Australia’s ambassador to the US on the Biden plan: reassure allies first, then negotiate with China
24 Apr 2021|

A clear strategy of the Biden administration is to repair relations with allies and partners and to build up the cooperation with them before negotiating with China, says Australia’s ambassador to the United States, Arthur Sinodinos.

In a video address to an ASPI masterclass on ‘The US–Australia alliance in a more contested Asia’, Sinodinos said there were areas where the US wanted to compete with China, particularly around technology, and others where it wanted to cooperate with China—climate change being a major one, along with nuclear non-proliferation and the aftermath of Covid-19.

‘Their attitude is there are areas where we will compete, areas where we will cooperate, and there may be areas like human rights where basically we just have to confront and call it out and no linkage between the two,’ Sinodinos said.

‘They built up to the phone call between the president and President Xi, and then of course, the meeting in Anchorage between senior foreign and security officials of US and China. So, it was all done in sequence.’

The message to China at Anchorage was that the US was working with its allies and partners and there could be no reset of the relationship between the US and China unless China also reset its relationship with allies and partners, including Australia.

‘John Kerry, the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Change, has made it clear, no deal on climate change between the US and China at the expense of the US’s other interests.’

Having served in varied roles, Sinodinos is one of Australia’s most experienced diplomatic and political figures. He was chief of staff to Prime Minister John Howard for 10 years, was a minister in the Abbott and Turnbull governments and has been ambassador to the United States since early 2020.

Sinodinos said that under the Biden administration the US–Australia alliance was going from strength to strength. ‘I think that reflects a conscious decision of this administration to place more emphasis on the role of allies and partners,’ he said.

‘They’ve looked at the world as it’s become, they’re not trying to hark back to the Obama era, they’re not seeking to airbrush the Trump era. I think what they’ve done is reflect on the lessons of the last few years in global politics and geopolitics and they’ve come to the conclusion that with the rise of China and with the way in which China seeks to assert its growing power, that allies and partners are a significant force multiplier from an American perspective.’

The Biden team had concluded that America needed to reassert its presence, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, and use that as a basis for working with allies and partners to push back in areas of overreach and to encourage China to think about how it adapted to the rules-based order rather than to create its own order.
‘From our point of view, this is a very important exercise,’ Sinodinos said.

‘The China of today is very different from a few years ago. It’s now more conscious of its power,’ he said. China was now exercising that power in ways people didn’t expect a few years ago. Sinodinos said he was one of those who thought China would grow up to be a version of Singapore or Taiwan on steroids, but that was not how it had developed.

‘That means that we have to adjust how we think about China. We have to adjust how we work with allies and partners.’

He said the goal should not be to contain or suppress China but to promote a strong and prosperous China which would be a productive member of the rules-based order in which the norms and institutions created, as much as possible, a level playing field among countries great and small.

In that context, the US–Australia alliance had never been more important and the US realised it was a significant advantage in dealing with China.

In the first few months of the Biden administration, a lot of work had gone into repairing relations with allies and partners. ‘That was not so much a challenge in the case of Australia, but there’s been work with partners in Europe. There’s also been work with Korea and Japan, particularly in seeking to deal with some of the issues that they have between themselves, so as to create a more harmonious set of allies and partners who can work together.’

Sinodinos said that before Kurt Campbell became Biden’s Asia coordinator, Australia’s representatives in the US had a number of seminars with him and his team about Indo-Pacific policy, including about what might happen with the Quad, how the US should approach ASEAN, and how they could work together to push back on economic coercion by countries like China.

Sinodinos said it was gratifying to the Australians that a US priority was an early meeting of Quad leaders. It was important that Biden and his team did not reject the idea of the Quad because it had been advanced under Donald Trump. ‘They looked at issues like the Quad on their merits and decided this is good, we should build on this.’

The Quad agenda now had three parts: vaccine diplomacy, climate change, and critical and emerging technologies, Sinodinos said. There was a critical need to ensure maximum vaccine production and delivery in this region as a template for what it might roll out in Africa and Latin America. That would involve a permanent step-up in capacity for production and delivery, recognising that this pandemic was not over and the world had to prepare for future pandemics.

The Quad nations would work together on climate change, on developing low-emissions technologies and other critical and emerging technologies sitting at the intersection of economics and national security, such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, hypersonics, cyber and space.

There was a recognition that a challenge in the post-pandemic era, and as a consequence of technological competition with China, was to reconfigure supply chains around trusted partners. ‘And that of course has a security dimension to it,’ Sinodinos said. ‘It also has an economic dimension. It will create opportunities for Australia.’

For Australia, the Quad was more significant than ever, but it complemented the other architecture in the region, including the central role of ASEAN and APEC in the economic and trade space.

‘It’s not meant to supplant them. It’s not meant to be an Asian version of NATO. It’s not meant to be institutionalised or bureaucratised with its own secretariat.’

Sinodinos said the defence and security aspects of the US–Australia alliance were strong and would be built on further.

‘We also want to make the economic and trade aspects of our relationship with the US even stronger. We’re looking to have a strategic economic dialogue with the US which encompasses the sort of critical and emerging technologies and other matters … where national security increasingly impinges on the economic space. For us that dialogue will be an important complement to our other activities. We want that pillar to be as strong as the AUSMIN pillar in the relationship.’

Sinodinos said Prime Minister Scott Morrison had made it clear that in seeking to further deepen engagement with the US and in encouraging the US to play a greater role in our region, Australia was not seeking to have it carry an undue share of the burden of the alliance.

‘The defence strategic update made it clear, we want to carry our share of the burden, and the Americans recognise that. We got top marks for that when it was announced last year both from the then administration and from the Congress. And today, this administration recognises we’re prepared to do heavy lifting on our own behalf and as part of the alliance.’

Sinodinos said this would create opportunities, not only in a defence and security sense, but also in an economic sense. ‘I’m very optimistic about where the alliance is going. There’s a lot of clarity around objectives.’

Returning to the Quad, Sinodinos said it was underpinned by a vision that democratic governance had not run out of steam and that the West and the US were not in relative decline. ‘We have confidence in our institutions and our values, and we are prepared to stand up for those in our region.’

While some peddled a narrative that the US wasn’t interested in the region or that it was in relative decline, said Sinodinos, ‘I think the opposite is the case. The lesson from the history of the US is whenever they seem to have gone into decline, they’ve bounced back. There’s enormous resilience in the system.

‘And on the economic side here in the US I can tell you, over the next few months as the economy continues to recover from Covid, we’re going to see a very strong recovery which will also have a major impact on the recovery in Australia.’

From a military point of view, Australia’s drive to produce more of its own munitions would be done in conjunction with the US, along with research on ‘frontier technologies’.

Sinodinos said Australia must, from a strategic perspective, keep encouraging the US back into the region in the trade and economic space to help set rules and standards.

Getting the US into the Trans-Pacific Partnership to make it the region’s biggest trade agreement would be important. At present, the TPP was, Sinodinos said, ‘a bit like Hamlet without the prince’.

Having the US in the TPP would maximise its benefits and enable it and like-minded countries such as Australia to set the rules and standards in the region.

‘In the meantime, we’re engaging the US on a digital trade agreement, which may be either bilateral or regional. It’s based on the sort of agreements, for example, that we have with Singapore, high-quality digital agreements, which promote digital trade.’ That would, in particular, ease the burdens of small businesses involved in areas like e-commerce through the recognition of payment systems across borders. ‘All of this is the bread and butter of trade, but it’s important as a way of engaging the US further in the region.’

Sinodinos said he dined last week with the senior leadership of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee and its Asia Subcommittee in the Congress. He found a surprising level of support for the TPP. ‘So, I’m quite optimistic that we can put together a coalition of the willing on this sort of stuff.’