Images from the 1940s were invoked when China’s rise was compared to Germany’s dark past under Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party.

In what has become a highly contentious commentary, the head of Australia’s parliamentary intelligence committee warned of the dangers of history repeating itself when dealing with the world’s second-largest economy.

“The West once believed that economic liberalization would naturally lead to democratization in China,” Andrew Hastie, who is part of the ruling Liberal Party coalition and served with the SAS, or special forces, in Afghanistan, said.

“This was our Maginot Line. It would keep us safe, just as the French believed their series of steel and concrete forts would guard them against the German advance in 1940 [during World War II]. But their thinking failed catastrophically,” he wrote in an opinion piece for Australian media, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

“The French had failed to appreciate the evolution of mobile warfare … [and] like the French, Australia has failed to see how mobile our authoritarian neighbor [China] has become,” MP Hastie added.

His controversial comments on Wednesday came amid escalating political tension between Australia’s key ally, the United States, and China, fuelled by the year-long trade conflict and a broader geopolitical rivalry.

Naturally, Hastie’s remarks were condemned by the Chinese Embassy in Canberra.

“We strongly deplore the Australian federal MP Andrew Hastie’s rhetoric on ‘China threat’ which lays bare his Cold-War mentality and ideological bias,” an embassy spokesperson said in a statement. “It goes against the world trend of peace, cooperation and development. It is detrimental to China-Australian relations.

“History has proven and will continue to prove that China’s peaceful development is an opportunity, not a threat to the world,” it added.

Still, Beijing’s increased military spending has transformed the balance of power in the East and South China Seas as new naval carrier groups flex their muscles under an umbrella of Chengdu J-20 stealth fighters.

Overseas ventures

In the Pacific, ‘New Silk Road’ strands of President Xi Jinping’s signature foreign-policy blueprint, the US$1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative, have alarmed Australia and the US.

Critics, in turn, have branded Beijing’s overseas ventures as nothing more than “debt-trap diplomacy.”

Coupled with the militarization of man-made islands in the South China Sea and a possible deal to station Chinese troops at a naval base in Cambodia, the threat of a new Cold War hangs over the Asia-Pacific region.

“Our strategic competitors are China and Russia, principally, in that order,” US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said during a whirlwind Asian and Pacific tour, which started in Sydney at the weekend.

“I want to go out to the theater to visit with some of our longest-standing allies and [to] make sure they understand that [they have] not just the department’s but my personal commitment, the United States’ commitment to this region,” he added.

For Australia, this comes at a crucial period in time. Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his government are involved in a delicate juggling act.

Canberra is desperate to maintain its traditional security alliance with Washington while balancing its economic relationship with its largest trading partner China.

A J-15 fighter jet of the PLA Navy prepares to land on China’s aircraft carrier, The Liaoning, during a naval exercise in the western Pacific. Photo: AFP

Yet, that relationship is showing signs of strain as Xi and the ruling Communist Party embrace the prospect of the world’s most populous nation joining the exclusive superpower club.

Analyst Grant Newsham highlighted China’s Pacific strategy of stealth for Asia Times earlier this week.   

“The People’s Republic of China burrowed into America’s Pacific island territories and the ‘compact of free association’ states – Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Palau, and the Marshall Islands – over the last 30 years via a wide-ranging and aggressive political warfare scheme including a powerful economic component,” the former US State Department diplomat and marine officer said.

“To its credit, the [Donald] Trump administration is paying more attention to Chinese influence operations in the Pacific territories and the Asia-Pacific region than its predecessors – described by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as ‘asleep at the switch.’”

Elsewhere, the island archipelago of Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea are also on Beijing’s radar.

Traditionally, this is Australia’s backyard with links stretching back over the ages. But that has started to change as China strides onto the global stage.

‘Unprecedented challenge’

Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, spelled out the realities of the situation when he argued that “China poses an unprecedented challenge.”

“[Australia has] never encountered an Asian country as powerful as China is now, let alone as powerful as it will likely become in the decades ahead,” he wrote in an essay entitled In Denial: Defending Australia as China looks south, which was published on the Australian Foreign Affairs website.

“The uncomfortable reality is that preserving an exclusive sphere of influence in the South Pacific is not going to be possible against a regional power that is far stronger than any we have ever confronted, or even contemplated. It might turn out that the more we try and fail to exclude China from the South Pacific, the less influence we will have there,” he added.

But there are other options on the table even if they appear at first glance to be unpalatable, according to Newsham.

He insisted that “at some point, Australia will no longer be able to split the difference when it comes to China and the US.”

At the same time, he praised Canberra’s leadership for waking up to Beijing’s “malign influence efforts inside” the country’s “politics and civil society.”

Finally, Newsham stressed:

“Australia will soon face the stark choice between US-backed principles and independence, or Chinese money.”

Hastie’s commentary on Wednesday might just have nudged Canberra’s political class in the right direction.