Prime Minister Turnbull’s keynote speech last weekend at the Shangri-la security dialogue in Singapore contained many strong assertions, but also contradictions. It also raised, and left unanswered, some big questions.
For example, while describing the United States as a “steadfast friend and ally”, he also said that “in this brave new world we cannot rely on great powers to safeguard our interests”. He said that China is a “good friend and partner”, but in the guise of support for “the US-anchored rules-based order” and “preserving the rules-based structure” he launched a sustained warning about China’s growing power, and a warning to it that a “coercive China” would find its neighbours looking “to counterweight Beijing’s power by bolstering alliances and partnerships between themselves and especially with the United States”.
This theme of the “rules-based order” also figured prominently in the joint statement issued in Sydney two days later after the AUSMIN talks, between US and Australian Foreign and Defence Ministers. It read in part:–“They urged all parties to refrain from further militarisation of disputed features, including in the South China Sea. They emphasised the importance of upholding lawful freedom of navigation and overflight and adhering to the rules-based order….They decided to increase bilateral collaboration in relation to the Indo-Pacific”.
According to press reports (“The Australian”, June 16), in the AUSMIN context Secretary of State Tillerson ‘highlighted threats to the passage of commercial shipping posed by Beijing’s construction of militarised “islands” in the South China Sea. “We oppose China’s artificial island construction and their militarisation…we cannot allow China to use its economic power to buy its way out of other problems”’.
This is strikingly strong language, but the issues are not as clear-cut as the Prime Minister or Secretary Tillerson made them sound. In regard to the South China Sea, for instance, China has made no threats to “the passage of commercial shipping” nor hindered it. The free passage of commercial shipping through the South China Sea is more important to China than to any other country. Rather the issue is one of strategic competition in an area close to China where the US Navy has been used to ruling the roost. It is worth noting that China’s claims in the South China Sea, the notorious “Nine-Dash Line”, were not originated by China’s current communist government, but were first put forward by the nationalist government of Sun Yat Sen, in the early years of the last century.
Similarly, the insistence of maintaining the “rules-based order” frequently omits to note that it is a Western, and particularly a US-based, order. It is not surprising that as China becomes stronger it seeks a voice in this order, in an area abutting its coast. (In that regard the Prime Minister was blunter, speaking of the “US-anchored” order.)
Even more striking is Tillerson saying that “we cannot allow” China to “use its economic power” to buy its way out of other problems. He seems to be criticising China for being what it now is, a large economically strong country able to use that strength in support of its policy goals—as the United States has done around the world for decades. It’s tempting to think that these remarks by the Secretary of State came from frustration at President Trump’s taking the US out of the TPP, an action which was widely seen in Asia as a sign of declining US commitment.
More basic questions again are “why now?”, in regard to the US, and “why us?” It’s only a short time since Presidents Trump and Xi met in the US, and after their meeting Trump declared himself very happy with its outcome, and with his relationship with Xi. There has been a lot of progress on trade issues. So why these strikingly strong attacks on China? One possibility—and that’s all it is—is that the Americans are annoyed because they have concluded that the Chinese are not going to give significant assistance in regard to North Korea. But if that is the problem, demanding that China do more, while at the same time warning against and criticising it, seems unlikely to be productive.
In regard to Australia similar questions suggest themselves, particularly given our very important trade relationship with China, recent seemingly cordial contacts at the highest level, and also our record of declining to join the US in “FONOPS’ in the South China Sea. Perhaps the PM’s strong language was influenced by US views and lobbying; perhaps it was a case of “rage, rage”, not against the dying of the light, but against the inexorable changes to the strategic order in the Asia-Pacific, changes which our Government wishes weren’t happening.
Geoff Miller is a former Australian diplomat and government official. He was Ambassador to Japan and the ROK, served in the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister and Cabinet, and was Director-General of the Office of National Assessments.