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Elbowed And Hustled: Australia’s Yellow Peril Problem

With the babble about Cold War paranoia becoming a
routine matter in Canberra, the treacherous ground for war
with China is being bedded down and readied. The Yellow
Peril image never truly dissipated from Australia’s
politics. It was crucial in framing the first act of the
newly born Commonwealth in 1901: the Immigration Restriction
Act. Even as China was being ravaged and savaged by foreign
powers and implosion, there was a fear that somewhere along
the line, a reckoning would come. Charles Henry Pearson, a
professor of history at King’s College London, penned his
Life and Character: a Forecast
(1893) with
fear in mind. The expansion of the West into all parts of
the globe and its claims to progress would soon have to face
a new reality: the threat posed by the “Black and Yellow

Pearson fastened on various developments.
The population of China was booming. The Chinese diaspora,
the same, making their presence felt in places such as
Singapore. “The day will come and perhaps is not far
distant, when the European observer will look round to see
the globe girdled with a continuous zone of the black and
yellow races, no longer too weak for aggression or under
tutelage, but independent, or practically so, in government,
monopolising the trade of their own regions, and
circumscribing the industry of the Europeans”. Europeans
would be “elbowed and hustled, and perhaps even thrust
aside by peoples whom we looked down upon as servile and
thought of as bound always to minister to our

The work’s effect was such as to have a
future US President Theodore Roosevelt claim in
a letter
to Pearson that “all our men here in
Washington … were greatly interested in what you said. In
fact, I don’t suppose that any book recently, unless it is
Mahan’s ‘Influence of Sea Power’ has excited anything
like as much interest or has caused so many men to feel like
they had to revise their mental estimates of

Anxiety, and sheer terror of China and the
Chinese became part of the political furniture in Washington
and in Britain’s dominions. In Australia, such views were
fastened and bolted in the capital. The country’s first
Prime Minister, Edmund Barton, drew upon Pearson’s work
extensively in justifying the Immigration Restriction Act in
1901. The White Tribe had to be protected.

In 1966,
the Australian historian Donald Horne noted
the continuing sense of impermanence for those living on the
island continent, that “feeling that one morning we shall
wake up to find that we are no longer here”. He recalled
the views of an unnamed friend about China’s political
aspirations, voiced in 1954. By 1957, he predicted,
Southeast Asia would have fallen to its soldiers. Australia
would duly follow, becoming a dependency. “Because of the
submerged theme of impermanence and even catastrophe in the
Australian imagination,” observed Horne, “the idea of
possible Chinese dominance is ‘believable’ to

There was a hiatus from such feeling
through the 1980s and 1990s. The view in Australia, as it
was in the United States, was that China could be managed to
forget history, disposing itself to making money and
bringing its populace out of poverty. But historical amnesia
failed to take hold in Beijing.

Australian current
actions in stoking the fires of discord over China serve a
dual purpose. There is a domestic, electoral dimension:
external enemies are always useful, even if they are mere
apparitions. Therein lies the spirit of Barton, the besieged
White tribe fearing submergence. The other is to be found in
the realm of foreign policy and military security.
Australian strategists have never been entirely sure how far
the ANZUS Treaty could be relied upon.

One moment of
candour on what might happen to trigger ANZUS obligations
took place in 2004. Australia’s Foreign Minister Alexander
Downer, on a trip to Beijing, pondered the issue of how a
security relationship with China might affect US-Australian
ties. Asked by journalist Hamish McDonald whether Australia
had a treaty obligation to assist the US in defending
Taiwan, the minister stated
that the treaty was “symbolic” and would only be
“invoked in the event of one of our two countries,
Australia or the United States, being attacked. So some
other military activity elsewhere in the world, be it in
Iraq or anywhere else for that matter does not automatically
invoke the ANZUS Treaty.” Its provisions, he observed, had
only been invoked once: when the United States was attacked
on September 11, 2001.

This startlingly sound reading
did not go down well. The press wondered
if this cast doubt over “ANZUS loyalties”. The US
Ambassador to Canberra John Thomas Schieffer leapt into
action to
that there was an expectation that Australia
muck in should the US commit forces to battle in the
Pacific. “[T]reaty commitments are that we are to come to
the aid of each other in the event of either of our
territories are attacked, or if either of our interests are
attacked, our home territories are attacked or if either of
our interests are attacked in the Pacific.” One cable
from the Australian government attempted to pacify any fears
about Australia’s reliability by suggesting that, “Some
media reporting had taken elements [of Downer’s comments]
out of context.”

The argument has now been turned.
Discussion about Taiwan, and whether Australian blood would
be shed over it, has much to do with keeping Washington
focused on the Asia- and Indo-Pacific, finger on the
trigger. If Canberra shouts loudly and foolishly enough that
it will commit troops and weapons to a folly-ridden venture
over Taiwan, Washington will be duly impressed to dig deeper
in the region to contain Beijing. This betrays a naivety
that comes with relying on strategic alliances with little
reflection, forgetting that Washington will decide, in due
course, what its own interests are.

So far, the
Morrison government will be pleased with what the Biden
administration has said. Australia could be assured of US
support in its ongoing diplomatic wrangle Beijing. In the
of US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, “the
United States will not leave Australia alone on the field,
or maybe I should say alone on the pitch, in the face of
economic coercion by China. That’s what allies do. We have
each other’s backs so we can face threats and challenges
from a position of collective

Australia’s anti-China rhetoric has its
admirers. Michael Shoebridge of the Australian Strategic
Policy Institute – a US security think tank in all but
name – dismisses
the value of words
such as “major conflict,”
preferring the substance of action. He talks about
“honesty” about China, which is grand coming from a
member of an outfit which is less than frank about its
funding sources and motivations. That honesty, he assumes,
entails blaming
China for belligerence. “Reporting what [President] Xi
says and what the PLA and other Chinese armed forces do is
not ‘stoking the drums of war’; it’s noticing what is
happening in our region that affects our

Thankfully, former Australian foreign
minister Gareth Evans is closer to the sane fringe in
noting that words
, in diplomacy, are bullets. He reminds
us of “the immortal wisdom of the 1930s Scottish labour
leader Jimmy Maxton: ‘If you can’t ride two horses at
once, you shouldn’t be in the bloody

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth
Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT
University, Melbourne. Email:

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