • Intimidation of Chinese Australians (both Australian citizens and permanent residents) for their political views and activities in Australia
  • The use of political donations and agents of influence in attempts to change Australian government policies
  • The takeover and co-opting of Chinese community groups to censor sensitive political discussions and increase the Chinese government’s presence in the community
  • The establishment of Chinese government-backed organisations on university campuses used for monitoring Chinese students
  • Interference in academic freedom
  • The cultivation of prominent Australians in attempts to sway public and elite opinion
  • The covert organisation of political rallies by the Chinese government.

The terms of the eventual thaw to this icy age will run through many Australian worlds.