HUGH WHITE. We must not join Trump’s cold war (AFR 25.6.2019)

Scott Morrison should spell out Australia’s opposition to Washington’s futile attempts to contain China.  

Over the past 18 months, Canberra has been quietly distancing itself from Washington on the crucial question of China. America’s enthusiasm for a “new Cold War” with China has been growing fast ever since the Trump administration declared in its December 2017 National Security Strategy that it sees China as a “strategic rival”, but Australian leaders have repeatedly and quite firmly said they disagree.”We don’t see the region through what is frankly an out-of-date Cold War prism,” Malcolm Turnbull said early last year. Scott Morrison has echoed this view, saying: “It is important that US-China relations do not become defined by confrontation.”  And we can expect him to say something very similar on Wednesday when he delivers his first big foreign policy speech since the election, to Asialink in Sydney.

China’s bid for regional hegemony poses the most momentous strategic challenge America has faced in Asia since at least the Vietnam War, if not the Second World War. And yet Australia, as its closest ally in Asia, is declining to follow the US lead. If our leaders mean what they say, this is the biggest split between Washington and Canberra on a key strategic issue in many decades.

Deep freeze

So why is Canberra talking this way? One key reason is to avoid angering China. Australia’s relations with our biggest trading partner went into the deep freeze after Turnbull in 2017 talked up China as a threat to the region and to Australia. They have still not fully recovered, and would be set back even further if Australia joins the anti-China chorus in Washington.

But is that the only reason? Are our leaders holding back from supporting America in its titanic contest with China simply to avoid a diplomatic chill from Beijing? Do they think America is right to declare a new Cold War to contain China, and are just too timid to say so? If so, Australia’s position is, frankly, contemptible. If our leaders really believe that America is right to confront China, then we should have the courage to pledge our support.

There is another possibility, however. It may be that the government believes that America’s confrontational approach to China is actually wrong and contrary to Australia’s interests. We’ve had no way of knowing what they really think, because they have never offered anything more than soundbites on the question. This is a striking omission, considering that this is the most serious issue to confront Australian foreign policy in half a century.But something Scott Morrison said a few weeks ago suggests that this might be about to change. Responding to questions about America and China, Morrison went out of his way to praise a speech given a few days before at the Shangri La Dialogue by Singapore’s Prime Minster, Lee Hsien Loong. He described it as “a very insightful presentation” and said that “there are many insights there that Australia would share”.

Detailed critique

That is notable because Lee’s speech offered a stark, sustained and detailed critique of America’s policy towards China and the growing enthusiasm for a new Cold War in Asia. He argued that confronting and trying to contain China would fail, and would only lead to escalating rivalry and even major war. The only prudent course was for America to acknowledge and accommodate China’s growing power and influence, looking to balance China in a new regional order rather than perpetuate the old one based on US primacy.

“Countries have to accept that China will continue to grow and strengthen, and that it is neither possible nor wise for them to prevent this from happening,” he said.

Lee’s speech was greeted with surprise, dismay and even disbelief by most of Washington’s Asia hands. But that was what Lee wanted. His purpose was to warn America that it could not take the support of its friends and allies in Asia for granted, and to encourage those in Washington urging a rethink before rivalry with China gets even further out of hand.

Loud and clear

Morrison’s warm praise for the speech suggests that he agrees with Lee’s harsh assessment of America’s approach to China. If so, now is the time to say so, loud and clear –  to Australians and to Americans. Australia has a duty to make sure Washington understands our position, and why we hold it.

As a good ally we owe it to them to make sure they know they do not have our support for their current course, and why, and what we would be willing to support the to do instead. And it is no good doing that quietly in private conversations. On the big questions, it is what we say publicly that counts.

And Morrison should be agreeing with Lee Hsien Loong, because what Lee had to say was absolutely right. China’s growing power and ambition pose real challenges, but Washington’s reckless fantasy of containment offers no solution. That is why, in his big foreign policy speech on Wednesday, Morrison should go much further than he has done so far, and explain frankly and in detail why we do not support America’s new Cold War on China. If he does that, he would start to offer Australians the kind of leadership they need, and have so far been denied, on the most important foreign policy issue of our time.

Hugh White is a Professor of Strategic Studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre of the Australian National University.

Canberra is already crab walking away from Trump.  Bloomberg
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3 Responses to HUGH WHITE. We must not join Trump’s cold war (AFR 25.6.2019)

  1. James O'Neill says:

    Professor White is correct as to the need for an independent Australian foreign policy. His is less correct in assuming that it is likely. As recently as since this article was written, Trump has made outrageous threats against Iran and North Korea. Neither suggests that the US recognises that its brief reign as the world’s super power is over. Similarly, Labor’s Penny Wong has issued threatening remarks about both Iran and China, suggesting that the Labor Party has learnt nothing during its years in opposition.
    Rationally one would say that the US would be crazy to attack either nation. Rationality however has never been the dominant characteristic of US foreign policy. I fear it will get a lot worse yet and I do not share Professor White’s belief that Morrison will be any different from his unlamented predecessors.

  2. Hal Duell says:

    Could the coming G20 summit offer anything more than business as usual? I hope so as we seem to be running out of time.
    The list of this business-as-usual is long, but just from this century it would include the Iraqi WMD hoax, the Maidan/Ukraine/MH17 hoax, the Douma (and other) gas attack hoax, the Skripal poisoning hoax, the ISS (in its entirety) hoax, the revolution in Venezuela hoax, the misuse of power to impose economic sanctions (no hoax there), and so much more evidence of America’s malfeasance .
    Israel is and and always has been in it up to their eyeballs.
    And these clowns want to continue to run the world? To “contain” China?
    Is it finally time to say, “Enough!” To say to America, and by extension to Israel, that they are welcome to sit at the table, but do please sit down.

  3. Alison Broinowski says:

    Hugh is absolutely right about Australia needing to make policy on China independently from the US. In the process, we might revisit Huawei and BRI, where the advantages outweigh the concerns of the security establishment. But we need urgently to apply the same scepticism to US actions in the Middle East, and Morrison should use the G20 not to get our marching orders from Trump but to build Singapore-style consensus among the others present to warn him that if the US goes to war with Iran, it will not have a coalition, and will be guilty of the crime of aggression.

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