Disagreeing with the US over China

The AUSMIN talks are an important first, demonstrating that the Australian government won’t go all the way with Trump’s USA. The next step (if only) would be for the Prime Minister to change his telephone number.

Two particularly disturbing news reports caught my eye in the past week – one local, the other from the United States.

First, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was reported to have had a 30-minute phone conversation with US President Donald Trump. Their main focus was apparently China and defence, though they also talked about economic issues.

The second was a report in the New York Times earlier this week, also about China. It began:

‘Step by step, blow by blow, the United States and China are dismantling decades of political, economic and social engagement, setting the stage for a new era of confrontation shaped by the views of the most hawkish voices on both sides.

‘With President Trump trailing badly in the polls as the election nears, his national security officials have intensified their attack on China in recent weeks, targeting its officials, diplomats and executives. While the strategy has reinforced a key campaign message, some American officials, worrying Mr Trump will lose, are also trying to engineer irreversible changes, according to people familiar with the thinking.

‘A state of broad and intense competition is the end goal of the president’s hawkish advisers. In their view, confrontation and coercion, aggression and antagonism should be the status quo with the Chinese Communist Party, no matter who is leading the United States next year.’

The report goes on to quote at length Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rejecting the relationship with China established by President Nixon at the end of the Vietnam war and calling for a new policy based on the principle of ‘distrust and verify’.

Fortunately, it seems the Morrison government is not going to take us all the way with the Americans. The first test came at this week’s annual Australia-US Ministerial (AUSMIN) consultations between Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds and the American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Mike Esper.

While the two sides agreed to increase naval exercises in the South China Sea and investigate the development of missile and hypersonic defence technologies to counter an increasingly assertive China, the Australians resisted American efforts to get Australia to take a more aggressive anti-China stance.

Senator Payne stressed that Australia would seek to promote its own national interests and she declined (as one report put it) to echo Pompeo’s strident rhetoric against the Chinese Communist Party. Senator Payne said that although Australia and the US are close allies they ‘don’t agree on everything though – and that’s part of a respectful relationship’. In particular that means the Royal Australian Navy will not join the Americans in conducting so-called ‘freedom of navigation exercises’ within 12 nautical miles of disputed areas in the south China seas.

One joint enterprise is of particular interest – the Ministers said a US-funded, commercially operated strategic military fuel reserve would be set up in Darwin. How much more sensible it is to have a fuel reserve in Darwin where it is accessible – unlike our inadequate national fuel reserves which the government is slowly building up off-shore, in the United States.

While Ministers Payne and Reynolds appear to have successfully rebuffed American attempts to enlist Australia in every aspect of the current US crusade against China, it is not at all clear that the Prime Minister is prepared to stand up and distance himself from President Trump, who desperately needs to show American voters he is respected by someone, somewhere.

It seems Mr Morrison can’t resist the President’s invitation to be an observer at the G-7 summit Mr Trump is hosting (if the President can get a quorum of the relevant leaders). And he subscribes to the President’s crusade to get the economy moving again – though unlike the President, Mr Morrison has been unable to ignore the fact that the corona virus is still having a devastating impact on the lives of their citizens.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister has backed off his Treasurer’s search for guidance for Australia from the economic achievements of two of Josh Frydenberg’s heroes, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. But perhaps its time for the Labor Party to recall the achievements of Gough Whitlam, who in 1971 (a year before he was elected Prime Minister) visited China to encourage wheat sales, at a time when the relationship between China and Australia was frigid. It transpired that Whitlam’s visits coincided with the moves by President Nixon, now derided by Trump’s principal advisors, to establish diplomatic relations with China that led eventually to an economic relationship that greatly benefited both countries.

The Government seems to appreciate that Australia’s interests are not always or invariably identical with those of the United States, particularly where China is concerned. It doesn’t hurt China to source its barley or (next?) wine from countries other than Australia, or to persuade Chinese students to study elsewhere and Chinese tourists to exclude Australia from their itineraries. The US can’t protect our commercial and economic interests, even if it wanted to – and in the case of barley, for example, it benefits from our losses.

The AUSMIN talks are an important first, demonstrating that the Australian government won’t go all the way with Trump’s USA.

The next step (if only) would be for the Prime Minister to change his telephone number.

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David Solomon is a former legal and political correspondent. He has degrees in Arts and Law and a Doctorate of Letters. He was Queensland Integrity Commissioner 2009-2014.

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