Washington’s ‘Cold War’ with Beijing exposes its true view of Australia

Even before the onset of coronavirus, it had become something of a truism to talk of US–China relations plunging into a new era of heightened geopolitical competition.

Indeed, there is emerging a new consensus in Washington that the era of engagement with China, which held from the time President Richard Nixon’s visit in 1972, is now at an end.

Of all the statements that have intensified US–China competition of late, the speech by Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger, delivered at a symposium last month on US–China relations, is perhaps the most remarkable. It shows the lingering temptation in the US policy community to understand China through the prism of American exceptionalism.

In remarks given in Mandarin, Pottinger appealed to the spirit of the May Fourth Movement, a student demonstration in Beijing in 1919 sparked by outrage over the treatment of China at the Paris Peace Conference, especially the decision to grant to imperial Japan Chinese territory that had been previously occupied by Germany. This, said Pottinger, ‘galvanised a long running struggle for the soul of modern China’.

Not only did Pottinger elevate those ‘Chinese heroes’ whose ‘democratic ideals’ went on to play a key role in the signing of the Declaration of Human Rights, he identified a series of ‘heirs’ to the May Fourth Movement: ‘civic minded citizens who commit small acts of bravery’. These included Li Wenliang, the doctor in Wuhan who blew the whistle on the virus and was persecuted by Chinese authorities as a result. It also included a group of Catholic priests who ‘have refused to subordinate God to the Communist Party, and the millions of Hong Kong citizens who peacefully demonstrated the rule of law last year’.

Put simply, Pottinger’s speech is not so much harking back to the ‘loss of China’ in the wake of the Communist triumph in 1949, but rather a ‘lost China’, a China that had been trending towards the achievement of a ‘Chinese enlightenment’ before being thwarted by the rise of Mao’s Communists.

Pottinger’s remarks have already been widely interpreted as endorsing a grassroots-led regime change in China, but during the same symposium he broke with the more aggressive postures taken by other White House officials, stressing that the United States was not considering ‘punitive measures’ against China over its handling of the pandemic.

It is difficult to foresee what might ultimately come from all this. The pandemic was bound to be interpreted through the prism of geopolitical competition. Scrambling for a slogan to give it purchase in the language of international relations, some analysts have rushed to label it a ‘new type of Cold War’, acknowledging that while it is no replica of US–Soviet rivalry, the clash in political values and strategic ambitions are eroding mutual trust.

The likelihood is that the pandemic will for some time yet stand as a benchmark of both countries’ style of governance and their ability to respond to the welfare of their peoples. Such a benchmark will continue to be assessed in the same zero-sum terms that have characterised so much of the debate surrounding US–China strategic rivalry. Leaders in Washington and Beijing are unlikely to drop their underlying assumptions about each other anytime soon. So even if there is an opportunity for incremental recovery in US-China relations after the November elections – theoretically neither Trump nor Biden will have the need to seek votes through China-bashing – there must be serious doubts about whether both sides will seek to seize such an opportunity.

Australians often struggle to understand the central point about what China’s challenge means for the United States: namely the threat it represents to powerful and deep American ideas of its own purpose and primacy.  Snug beneath the warming blankets of ‘mateship’, Australians too often fail to recognise the profound differences between the two societies, not least in their respective experiences of nationalism. If therefore the United States continues to edge closer towards full-throated containment of China, Canberra will need to recognise just where that kind of policy prescription ends.

But some Americans misunderstand Australia too, a point most visibly manifest in the remarkable question apparently being asked by US congressional hawks of late: ‘Who lost Australia?’ Even more remarkable is that some Australian officials have so little self-confidence that they are concerned by these reports. Yet Australia is not ‘lost’ and moreover does not want to be ‘lost’. The very posing of the question symbolises not a crisis in the US-Australia alliance, but rather a profound lack of awareness in Washington as to Australia’s particular circumstances when it comes to dealing with the rise of China. In short, it shows once more the tendency in the US to take its junior ally for granted, and to demand positions and stances on China that Australia simply cannot afford to deliver.

Published first in AFR on 23 June and posted  in Pearls and Irritations’ with the agreement of James Curran.

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James Curran is Professor of Modern History and senior fellow at Sydney University’s US Studies Centre. He is writing a book on Australia’s China debate for New South Press.

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