Diagnosing the problem: it’s about China, and it’s more than the US–China show

It’s great that the Australia–US relationship, particularly its foreign, defence and security aspects, is getting attention with Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Linda Reynold’s trip to Washington even in the midst of the pandemic. It’s also right to understand that the central agenda item at this year’s Australia–United States Ministerial (AUSMIN) talks will be the Chinese government’s actions and directions and what we might each do to protect and advance our interests.

US–Australia cooperation is central to how we meet the myriad challenges from China as a strategic, technological, economic and political power. It would be deeply wrong, though, to think of Australia’s, or indeed any nation’s, approach to China simply as part of a bilateral US–China relationship, or to resurrect the tired notion of a US–China choice.

That demeans our own interests and actions, limits the range of our partnerships and plays into the hands of Beijing’s propagandists who wish to diminish Australia by portraying us as an attack dog of America or as acting only out of loyalty to the US. It also wholly misunderstands the challenges that the Chinese regime and strategy pose to every government and people on the planet who wish to retain independent, sovereign decision-making, free of coercion and co-option by China’s powerful but flawed authoritarian rulers in the Chinese Communist Party.

It’s not just Australia’s government, or the US administration, that has seen the risks from the Chinese government’s reach into its political systems and economies, or been disturbed by China’s aggressive use of its militia and military. A short list can give some essential context.

The seemingly far away European Union has labelled Beijing a ‘systemic rival’ because of its drive to push authoritarian norms and practices into the way global institutions and groupings operate. India’s government and population are pushing back against military and economic pressure from Beijing because of their contested border, and have not only moved to reinforce their military infrastructure on the India–China border, but also banned Chinese apps and technologies because of security and privacy concerns.

The Canadian government is trying to free two of its citizens whom Beijing has arrested and is holding seemingly in retribution and as hostages because of Canada’s arrest of a senior Huawei leader. Japan has sent ships to work with the Australian and US navies in patrols and exercises in the South China Sea. The UK has called out Beijing’s fundamental breach of the 1984 Joint Declaration on Hong Kong and offered some three million Hongkongers a path to citizenship as a result of Beijing’s removal of the freedoms it had guaranteed. The UK government has decided that technologies from Chinese ‘high-risk vendors’ should be phased out of the nation’s 5G digital backbone, which parallels Australia’s 2018 decision. The French and Germans are working to re-establish ‘industrial sovereignty’ because they no longer want to be vulnerable to Chinese supply chains for critical items, not just medical supplies. And the French are reportedly working to exclude Huawei 5G technology from their own national communications infrastructure.

In the past three years, the Australian government, with strong support in the federal parliament, has tightened foreign investment laws to properly assess national security risks—mainly from Chinese entities wishing to buy and operate chunks of Australia’s economy and infrastructure. Foreign interference laws have been introduced on the back of scandals about the influence of Chinese money and interests within our political system; high-risk vendors—notably from China—have been prevented from building our 5G communications backbone; and Australia has moved to strengthen its deterrent military power in light of growing and increasingly aggressive Chinese military expansion and influence, including in our near region. Just last week, Australian ministers called out Beijing’s illegal claims in the South China Sea while Australian warships worked with US and Japanese partners to assert freedom of navigation in that contested space.

None of these actions, from Brussels to London, Paris, New Delhi, Ottawa, Tokyo and Canberra, is about the US–China bilateral relationship. All of it is about the directions and impacts of China under Xi Jinping. That’s the correct diagnosis of the problem. And getting the diagnosis right is essential to any prescription. Prime Minister Scott Morrison understands this. When talking about China, he’s crystal clear that Australia takes its own actions and initiatives.

When it comes to the prescription—what to do about the China challenge we and others face—how we work with Washington is central, because of America’s broad power strategically, technologically and economically, and because, as former prime minister John Howard reminded us last week, the overlap of Australian and American values and interests is strong.

That’s where Payne and Reynolds’s meeting with their American counterparts, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defence Mark Esper, comes in.   This year, as much as any other, is a time when Australia’s leaders have clear positions and strategies and the US is just as or more interested in learning about these as in outlining its own.

The meeting is an opportunity for a deep exchange of ideas, assessments and directions by two sovereign and independent nations. And the defining topic on the agenda is how to handle Beijing and the combination of economic, technological, political and strategic challenges it brings.

It’s important to Beijing’s government propagandists to discount Australian decisions by pretending they are not the sovereign decisions of a respected government and democratic people—because what Australia does is watched carefully by others and is an influential factor in other governments’ decision-making. The 5G issue, foreign interference and the international inquiry into the pandemic are three examples, as is Australia’s repeated clarity on the illegality of China’s claims in the South China Sea. The plan to build Australia’s deterrent military power and use it to underpin prosperity and security in our near region is a further example.

The problem for Beijing is that these Australian decisions have all been made because it is in our national interests to do so, and the decisions are helpful inputs to similar considerations by many other nations. We need to be wary of analysis, whether inside Australia or from Beijing, that works to diminish either the fact of our independent decision-making or its impact globally.

What we do in Australia to ensure our security, prosperity, independence and safety matters to 25 million Australians, but it also matters for our role in the community of nations as we face multiple collective challenges—not just China or the health and economic destruction of the pandemic, but climate change, population movement and natural disasters.

The United States is our most important partner on almost every one these challenges, but the opportunities for partnership are much broader than this. Understanding our interests and how they converge with those of multiple others internationally, including but not only our US alliance partner, won’t just frustrate and disappoint Beijing’s propagandists, but will ensure that we understand our own power and maximise the leverage of our partnerships.