Australia makes its position on China clear in ministerial meeting with US

The accelerating velocity and seriousness of the strategic challenges confronting Australia have forced political leaders to think very hard indeed about the US alliance and about relations with China.

These challenges involve, as often noted, complex security and economic choices for Australia and they can no longer be avoided by attempting to minimise or moderate the global contest between the US and China.

This week’s Australia–US Ministerial Consultations in Washington took place in particularly testing circumstances for Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds. The Covid-19 pandemic and China’s crackdown in Hong Kong, its domestic human rights abuses and its aggressive military expansionism in the South China Sea formed only part of the troubling background to the talks.

Equally disturbing was the recent speech in which US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo jettisoned what he called ‘the old paradigm of blind engagement with China’ and, referring to the Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei, declared China ‘a true national security threat’. Then there was the ongoing domestic instability across the US and the unpredictability of President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly encouraged totalitarian bullies including China’s Xi Jinping.

Confronting these issues, Payne and Reynolds faced an unenviable but familiar lesser-of-two-evils choice: should national policy edge more closely towards the US for good national security reasons or towards China for good economic reasons? Which would be the least worst?

The clear answer from the ministers was entirely consistent with Australia’s military build-up, its new and more robust defence policy, and its recent military and diplomatic initiatives. Australia has thrown its weight firmly behind the US alliance knowing full well that Beijing will seek to exact a heavy economic price for Canberra’s defiance of its predictably coercive responses.

I have previously questioned Australia’s often overenthusiastic embrace of the US alliance. But in the current environment I believe that moving closer to the US is easily the least worst alternative confronting Canberra. It might be costly and it might be painful. If Trump is returned to office in November, it might even be extremely risky.

But Payne and Reynolds showed clearly at AUSMIN that Australia had decided that passivity and appeasement in the face of the Chinese Communist Party’s coercive expansion would be even more perilous. They signed on to a substantial and significant package of measures to demonstrate their solidarity with the substance of Pompeo’s recent tough speech in California.

The ministers signed a classified statement of principles on defence cooperation and force structure priorities and agreed to a US–Australia working group to ‘deter coercive acts and the use of force’. China will move heaven and earth to get access to the detail of those documents. They also agreed to support Taiwan’s membership of international organisations. Beijing will hate that move. They reconfirmed their rejection of China’s claims in the South China Sea, and they declared their commitment to security dialogues with Japan and India and potentially other countries willing to help balance China’s rising military power.

To further underpin their commitment to the US alliance, they agreed to the establishment of a US-funded strategic military fuel reserve in Darwin. China will certainly see that as a potential military target. Finally, they agreed to ‘increased and regularised maritime cooperation in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean’ (code for more joint freedom-of-navigation patrols) and to expanding the US marine rotational force in Darwin.

These decisions were all logical extensions of Australia’s historical alliance with the US, its preference for US military equipment, its dependence on US intelligence and its (rarely publicly stated) assumption that the alliance complicates planning by any potential adversary to take military action against Australia.

Unhappily, elements of the Australian media, always on the alert for spurious conflict, chose to interpret some anodyne answers by Payne and Reynolds as evidence of Australia somehow resisting US pressure for a tougher stance. Looking at the decisions taken at AUSMIN, it’s hard to see how much tougher they could have been.

In fact, Payne and Reynolds showed real guts at AUSMIN. They took risks that were unavoidable given China’s behaviour. Their decisions to back the Pompeo China analysis might prove costly as Beijing hits back inevitably with its usual strident threats and economic reprisals.

Perhaps the most worrying threat is Trump. He might move further to exacerbate tensions with Beijing if he feels at risk of losing the November presidential election or if he is returned to office.

It is a risk Australia has to take. Pompeo’s speech was a compelling assessment of China even if the president’s rhetoric and policy have not always been consistent with it. Australia has to hope that the Americans will not, as Alexis de Tocqueville famously observed in 1838, ‘allow themselves to be borne away … and … gravely commit strange absurdities’. But Australia has declared itself ready for whatever eventuates.