Chapter 4 – Canberra’s Blind Sinophobia


Into Canberra, and some Asian Realities

1. Via North Borneo and Sarawak
2. On The China Desk
3. The Lee Kwan Yew Election
4. China and the Korean War
5. How Personalist Biases sway Policy 
6. The Sino-Indian Frontier Dispute

By the time I got back to Hong Kong from Japan my two year posting was running out.

I headed back to Canberra, this time traveling via North Borneo and Sarawak.

Both territories were in dispute because of the plan to force them into an artificial state called Malaysia. 

I got to meet some Overseas Chinese in Sarawak. 

With much sincerity they told me about the discrimination they had suffered under the colonial British regime, and their fears that they would suffer even more in a Malay-dominated state.

Some of the more idealistic and younger Chinese had gone off into the mountains bordering Indonesian Borneo to join an armed resistance movement, I was told.

Most were eventually to be wiped out in the uneven fight with better armed and well-paid British, and Australian, troops.

Back in Canberra I discovered that those resisters were not seen as people with a cause. 

Rather, they were seen as Beijing’s puppets – as clear proof of Beijing’s belligerence and determination to move south into Asia. 

Why? Because they were mainly Chinese, and everyone knew that the Overseas Chinese were beholden to Beijing.

Nor was the fact that Beijing had done absolutely nothing to help these rebels with arms or funds seen as relevant. 

In the rock-filled minds of our Canberra ‘experts’, the rebels were members of an Overseas Chinese Third Column (their word, not mine) being prepared by Beijing for its planned South-east Asian takeover.

It was my first meeting with something that would puzzle me for the rest of my career.

Here were intelligent, well-educated people put in charge of foreign policy, who had almost no interest in the realities of the disputes for which they were supposed to create policies. 

How could they do that and remain at ease with their consciences?

In Sarawak only a few hundred motivated young Chinese were to die as a result of this bias.

In Vietnam the numbers would be in the millions.

2. The China Desk

Back in Canberra, I was put into the Department’s East Asia section while waiting for my next posting. 

There I discovered a lot more about Canberra’s anti-China phobias. 

The basic premise was simple: Peking (as it was called in those days) was the enemy. 

Any and every move it made had to be seen with suspicion. 

There could be no contact of any kind with a source of such evil.

Even an innocent visit to Sydney by a Chinese dance troupe had to handled with great caution. 

And this, I should add, was a China which by 1962 had shaken off its Great Leap Forward madness and was trying to consolidate under the leadership of moderates like Chou En-lai and Deng Hsiao-ping (as their names were then spelled).

I tried to suggest that Beijing’s hands-off policies towards the ugly Sarawak situation proved how China was an unusually inward-looking nation with little interest in what happened beyond its frontiers. 

I could not imagine, for example, Canberra or Washington showing such restraint in a similar situation.

That idea did not get very far. 

I then put forward a submission saying that we should encourage Taiwan-China contacts since the successful Taiwanese example would do much to steer Beijing away from some of its obsessive Marxist beliefs. 

That idea did not even get to court, let alone  laughed out of it. (Researchers poring through old External Affairs files are invited to look for that submission, and the reaction to it.)

3. The Lee Kwan Yew Election

I discovered some of the background to the 1959 ban on any contact with Lee Kwan Yew which I had seen three years earlier in Singapore.

It seems that in the 1959 election that brought Lee to power, Canberra, London and Washington had covertly poured large funds into the pockets of Lee’s main opponent – the ineffectual but pro-British Lim Yew Hock. 

Lee won anyway, and got his revenge several years later by sending Lim as ambassador to Canberra.

There Lim was to be even more ineffectual. He disappeared from his embassy for a week.  After a frantic search was found in the care of a Sydney stripper called Sandra Nelson. 

And this was the man whom the Western powers had chosen to stop the feared Communist thrust into Southeast Asia! 

Compare that with the effectiveness Lee was to show in suppressing his strong pro-communist opposition.

During the Vietnam War years I tried often at conferences and debates on Asian affairs to use this story to prove the folly of Western policies in Asia. 

After all, if the West could not realise the importance of a Lee Kwan Yew rather than a Lim Yew Hock in providing the leadership needed to steer Asia away from Communism, the chances of success among the sundry collection of incompetent dictators it was backing in the rest of Asia, Vietnam especially, were slim.

As far as I know, Australia’s foreign policy elite is still quite uninterested in this crucial detail.

The bureaucrats and the pundits used to fuss endlessly over the role of such trimmings as ANZUS or SEATO. 

Yet they did not want to know the much more important fact that they mistakenly had seen Lee Kwan Yew as a crypto-communist and had tried undemocratically to prevent him from coming to power. 

Instead they had backed the one man who almost  certainly would have proved useless before the so-called communist threat. 

I cannot think of a more damning indictment of Western, including Australian, policies in Asia at the time.

But the only response I ever got was a rebuke for harming Lim Yew Hock’s privacy by mentioning the Sandra Nelson affair.

I once raised all this in a Singapore speech, with much media publicity and even a comment by Lee himself. 

At least the Singaporeans knew what was important in Asia, and what was not.

4. China and the Korean War

This strange Australian ability to ignore facts and details that contradict current orthodoxies and emotions still puzzles me. 

Not once while working in the East Asia section did I see any mention of such important details as the fact that in 1949 the US had actually written Chiang Kai-shek off as a Chinese leader. 

The US, correctly, had seen the China mainland-Taiwan confrontation as an extension of the pre-1949 civil war in China. Chiang continued to be seen as the incompetent, corrupt and defeated leader that he was, and that he and his regime should be left to their well-deserved fate.

(Washington had only changed its mind after the outbreak of the Korean War. Communist China came to be seen as the enemy in Asia despite the fact that the North Korean attack on the South had been backed by Moscow rather than Beijing. 

(Beijing, if anything, had opposed the attack since it ended up requiring Chinese intervention and badly disrupted Beijing’s post-1949 plans for resolving the Taiwan problem and for reviving the domestic recovery. 

(Even so the anti-communist regime in Taiwan came to be seen as a US ally deserving full support and Beijing as the enemy.) 

By the time I arrived in Canberra, not just naïve politicians but some of our allegedly informed foreign policy bureaucrats were quite convinced of the rightness of support for Taiwan,  and for Chiang Kai-shek’s still incompetent and cruel regime as the true representatives of the Chinese people in the UN and elsewhere.

Progressives like Keith Brennan, who had tried to warn Gorton about Chiang’s deviousness, were seen as soft-headed, small-L liberals, quite unaware of Asia’s realities


My immediate superior, and mentor, in the East Asia section was Hugh Dunn. 

Sensitive and serious, and with some background in Chinese studies – something very rare in the Department (though he too could not speak the language) – I assumed that he at least had some idea of what was going on around China. 

But he too was caught up in the myths of Chinese aggressiveness. 

Years later, with the disclosure of some secret Vietnam War cables, his name turned up in various strange places suggesting that he was even more hawkish, pro-US, and more involved in creating Canberra’s ugly Vietnam policies, than I had realised.

5. How Personalist Biases sway Policies 

Dunn had previously served in Korea, and his hawkishness, like that of James Plimsoll, Department head for much of the sixties, and several other senior diplomats at the time, seemed to have been forged very much in the 1950-53 Korean War (Dunn, like Plimsoll, had served in Seoul. His wife was Korean). 

It was a strangely personalist approach to foreign affairs. 

They could identify closely with the sufferings and motivations of the people they knew on our side. 

But they could not extrapolate, to grasp the sufferings and motivations of the people they did not know on the other side.

As for the reality of the Korean War — that it was a civil war intended to end the arbitrary division of the Korean peninsula, in which the North had just as much right to attack its rival in the South as the South had to attack the North (and which the South was threatening to do anyway) – such thoughts never seemed to cross their minds, at least not on the papers that I saw.

As for the fact that the regime in the South was engaged in the roundup and slaughter of alleged leftists  – mainly people who like ourselves had opposed Japanese aggression (many were teachers and other progressives opposed to Japan’s former takeover of Korea) – I never saw a hint of dismay.

It was feared their progressive sentiments meant they would tend to side with the regime in the North. So they became the enemy and their oppressors as worthy of our support.

Without the massive US intervention, the North could easily have won that civil war.

Normally, in the absence of elections, victory in a civil war without foreign intervention is usually seen as an expression of national will (certainly that was the case in with the US civil war almost a century earlier). 

Yet for some reason that principle was not supposed to apply in Korea.

Nor could the parochial Canberra minds even begin to cope with such details as the reason why the North might have had the balance of national support since anti- communists had been the only effective anti-Japanese force in pre-1945 years.

Or the fact that the dreadful pre-1950 roundups and executions of progressive elements in the South, the 1948 Cheju Island massacre especially, gave North Korea’s attack on the South a moral legitimacy also.

Even more relevant was the US statement to the UN in August 1950 when the US thought it could unite Korea on its own anti-communist terms. 

In June 1950 the US and Canberra had claimed as the basis for their intervention the fact that North Korea had committed ‘gross aggression’ across an internationally recognised border. 

But in August 1950, just two months later and as US troops were moving northwards across the border with North Korea, the US representative to the UN could insist there was no ‘historical or legal basis for the division of the peninsula.’

Not once did I find any mention of this statement, let alone its implications. 

For our policy makers, the North Korean attack and the later Chinese intervention to prevent the US advance north to the Chinese border were all proof of an aggressive Asian communism on the move and threatening Australia.

I was to run into the same shallow thinking years later over Vietnam. There too the cruel sufferings imposed by a US backed regime on supporters of Hanoi, and their right to initiate civil war as a result, was quite beyond the grasp of my Canberra colleagues. 

The only thing that mattered were the views and sufferings of our anti- communist friends in Saigon.

The fact that the Geneva Agreements of 1954 had denied any legal basis for the division of Vietnam, and had called for unification elections, was never allowed to trouble the minds of our hawks.

This personalist approach to foreign affairs is curious. 

Even well educated Australians seem to find it hard to stand back and view events objectively. 

They rely mainly on personal feelings. And since the only media reportage and  personal experiences they receive, are from these people from the side that Australian foreign policy happens to support, then this side deserves support and the other side is evil.

It’s as naïve and simple as that.

I was to find the same particularistic and emotional one-sidedness also in Japan – another highly parochial nation. 

It precluded any attempt, except by a tiny motivated and inquisitive minority, to look into the motives of the other side. 

The inability of even educated Japanese to grasp the reality of the horrors their nation imposed on China, Korea and much of Southeast Asian during the war years was an unforgivable blot on the reputation of a people I later came to like and even to admire in some ways.

6. The Sino-Indian Frontier Dispute 

But it was the Sino-Indian frontier war of October 1962 that more than anything else made me despair of seeing any sense or integrity in Canberra’s foreign policies.

As China desk officer I had been following closely the buildup of frontier disputes throughout that year. 

It was no secret Nehru was pushing a dangerously forward policy; the several books since put out by the Indian military men on the spot at the time all make this point.

China was on the defensive, trying repeatedly to warn New Delhi of the dangers of escalation, and to appeal to world opinion to stop the Indian push.

When the fighting broke out one needed only to look at maps to realise that Indian troops had moved north of even the most ambitious Indian claim line, and that this had sparked a Chinese retaliatory attack. 

But few in Canberra were interested in such details. 

It was much easier to brand China as the aggressor, and peaceful, democratic India as the innocent victim.

(A chapter on the dispute in my In Fear of China book at the top of this website gives more details and relevant maps.

(Some very important details can also be found in the book by Neville Maxwell – see my review of his book ‘India’s-China War’ on this website.

(Maxwell was almost the only writer to give the Chinese side of the story.  He found a warm welcome in China, including from Chou Enlai. One assumes he received that welcome at such a high level because the Chinese were delighted finally to find someone prepared to study their side of the story.

(His book was banned in India – as clear an indication as any to the authenticity of what he wrote.)

For years after I left the Department in 1965 I tried vainly to get the correct version of events into circulation.

Later, when I discovered how the biased Western view of that Sino-Indian dispute had provided legitimacy for the dreadful interventions in Indochina, the frustration turned into anger.

Even people as astute and informed as Henry Kissinger took it for granted that the 1962 events had proved Chinese aggressiveness and determination to move south. 

The very significant fact that China, after teaching India a well-deserved lesson, had subsequently moved its troops back north to above not just the Chinese claimed frontier but even the Indian claimed frontier was never recognised as the proof of Chinese border restraint that it was.

If anything, it was seen as a retreat in the face of Western determined support for India!

Deliberate misunderstanding and distortion, some of the Sino-Indian dispute proportions,  was to be a story I was to see repeated constantly in the Western handling of the many disputes I was to see in the remainder of my diplomatic career.