US, China, Australia: what are we getting into?

Next week our Foreign and Defence Ministers will visit the US to meet their US counterparts, at the latters’ invitation. Is the aim to recruit us to the United States’ anti-China campaign?

Last month I criticised the Government’s decision to extend the “Five Eyes” intelligence grouping into the economic area. Some others agreed, but our arguments were clearly to no avail given that, according to press reports (“Weekend Australian”, July 18-19), a few days earlier Treasurer Frydenberg had convened a second meeting of Five Eyes finance ministers, which had shown “a terrific spirit of cooperation”.

Going well beyond that, in an interview with the “Weekend Australian” of the same date Foreign Minister Payne said that “Five Eyes is Australia’s pre-eminent international security and intelligence partnership, and cooperation among our closest partners is more important than ever. Our Five Eyes discussions have broadened to include economic and fiscal responses to the COVID crisis, including security of supply chains. We will continue to work together to protect and advance our interests in the face of threats to our liberal democratic values. As well as addressing the immediate COVID-induced challenges Five Eyes cooperation would focus on sovereignty, security and economic prosperity”.

The US is of course by far the predominant member of the Five Eyes. These remarks, together with Prime Minister Morrison’s references, in his speech on the recent Defence Strategic Update, to our “ever-closer” alliance with the US, and our readiness to commit forces outside our “immediate region” in US-led coalitions, indicate a readiness, even eagerness, on our part to continue to seek security under the eagle’s wing. This would only have been increased by President Trump’s recent telephone call to the Prime Minister, described by him as “very complimentary”, in which, according to the White House, Trump addressed growing security threats in the Indo-Pacific region and commended Morrison on increases to our defence budget (“Canberra Times”, 19 July).

This is of course at a time when US policies and leadership are highly erratic, with the only constant feature an increasingly fierce campaign to oppose and demonise China. Will our Ministers be called on to sign up to such a campaign?

If they are, they would do well to remember three things. First, it has become almost a reflex to list a series of things—trade, South China Sea, cyber, Hong Kong, theft of technology, minorities—that China has done or is doing that taken together make it guilty of “systematic rule breaking, corrosion and other malign activities” in the Indo-Pacific, as US Secretary of Defence Esper has very recently said (“SMH”, 23 July). But in regard to many of these there is another side to the story. And others, regrettably or not, are the kinds of thing that great powers do. And behind all the accusations made by the US is certainly a fear of China as a competitor and challenger, a refusal to accept the implications of its rise, and a refusal to “make space” for it.

Secondly, we have a long-established relationship with China of our own, which has had bipartisan support and which, while certainly not solely economic, has been and continues to be of great economic benefit to both countries.

And thirdly, we need to take the current US fury at China with a grain of salt for two reasons: first, Trump has shown he is quite capable of abruptly reversing any policy that he has been pursuing; and secondly, there’s undoubtedly an element of electioneering in the current anti-China campaign, which could give way to a change after the election, whoever wins.

Despite these concerns, it’s pretty clear that Ministers Payne and Reynolds will have the hard word put on them at the coming meeting. According to the “SMH” of 23 July, during his recent visit to Europe US Secretary of State Pompeo “told British MPs that global institutions dealing with an aggressive China were no longer fit for purpose, in part because Australia does not have a leading role in many of them. ‘We’re going to need the one billion-plus people in India, we’re going to need the Australians—it’s going to take all of these democracies together’, Mr Pompeo said.”

But to do what? And would whatever that is be in our interest? Australian representatives need to remember that while the US is big enough to make a disastrous miscalculation and later shrug it off we are not. If we seriously alienate China we could feel the repercussions for a long time. None of these issues have been debated in Australia (and with Parliament not sitting it’s hard to see how they can be). But our very senior envoys to the United States should be very cautious and careful in their coming talks with their complimentary American colleagues.

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Geoff Miller is a former diplomat and government official. He was Director-General, Office of National Assessments, deputy secretary, Department of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador to Japan and the Republic of Korea, and High Commissioner to New Zealand.

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