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“We don’t see the region through what is frankly an out-of-date Cold War prism,” Malcolm Turnbull said early last year.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.
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.
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.