(Image: AAP/Private Media)

Three years ago, at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore, Malcolm Turnbull said the quiet part out loud: “Some fear that China will seek to impose a latter day Monroe Doctrine on this hemisphere in order to dominate the region.”

The then prime minister was referring to the United States’ 19th century attempt to claw back territorial domination of the Americas from Europe. The speech is littered with warnings to China about coercion, and threats to peace and harmony in the region. The subtext was clear: China was a threat. Beijing needed to back off.

The Australia-China relationship really started to deteriorate that year, 2017. Just months earlier, foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop had chided Beijing about the need for democracy. It was the year our media became awash with stories about espionage and influence-peddling — stories that unravelled Labor senator Sam Dastyari’s political career and drove the Turnbull government to introduce foreign interference laws.

Three years on, things have arguably never been worse. “This is one of the lowest — if not the lowest — point in the bilateral relationship in the last 40 odd years,” Deakin University international relations associate professor Chengxin Pan tells Crikey.

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Turnbull, who once spoke positively about China’s rise, hardened, and brought Canberra with him. Meanwhile China under Xi Jinping doubled down on internal repression, military posturing and authoritarian nationalism.

Then the pandemic hit. Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for an international investigation of China’s handling of the pandemic, stoking Beijing’s fury. Since then the countries have walked on diplomatic eggshells. Beijing’s top diplomat trades barbs with politicians and reporters. Restrictions have been placed on Australian beef, barley and coal. There are fears international students might stop coming. Chinese Australians are being asked to declare their loyalty.

How did it come to this?

It wasn’t meant to be like this. For years the West clung to the assumption that China’s economic miracle would bring political openness. Nobody believes that any more.

“When Xi came to power, there was a lot of hope in the West that he would liberalise China,” China Policy Centre director Yun Jiang says. “Within a year it was clear that wasn’t happening. In fact it was the reverse.”

Under Xi, China has become an empire with a fragile ego, increasingly intolerant of dissent. The domestic surveillance state has expanded, and foreign policy has become more aggressive. Uyghurs have been put in forced labour camps. Intimidation of dissidents reaches all the way to Australia.

A more aggressive China led to a series of flashpoints in the bilateral relationship which crystallised into the current deeper divide. Peter Jennings, director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), points to Australia excluding China from the NBN and emerging 5G networks and heightened cyber-attacks between the two countries.

“You see fundamental points of strategic difference starting to cause frictions in the relationship,” he says.

For academic Clive Hamilton, one of the toughest critics of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) interference, the chilling relationship is a sign Australia is waking up.

“The CCP has for 10 to 15 years been engaged in a sustained effort to interfere in Australian politics and infiltrate Australian institutions,” he says. “Australians, and the government, are finally starting to wake up.”

But in the past Australia has held its nose and kept a steady relationship in the face of CCP aggression and human rights abuses. One difference this time was that the rest of the world was changing too. US President Donald Trump, with his “America first” rhetoric, entered the White House as possibly the most openly isolationist president since the 1920s. That started to spook the spooks and, over time, more hawkish, national security-focused voices began to dominate.

“There’s a long-standing ‘fear of abandonment’ in Australian strategic and defence circles,” University of Technology Sydney’s Australia China Relations Institute director James Laurenceson says.

“The fact that China is slowly becoming the dominant power in the region is a traumatic event for parts of the Australian government and society in general.”

Trump’s pronouncements and his impulsive leadership style “induced a mild panic in Canberra”, University of Sydney China historian David Brophy says.

In response, Australia’s national security agencies got more vocal. In 2017 ASIO boss Duncan Lewis warned of “unprecedented” levels of foreign interference risking “our nation’s sovereignty”. It’s a refrain it has continued ever since.

The hawk ascendancy

Over time, a hawkish national security lens has come to dominate how Australia views China.

“There now appears to be a consensus between the policy departments and the security agencies on how the China relationship is managed,” University of Sydney historian James Curran says.

The security agencies didn’t deliver the China reset on their own. They’ve had plenty of help from the media who, says Laurenceson, have put out a “deluge” of stories about espionage and foreign interference. Part of that, of course, is that China’s activities have ramped up. But a lot of stories aren’t necessarily the result of diligent muckraking. Rather they’re strategic drops from the security agencies.

This has led some to question whether the relationship between the media and security agencies is getting slightly too close for comfort.

“Has the press gallery forgotten we’re not at war with China?” former Sydney Morning Herald China correspondent Hamish McDonald asked in May.

The closeness between the media and security agencies is exemplified by the story of John Garnaut. A former Beijing-based correspondent for Fairfax, Garnaut saw the mendacity and ruthlessness of Xi’s regime up close. After leaving journalism he worked for Turnbull, putting together a classified dossier on CCP interference in Australia. He wrote the Singapore speech, and was hugely influential in shaping how Turnbull saw China.

Jennings’ ASPI has also been very influential. Once a relatively unknown think tank, its experts are nearly always in the media. It’s done a lot of critical work on interference in Australia and Beijing’s repression of the Uyghurs. And Jennings says he wanted to change the way our relationship with China was discussed.

“Starting out I thought so much commentary and analysis came from an economic perspective, largely about the economic upside of engagement. That’s been the dominant paradigm for decades,” he says.

“My view was increasingly we were seeing downside risks emerging … from a defence and security point of view.”

To ASPI’s critics, they’re a bunch of hawkish Cold War warriors, funded by the US State Department and big weapons manufacturers.

But Jennings rejects that, telling Crikey such funding arrangements are pretty standard throughout academia and the think tank space.

“People say somehow this is going to skew our research, but where?” he says. “Give me examples that would suggest our independence has been compromised.”

Is there an alternative?

But perhaps the biggest reason the national security types have won the intellectual battle over China is that they don’t face much credible opposition. It’s a lot harder to articulate a more “doveish” approach to China. And it’s often pretty easy to dismiss some of those who do.

There are the business leaders, like Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest and Kerry Stokes, who have an obvious financial stake in a relationship where concerns around human rights are ignored. 

Then there are the useful social media commentators, like YouTuber Jordan Shanks (also known as “FriendlyJordies”), who went on Chinese state media to complain about ASPI and later made a video blaming the Uyghurs for their own oppression.

Hamilton says those downplaying China’s threat are either tankies (the old Stalinist left) “preoccupied with identity politics” or “bought off by the CCP”. He says many lack the moral clarity to see China for what it is.

But others have tried to find a middle ground. Curran, for example, says the narrative of Chinese influence-peddlers posing an existential threat to Australian institutions is overblown.

“Some hawks, even some cautious realists, talk about it like they’re so vulnerable that the Chinese can come in and subvert them overnight,” he says. “By all means safeguard them, but I think we should have more faith in our institutions.”

Shaoquett Moselmane, the NSW Labor MP whose career ended after the AFP raided him as part of a security probe, is a case in point.

“That guy’s a nobody,” Laurenceson says.

If a rogue but unknown state opposition MP is the CCP’s best Manchurian candidate, is this really a sophisticated foreign threat about to usurp our democracy?

For Pan, the obsessive journalistic focus on stories about foreign interference is often a case of the media confirming pre-existing, racialised biases about China: “It’s like a self-licking ice-cream cone.”

But perhaps the biggest tragedy of the China debate is that things are becoming increasingly paranoid and hysterical. And it means many important voices aren’t willing to freely speak out.

Tomorrow: racism, pledges of allegiance, and spying — the human cost of geopolitics gone bad

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