Public Opinion be Damned: Canberra must Hedge Our Bets and Cultivate better Relations with China — regardless of what Australians may Think


by Elizabeth Grayland


Executive Summary

  • This article questions why Australia feels that it needs ‘great and powerful friends’.
  • It explores what were our past military alliances and what happened to them.
  • The article then considers what our relations with China have been historically. It asks whether cultivating better relations would be beneficial or would such a strategy only serve to threaten our current alliances.
  • The article considers why Australia seems to have a historic fear of Asia before focusing on John ‘Black Jack’ McEwen and the Australia-Japan Trade Agreement of 1957.
  • The article concludes by contemplating what should Australia do in future, and argues that, irrespective of what public opinion may suggest, Canberra must endeavour to strengthen its ties with China.

Australia must foster better relations with the People’s Republic of China, regardless of the opinion of the Australian people. Australia has always had its ‘great and powerful friends’ and must continue to do so. Currently, China’s power is growing while many informed observers predict that the United States is fading as a superpower. Similar to what transpired during the Second World War, Australia arguably again finds itself in a position of needing to choose ‘friends’ or perhaps shift alliances. We cannot lose the United States as an ally, however, we should not ignore China. Australia must continue to cultivate relations with both the United States, militarily, and China, economically.

Australia has long enjoyed its ‘great and powerful friends’. Our country is large: 7,686,884 square kilometres. The population is small: under 23 million, equating to 2.9 people per square kilometre. While our population and density have increased, when compared to the United States (33.7 people per square kilometre) and the United Kingdom (255.6 people per square kilometre) we clearly are a sparsely populated country. Australia is a western nation in an Asian region; there is belief that we are in a foreign area. Australia has always felt that the best way to protect itself militarily is to align ourselves with a great power. There are currently less than 60,000 permanent personnel in the Australian defence forces. This number, of course, is not nearly enough should we ever need to defend ourselves from attack or invasion. Former prime minister Robert Menzies famously declared that Australians must look to our ‘great and powerful friends’ for security, a stance that we have always taken and should continue to do so.

Australia’s past military alliances have been with western countries. Australia’s first military ties were to the British Empire. There were strong links to Empire. Most Australians considered themselves British, or at least Australian Britons. With a population of only a few million during the early decades of the twentieth century, Australia depended upon the Empire for security if not survival. Australian men followed Britain into the Boer War and then the First World War. In a speech at the provincial Victorian town of Horsham in 1914, then prime minister Joseph Cook stated that ‘all our resources in Australia are… for the empire and for the preservation and the security of the empire’. Nearly 420,000 Australian men enlisted in the Great War, of whom over two-thirds suffered casualties and 66,154 died. In the Second World War, over 27,000 Australians died in service and a further 23,000 were wounded. There were several major events in 1942 that caused Australia to turn from Britain to the United States. Australia had shared minor military relations with the United States before the Second World War. For instance, some 14,000 American sailors, on 16 white warships dubbed the Great White Fleet, visited our shores in August 1908. Observing a shift in naval power, the Sydney Morning Herald reported:

It is likely enough that America may become the first line of defence against Asia. But whether so or no, the ties – now formed – will remain, and we hope that time will only serve to strengthen them on both sides!

These bonds between Australia and the United States were strengthened during the Second World War following the Fall of Singapore in February 1942. With the Royal Navy preoccupied with the European theatre of war, Britain could not afford to send reinforcements to protect Australia. As Japan seized control of the region, Australia was no longer protected and on 19 February 1942 — just four days after the Singapore debacle — Darwin was bombed. Some 243 people were killed and a further 350 were wounded. The Japanese bombing of Darwin was the first time there was a direct attack on Australian soil. As war in the Pacific raged, Australia turned to the Americans and General McArthur’s forces became Australia’s saviours. On 1 September 1951, the ANZUS Treaty (a security agreement between Australia, New Zealand and the United States) was signed. As stated in article III of the Treaty, it would be triggered ‘whenever in the opinion of any of them the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened in the Pacific’. Most recently, Australia has supported the United States in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Indeed, our military ties with the United States have strengthened to the point where there will be 2,500 US Marines deployed in northern Australia (RAAF Darwin) by 2017.

Our relations with China primarily have been economic. There have been Chinese labourers in Australia since 1848, and the gold rushes of the 1850s attracted approximately 50,000 more Chinese. Also, Chinese workers have operated pearling businesses in northern Australia. There has been little to no military relations, however, between Australia and China. In his 1997 article ‘Australia and China’ (published in Australia and Asia), Gary Woodard states that China was perceived as a threat, and that Canberra’s views on China were dictated by Washington. This is evidenced, for instance, by Australia’s refusal to acknowledge the People’s Republic of China until 1972, some 23 years after Mao’s revolution. Then prime minister Gough Whitlam aimed to create better relations with China, with an example of this being the abolition of the ‘White Australia Policy’, allowing for easier immigration. Whereas few diplomatic talks occurred between Australia and the People’s Republic, our trade with China didn’t stop. We exported wool and wheat during the 1950s. Wheat exports to China became especially important after the failure of the Great Leap Forward, a period when China’s wheat production failed. China and Australia currently are both involved in the G20, the East Asia Summit, and also the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). Today the People’s Republic is our top trading partner, and trade between the two countries is worth AUD$83 billion.

The People’s Liberation Army apparently has 2,285,000 members on active service and a further 800,000 reserve members. To any countries or organisations with hostile intentions towards Australia, the strength of the Chinese Army would act as a deterrent. The strength of American defence forces already is a strong deterrent. A military alliance, however, may be desirable to China. True, Beijing does not need Australia’s military support; but stronger military links can equate to a stronger economic and trade relationship. Australia and the United States have experienced a strong trade relationship since the Second World War. Prior to the war, the United Kingdom had been Australia’s major trading partner. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, an average of 60 percent of our exports and 50 percent of our imports were to and from the UK. Following the Second World War, and the ANZUS Treaty, our trade with the United States rose while our trade with the UK fell. Should China become militarily allied to Australia, then, it stands to reason that greater trade relations would likely follow. This in turn would guarantee Australia greater security, as China would protect its economic interests and resources. There has been a history of antagonism and hostility between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. There is the chance that increased relations with either the United States or China could threaten our other relationships. The recent increased presence of US troops in Australia, for instance, could be interpreted by China as Australia and the United States arming themselves against a perceived threat from Asia. There is a chance that Australia will get caught between the two powers should anything occur.

Australia historically has feared Asia. Since 1840, there have been Chinese labourers in Australia. The labourers experienced prejudice; there also was a fear that the cheaper Chinese labour would replace those of European heritage. Gold rushes brought 50,000 more Chinese who were typically hard workers (and often more successful), which led to hostility and outbreaks of violence against Chinese living on the goldfields. There were many examples of anti-Chinese propaganda. They were depicted as dirty, syphilitic, and opium-dependent. They also were shown as corrupters of the ‘pure’, white, Australian woman. All these depictions portray a group lacking morals and values, and certainly not the values wanted by a newly-formed nation. In 1901, the first act of the newly formed Australian parliament was the Immigration Restriction Act 1901. This Act, which was designed to create a cohesive population, restricted the immigration of most non-Britons, including the Chinese. In the Second World War, the fear of Asia — as encapsulated by the phrase ‘yellow peril’ — increased. On 7 December 1941, the Japanese launched an attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor. This was followed by the February 1942 attack on Singapore. On 19 February 1942, Japan made a direct attack on Australia. This was followed by extreme fear of invasion, as the Japanese successively took Malaya, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), and New Britain (Papua New Guinea). Australian soldiers fought the Japanese back on the Kokoda Track. In the late 1990s, fear of the ‘yellow peril’ resurfaced, led by Pauline Hanson. In her maiden speech to federal parliament in 1996, Hanson stated a fear of being ‘overrun by Asians’.

John ‘Black Jack’ McEwen was the Minister for Trade and Industry in the Menzies Government from 1956 to 1971, and later served as Australia’s eighteenth prime minister. Following the Second World War, McEwen negotiated the Australia-Japan Trade Agreement in 1957. The Agreement was to give Australia and Japan equal access to each other’s markets, as they would any other nation. Australia, then, was one of the first countries to resume trade with Japan following the Second World War. The Treaty of Peace with Japan had only been signed in San Francisco in 1951, and there still was a lot of hostility towards the Japanese. Throughout the war in the Pacific, over 22,000 Australian soldiers and 4 nurses were taken as prisoners of war of the Japanese. These POWs were not treated in accordance with international guidelines (Japan had never ratified the Second Geneva Convention in which this was covered). POWs were subjected to brutality, beaten, starved, forced into labour, not given adequate medical aid, or killed. Approximately 8,000 Australian POWs died in captivity. The treatment of POWs added to the fear and threat of invasion, not helping to create a sympathetic environment in parliament or in the public. William Aylett, a Labor Senator for Tasmania, opposed the ‘trade agreement with one of the most brutal and callous enemies that the world has known’. Yet, there were those like John McEwen who saw the need to put aside past differences. Reginald Wright, a Liberal Senator for Tasmania, argued:

Nobody resents more bitterly than I do the conditions of the Pacific war, in which we were subjected to savage treatment by the Japanese, but we cannot remain at war indefinitely.

McEwen realised that Australian trade with Britain was declining and saw the Japanese market as a replacement. The atrocities that occurred in the war had to be put to the back of the mind.  In order for Australia to continue to experience a successful economy, a trade agreement with Japan had to be created regardless of the hostilities the public felt towards Japan. The trade agreement that McEwen negotiated led to one of Australia’s most successful trading relationships, with Japan remaining one of our major trading partners.

Australia cannot continue to vacillate over our involvement with the United States and the People’s Republic of China. A decision must be made about our relationships with the two countries. While historically there may be fear, and some degrees of suspicion regarding a stronger Sino-Australian relationship, we must move forward and have better relations — both militarily and economically — with the major powers in our region. Canberra must look out for Australia’s interests. Just as the United States was a rising superpower around the time of the Second World War, China currently is rising in power. Australia historically has allied itself to western powers, however, China is emerging as the world’s dominant force and shares our region. Strengthening Australia’s ties with the People’s Republic of China does not mean that our strong relationship with the United States should be abandoned. Australia has continued to have a strong relationship with the United Kingdom after the Fall of Singapore. In 2005, William Tow argued that the Australian Defence Force is heavily reliant on the United States Armed Forces for information and technology, and any military relationship with China could not replace the ANZUS Treaty and the sharing of information that comes from it. Australia must remain militarily allied to the United States, however, we cannot ignore China and must make advances toward Beijing in matters of security. To bolster an even better relationship with China, whilst continuing our relationship with the United States, we should focus on China economically and the United States militarily. Australia should focus on continuing to strengthen both relationships, while harming neither of them.



Selected further reading:

100 Years; The Australian Story – Episode 5; Farewell Great and Powerful Friends, Television, Australian Broadcasting Commission, Wednesday 11 April 2001, <http://www.abc.net.au/100years/EP5_5.htm>

Australian Bureau of Statistics, Trade Since 1900, 2007, retrieved 3 october 2012, <http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Previousproducts/1301.0Feature%20Article532001?opendocument&tabname=Summary&prodno=1301.0&issue=2001&num=&view>

Chakravorty. B, Australia’s Military Alliances; A Study in Foreign and Defence Policies, Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd, New Delhi, 1977

Hansard, Senate, Question; Japanese Trade Agreement, no. 22, 5/9/1957 <http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;db=HANSARD80;id=hansard80%2Fhansards80%2F1957-09-05%2F0137;query=Id%3A%22hansard80%2Fhansards80%2F1957-09-05%2F0138%22>

Hansard, Senate, Question; Japanese Trade Agreement, no. 22, 5/9/1957  <http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;db=HANSARD80;id=hansard80%2Fhansards80%2F1957-09-05%2F0134;query=Id%3A%22hansard80%2Fhansards80%2F1957-09-05%2F0138%22>

Hansard, Senate, Question; Japanese Trade Agreement, no. 22, 5/9/1957 http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;page=0;query=japanese%20%22Trade%20agreements%22%20agreement%20Decade%3A%221950s%22%20Year%3A%221957%22;querytype=Thesaurus%3ATrade%20agreements;rec=6;resCount=Default

Hansard, Senate, Question; International Affairs, no. 22, 28/5/1957  <http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/displayPrint.w3p;page=0;query=japanese%20%22Trade%20agreements%22%20agreement%20Decade%3A%221950s%22%20Year%3A%221957%22;querytype=Thesaurus%3ATrade%20agreements;rec=13;resCount=Default>

Tow. W, ‘Sino-American relations and the “Australian factor”: inflated expectations or discriminate engagement?’, Australian Journal of International Affairs Vol. 59, No. 4, 2005, pp. 451 – 467.

Trading with the enemy: the Australia-Japan Agreement on Commerce, radio, Radio National, Australia, 25 February 2007 <http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/rearvision/trading-with-the-enemy-the-australia-japan/3393730#transcript>

Woodard, G, ‘Australia and China’ in M. McGillivray & G. Smith (eds.) Australia and Asia, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1997, pp 136 – 156

© APH Network and contributors 2012. All rights reserved.


Citation: Elizabeth Grayland, Public Opinion be Damned: Canberra must Hedge Our Bets and Cultivate better Relations with China — regardless of what Australians may Think. Australian Policy and History. October 2012.

URL: http://www.aph.org.au/public-opinion-be-damned

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