Australia’s China–US choice is three dimensional, not binary (Part 2)

May 3, 2019


By framing the choice as a binary one, most Australian analysts typically explain the threat from China as including its challenge to the rules-based international order. This has been true, for example, of several recent defence and foreign policy white papers. A major advantage of framing Australia’s foreign policy dilemma as three-dimensional is that it allows us to grasp how threats to our interests and values along the third dimension can come from both China and the US. Thus in 2013 China rejected the ruling of the international arbitration court in its maritime territorial dispute with the Philippines.

Yet even in that, the surprising element was the extent to which the Chinese believed they were merely mimicking well established US behaviour and attitudes towards international law. Similarly, China’s evaluation of the Five Eyes countries’ wariness of Huawei is inevitably coloured by the Julian Assange and Edward Snowden revelations of the rise of the surveillance state in Western democracies and criminalisation of whistleblowing. How receptive should Beijing be to Canadian representations on Canadian citizens jailed in China when they look at the tepid Australian representations on Assange?


The scale and breadth of the US disruption of the liberal international order may have increased with Trump, for example his withdrawal from the Paris climate pact, but the underlying pathology predates him. Thus in a joint study by the law schools of Stanford and New York universities, Barack Obama’s intensified program of drone strikes in the Afghanistan–Pakistan border region was held to be of questionable legal validity under US, international, humanitarian and human rights laws. The US never did join the 165-party 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which is of fundamental importance to Australia. Nor to the 196-party 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most rapidly and widely ratified human rights treaty in history: the US is the only non-party.

The US signed the International Criminal Court (ICC) statute under President Bill Clinton but ‘unsigned’ it under President George W. Bush. The Trump administration has threatened to impose sanctions on the Court and its personnel, including judges if they investigate Americans for possible war crimes. On 12 April, the Court’s own judges sounded its death knell when they rejected a request from the ICC prosecutor to launch formal investigations into allegations of war crimes in Afghanistan. The ICC’s termination of the Afghanistan probe came one week after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo publicly revoked the prosecutor’s visa. After this, why would anyone bother to urge that Amnesty International’s claims of 1,600 civilians killed in US-led coalition airstrikes on Raqqa, Iraq in 2017 should be investigated?

On arms control, Washington is yet to ratify the 1996 CTBT that ended nuclear testing. The Obama administration lobbied against efforts to negotiate a UN nuclear ban treaty and Trump has refused to consider signing it. Bush took the US out of the ABM treaty in 2002. Trump pulled out of the INF treaty in February. Most recently, on 27 April he announced the US withdrawal from the 2013 Arms Trade Treaty (in which Australia had played a pivotal role).

As the US special Representative for Korea, Joseph Yun went to Pyongyang in 2017 to bring back 22-year-old Otto Warmbier, the late American student who had fallen into a coma after being tortured. North Korea demanded US $2mn – not as extortion, mind you, but to pay for Warmbier’s medical expenses — as his release price. Yun checked with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who in turn got the green light from his boss President Donald Trump, and signed the deal. He believes Washington should pay. But Trump, who boasts of being ‘the greatest hostage negotiator’, insists that the US will not pay for hostages and prisoners. In a TV interview on 28 April, with Fox News of course, National Security Adviser John Bolton seemed proud of the fact that Trump had managed to get Warmbier released with an intentionally false promise. Neither Bolton nor Trump has addressed the question of why Kim Jong-un would trust any deal reached with the US.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have said the same to Pyongyang based on their own experience. Trump’s trashing of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is especially egregious: firstly because the agreement was a carefully balanced compromise package that achieved key goals without sacrificing red lines on nuclearisation, secondly because it was multilaterally negotiated over several years, and thirdly because it was unanimously endorsed by the United Nations Security Council. Resolution 2231 (20 July 2015) directed all countries ‘to take such actions as may be appropriate to support the implementation of the deal’ while ‘refraining from actions that undermine implementation of commitments under the’ deal. The resolution reminded all states that they ‘are obligated under Article 25 of the Charter … to accept and carry out the Security Council’s decisions’.

Not only has Trump put the US in material breach of the agreement and in violation of a binding UN Security Council decision. In addition, he has threatened to impose secondary sanctions on any other country that does not comply with unilateral US sanctions. China, India, Japan, South Korea and Turkey had been granted temporary waivers from the US demand. On 22 April Pompeo said the exemptions would come to an end at the end of May and any country importing oil from Iran thereafter would face US sanctions.

In other words the US will sanction all countries unless they violate a binding Security Council directive. If this is not gangsterism by the global mafioso, I don’t know what is. Ratcheting up pressure on Iran could also further degrade the regional security environment in an already combustible Middle East.

In a world turning increasingly harsh as major powers prowl the global jungle, it behoves us to identify like-minded countries and form issue-specific coalitions with them as a defence mechanism against the predatory and unilateralist instincts of both major powers. Second, we must protect as much as possible trading lifelines with China, but without becoming submissive: there is no indication they respect weakness more than firmness in their dealings with other countries. And third, we should strive for a better balance between our continued security ties with the US and visible evidence of an independent calculation and pursuit of distinctively Australian interests and values.

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