Payne and Reynold’s collision course with China

Ministers Payne and Reynolds have presented their brief for the AUSMIN20 discussions in Washington for which the scene has been set by a series of aggressive anti-China speeches by Secretary of State Pompeo and other senior US ministers.

Unashamedly, these have spearheaded a dramatic attempt by President Trump to divert public attention away from his appalling mismanagement of the deteriorating Covid19 catastrophe and the consequential damage wrought on the US economy – Make America Great Again has been replaced with Blame China.

All of this follows a frenzied couple of weeks in which Pompeo has been spruiking almost hysterically the urgent need for a ‘coalition of democracies’ to counter China’s more “aggressive” international posture – or further , as he increasingly insists, the Chinese Communist party’s central role in China. He has specifically named Australia as a prime starter! Coincidentally, then came the sudden demand for the closure within 72 hours of the Chinese Consulate General in Houston on the grounds it had become a centre for espionage. To which, not surprisingly, the Chinese responded with a demand to close the US Consulate General in Chengdu for which Trump chided China for embarking on a tit-for-tatting!

At the same time, Payne had sent a letter to the UN claiming that Chinese claims in the South China Sea were illegal. As Greg Austin ( yesterday’s P&I) has pointed out the spin placed on this letter by the person(s) who leaked it clearly misrepresented the finer legal points of the letter .This would have not been missed by Beijing as a further provocation. If that were not enough, the Canberra media team were alerted to the fact that we had an unusually large number of RAN ships in the South China Sea for exercises with the US and Japanese Navy and that Chinese Navy ships had been close by.

Apart from the general comment about “the most difficult set of strategic challenges in several generations” , the Payne:Reynolds brief makes no particular reference to any of the above – which surely should be at the centre of this AUSMIN. As the implications of these developments are so crucial for Australia and about which the Government has allowed little public discussion we are entitled to ask the following :

. Is Canberra lining up to join the Pompeo coalition as he has suggested? What would be its objective other than to assist Trump in his re-election campaign? If so are we likely to abandon the care taken for so long of strictly avoiding the taking of sides in US elections? All the more so as Biden continues to lead in opinion polling – though the eventual outcome still remains uncertain.

. Will we be expected to help in recruiting more members of the Pompeo coalition ? This would be more than Deputy Sheriff! Apart from Japan, who else could be possible ? Hard to see any others in Asia – including India. The US has lost the soft power battle in SE Asia and Trump’s plummeting international credibility will not be easy to defend.

.Will we be under pressure to join in the tit-for-tatting about consulates? There are already some rumours that we might come under pressure to reduce Embassy staffs in Canberra and Beijing. Having worked so hard to extend consular representation beyond Beijing and Shanghai for a variety of key national interests do we really want to discard them now? Surely for our longer term relations with China, and Asia more generally, we need to learn more not less about that country.

. Have we done our homework properly about potential retaliation from China to our actions? Clearly we did not do that earlier in the year with the Covid19 enquiry proposal to which China responded with barley and beef – both of which were lined up from earlier arguments. Given China’s present mood it would be very risky to continue to believe, as some commentators still do, that China’s bark is worse than its bite. The Australian agricultural community has become increasingly concerned at what it sees as a potential lose-lose situation for its China market which has become key to so many products.

. Earlier this year the National Farmers Federation and others were anxious about losing markets in China to the US as Trump and Xi were engaged in the tariff war. Fears which were solidly confirmed by Bolton in his tell all book when he claimed that Trump had pleaded with Xi to increase massively Chinese agricultural imports from the US as this would be critical for his re-election! Barnaby Joyce was warning at the time that China could affect Australia economically rather than the other way around but where are the Nationals?

. In recent weeks the concerns have been more that China will retaliate in the agricultural sector for what it sees as continuing Australian provocations. John Howard has echoed these concerns. Elders CEO highlighted them when he came up last week in The Guardian with a surprising call for “the separation of powers” between foreign relations and trade ties with China ! The Global Times yesterday commented

“ It should be said that so far, Australia has not learned a great lesson. If it still insists on going on the current path, the possibility that China will take strong countermeasures cannot be ruled out. For example, China could target substitutable agricultural products such as beef and wine.”

. Why do we want to discuss cooperation with the Americans on Covid19 when it has become such a toxic political issue domestically and abroad for Trump? Australians confronted with the tragic US scene every day on our TV must really wonder. If it is to try to get a sweet deal on vaccine supply what does that say about Trump’s determination to tie it all up? It would seem to disregard the EU driven commitment through WHO (to which we signed up) on guaranteed supply to the whole world.

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Mack Williams former Ambassador to the Republic of Korea.

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