Amid the humdrum of the asylum seeker debate that has troubled Australian politics it would seem that, with the deployment last month of a Chinese fleet north of our borders near Christmas Island, we were faced with what could be the first genuine issue of national security since Kokoda.
Suddenly China, a powerful nation once separated from us by an impenetrable Indonesian peninsula, has boldly flexed its new-found power and we find ourselves potentially vulnerable to a superior and threatening Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific.
Given our relatively friendly relationship with China, it sounds like something right out of a xenophobic’s nutjob diary. Yet here we are reporting this with some degree of urgency in our newspapers and via word of mouth, while experts such as Rory Medcalf of the Lowe Institute insist that the Chinese actions are more economic or deterrent, unlike the hostile manoeuvres China has boasted of towards its closer Japanese neighbour.
So if national security experts see no hostile intent in these actions, why did such an idea gain so much currency?
As someone who is strongly interested in Australia and its relationship with Asia, this narrative is painfully familiar to me as a cultural artefact of our creative literature. Such stories of northern Asian invaders storming our unprepared borders have become one of our worst clichés, popularised during the influx of Chinese immigrants in the 1800s Gold Rush by William Lane’s “White or Yellow? A Story of the Race-war of A.D. 1908” (1888) and spanning well into the Cold War.
Indeed, these books even have their own genre to testify to their prolificacy; “invasion novels”, as one academic Catriona Ross has described them. Having mentioned the Kokoda conflict earlier, it epitomises this peculiar genre as an example of life supposedly imitating art; Australian heroes fighting to protect Anglo-Australian purity against hordes of brutal “Asian invaders” at Papua New Guinea, the last frontier between them and our home soil.
In today’s multicultural society we would hope that such blatantly racist narratives are a dinosaur of the White Australia where they were conceived. However, such novels regrettably continue to be popular today, most significantly in John Marsden’s Australian best selling Tomorrow series – a series of books that depict the tribulations of a teenage guerrilla unit against invaders hauntingly similar to Marsden’s White Australian predecessors.
Although this Asian fear in post 9/11 Australia has been largely replaced by the asylum seeker debate, we do continue to see its occasional resurgence today; for example in a 2007 special edition of The Australian that depicted Asian invaders of a post climate change Australia. And who could forget the foreign ownership controversy that is Australian agriculture, where China has figured in a significantly disproportionate number of media reports on the subject?
Having read last week’s Sydney Morning Herald report on Chinese investment in Sydney real estate, I cannot help but to compare this article to the past agriculture controversy, and think that our media has yet to rise above the lens of foreign suspicion – once a thing of fiction that has now adapted by our journalists – through which we viewed last month’s Chinese fleets.
It is against this context of foreign suspicion that we now report recent events surrounding the Chinese fleets in another possible example of a clichéd story we may add to the growing list of fictional Asian threats and invasions.
Having said that, I do not accuse Australia of being a blatantly racist nation as we have largely moved on from the deep and institutionalised racism of White Australia where these narratives were born.
And I certainly am not suggesting that remaining ignorant to these important developments in domestic and international affairs is in Australia’s national interest.
Nevertheless, with our ever-present anxiety around these issues, it’s certainly possible that multicultural Australia has developed, or rather inherited, a severe knee-jerk reaction to matters of national security that now exists independently of the ghost of White Australia past.
In any case, it is clear we need to openly acknowledge our contemporary tendency to overreact to these situations. Whether it is Chinese fleets in the Indian Ocean or asylum seekers from the Middle East, multicultural Australia must remain calm and diplomatic in its response to such adversities, lest we allow ourselves to become an outdated caricature of our old literature clichés.