Australia is a US ally, and Washington is inevitably interested in understanding Canberra’s approach to managing its relationship with Beijing. It can also be expected that the US will seek to influence the approach that Australia adopts in view of its own national interests. There is nothing inherently untoward about this. But with the US switching to an adversarial stance on China, Australia will need to have its eyes wide open about US attempts at influence.
Australia’s security ally now defines China has a ‘strategic competitor’. The 2018 US National Defence Strategy designates China as a ‘threat…to US security and prosperity today, and the potential for these threats to increase in the future.’ Responding to this assessment, and supported by the then-Prime Minister, Australia’s then-Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop said, ‘We have a different perspective on…China, clearly. We do not see…China as posing a military threat to Australia’.
At least with respect to its diplomatic language and for the time being, Australia has opted to chart its own course in how it sees China.
One instance of US attempted influence was reported by the New York Times on March 13 2015. It referred to a ‘senior member of the Australian government’ confirming that then-US President Barack Obama had spoken to then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott and ‘urged him against joining the [China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank]’.
Another example occurred with respect to the sale of the lease to operate Darwin Port to Chinese company, Landbridge. During a Senate inquiry into Australia’s foreign investment regime in December 2015, the US Embassy in Canberra issued a statement explaining that it had concerns with the port deal. On March 9 2016 the front page of The Australian displayed the results of a leaked ‘secret poll’ that had been commissioned by the US State Department. The highlighted finding was that nine in 10 Australians saw ‘at least some risk’ associated with the deal. The report stated that the polling had been undertaken by the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. This organisation states that its mission is to ‘harness intelligence to serve US diplomacy’. In interpreting the poll, the Bureau commented that the results would ‘likely force Australians to rethink their choices of when to put national security ahead of economic gain’. James Brown, a Fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney said that he had probed various American interlocutors about their Darwin Port concerns and was ‘yet to see anything substantial that would back up these suspicions’. He concluded that the opinion poll had been leaked in a ‘careful, deliberate way’ and the story was ‘choreographed for maximum impact. The question is why?’
Prior to his departure in September 2016, US Ambassador John Berry chose to give an exclusive interview to The Australian. The main topic Berry wanted to cover? Alleged Chinese interference in Australian politics. He told the newspaper, ‘We have been surprised, quite frankly, at the extent of the involvement of the Chinese government in Australian politics’. Last year a report in The Australian referred to US intelligence briefings to then-Attorney-General George Brandis as being the impetus for new Australian government legislation targeting foreign influence, including political donations.
In September 2018, the US State Department paid for a speaking tour of Australia by Peter Mattis, a Research Fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington. Mattis also featured prominently in the June 2016 ABC Four Corners episode on Chinese ‘Power and Influence’ in Australia. His brief while here was ‘to speak broadly around the topic of influence peddling by China’s Communist Party’. When delivering a public lecture at the Australian National University, Mattis’ bio included the seemingly pointed statement that while he did not speak on behalf of the US government, his views do ‘reflect on the broad range of responsible and informed opinion in the United States’. The Australian Financial Review’s Angus Grigg observed: ‘For the State Department he’s the perfect guy. As an insider he can publicly voice many of the government’s broader concerns around China, while providing it with sufficient distance for deniability, as he no longer works in government’. He added that: ‘As you would expect, he’s hardly sanguine about the threat [posed by the Chinese Communist Party] and shared his views at a public lecture and in media interviews before holding a series of departmental briefings in Canberra…’.
On April 5 2018, Mattis gave testimony to the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission contending that: ‘Australia and New Zealand both face substantial problems with interference by the Chinese Communist Party. In both cases, the CCP has gotten very close to or inside the political core, if you will, of both countries.’ In contrast, on March 26 2018, more than 80 of Australia’s leading scholars of China and the Chinese diaspora signed an open letter assessing that they saw ‘no evidence’ that China’s actions ‘aim at compromising our [Australia’s] sovereignty’. Jason Young, Director of the Victoria University of Wellington’s Contemporary China Research Centre, has said that recent claims around Chinese influence and interference in New Zealand are ‘overblown and do a disservice to the much more complex reality of the New Zealand-China relationship’.
Like many other countries, the US government also funds visiting delegations. In September 2018, the US State Department, through the US Embassy in Canberra, paid for a two-week International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) made up of invited Australians. The program had a particular focus on providing the Australian delegation with a US perspective on US-China relations. The Australian group comprised journalists, foreign policy researchers and practitioners, government policy advisers, and academic and think tank researchers.
The point is not that there is anything wrong with this. Exchanges are to be welcomed. But it needs to be kept in mind that US influence is pervasive and American views need to be weighed clearly against Australia’s national interests. As David Uren noted in The Australian last week, ‘Australia owes much of its prosperity over the past two decades to China’. And if Australia were to also start viewing China as a strategic adversary, this ‘would come at vastly greater economic cost to us than the US.’
On October 29, the Australia-China Relations Institute (ACRI) at the University of Technology Sydney released a new report titled ‘Do the claims stack up? Australia talks China’, by Deputy Director, Professor James Laurenceson. It documents the claims found in Australian media headlines, news reports and opinion pieces and weighs these against the available facts and evidence. The full report is available on ACRI’s website – https://www.australiachinarelations.org/. The above is an edited extract from this report in a section dealing with American interest in Australian foreign policy.