MELBOURNE - The recent brouhaha amongst politicians and the commentariat about the escalation in China’s endeavours to wield influence in Papua New Guinea, the Pacific islands and Australia reflects the fear of China, long-held by many Australians, intensified more recently as it resumes status as a world power.
This fear is concocted from a fertile cocktail of three ingredients: ignorance and misunderstanding; a generic wariness of the unknown; and the enduring threat (originating in 19th century colonial Australia) posed by the so-called ‘yellow peril’.
This has been exacerbated by China’s rise as an economic and military power and concurrent questions about how the USA and China’s neighbours, including Australia and PNG, can best respond to the shifting power relationships in the Asia-Pacific region.
Whether, and to what extent, this fear is rational and warranted, remains to be seen.
But what is it, exactly, that we are afraid of?
Change of whatever type invariably causes the pulse to race and the liver to quiver.
The comfort we’ve derived down the years from the USA’s warm embrace and protective arsenal is dissipating as we observe Trump America’s apparent withdrawal into self-centred isolation – the recent bellicose bombast towards the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea notwithstanding.
Australia’s hegemony over the nations of the south-west Pacific is threatened by Chinese political and commercial forays into the region and we are shuddering somewhat.
Just as we loathed the rise of Japan as a post-World War II economic power and its impact on our material well-being, we now resent our economic dependence on China (Australia’s largest export market) for similar reasons.
This is compounded by the stark differences in political philosophies between China and Australia.
Adding to our fears, our political masters, apart from railing about roads to nowhere, seem to be incapable of crafting and implementing any kind of coherent and sustainable response to the change that confronts us.
This is a real test of Australia’s strategic calibre and diplomatic deftness.