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It turned out to be very important indeed, because it answered one of the most momentous foreign policy questions Australia has faced for generations: Will we follow America’s lead in launching a new cold war against China? But it left some other big questions unanswered.
The Trump administration was reportedly keen for the Australia-US Ministerial Consultations to take place face to face despite the pandemic, presumably because it expected the answer to be “yes”. If so, it must be bitterly disappointed, because the response from our Foreign Minister was a polite but very firm “no”.
Her US counterpart, Mike Pompeo, has been calling on countries, including Australia, to follow Washington’s lead in fundamentally repudiating its current relationship with China. Payne said plainly that Canberra would not do that.
“The relationship we have with China is very important, and we have no intention of injuring it,” she said in a joint press conference. She said that the values we share with America are important. “But most importantly from our perspective, we make our own decisions, our own judgments in the Australian national interest and about upholding our security, our prosperity, and our values.
“So we deal with China in the same way. We have a strong economic engagement, other engagement, and it works in the interests of both countries.”
Payne’s forthright refusal to follow Pompeo’s lead will cause angst in Washington. The US Secretary of State has several times recently signalled that he expected Australia’s support, and he had reason to think he would get it.
Over the past few months the Morrison government has seemed very willing to say things that injure Australia’s relationship with China, and eager to align itself more closely with Washington’s hardline cold war rhetoric.
Pompeo had in mind nothing less than the removal of the Chinese Communist Party as the government of China. This is scary stuff.
But last week Pompeo made a major speech in California which must have sounded alarm bells in Canberra. It called for a new alliance of democracies which would aim not just to curtail China’s growing influence, but to fundamentally “change China”.
“If the free world doesn’t fundamentally change” the way it deals with China, he said, “Communist China will surely change us”. It was crystal clear that he had in mind nothing less than the removal of the Chinese Communist Party as the government of China.
Pompeo’s faith-based policy
This is scary stuff. Scarier still, Pompeo blithely assured his audience that this would be easy. He had faith in that, he said, because America had beaten the Soviet Union in the previous Cold War. “And most of all, I have faith we can defend freedom because of the sweet appeal of freedom itself.”
It seems that Payne is not yet convinced by Pompeo’s faith-based policy. Nor are other influential voices in Australia. Last week, John Howard weighed in to warn that Australia had to live with China as it is, and should take a pragmatic approach to dealing with it. “The endgame,” he said, “is to maintain … a good economic relationship with China.”
And the economic risks are not the only factors to consider. There are big strategic risks, too. We must wonder whether it is smart to launch a new cold war against an adversary as formidable as China – far more formidable in some key ways that the Soviet Union ever was – without a much clearer idea of how the struggle can be waged and won. Or indeed whether it can be won at all.
However, many people – including members of the Coalition parties – will be disappointed at Payne’s refusal to join Washington’s latest “coalition of the willing”. She can expect some pushback from the self-styled “Wolverines” – a loose grouping of backbenchers who agitate for a harder line against Beijing.
And, in truth, Payne’s clear refusal – at least so far – to follow where Washington wants to lead still leaves unanswered some very important questions about how the Morrison government plans to manage the escalating rivalry between the two countries in the world that matter most to us.
The government has made it clear that it still sees the US as essential to regional stability and Australia’s security. Last week Payne and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds wrote that “ongoing US engagement is as vital as it is certain”.
But how can Australia continue to have confidence in the US when we do not endorse its key policies in Asia? How can we expect Washington’s support when we do not support its objectives? How exactly does the government think our US alliance is going to work over coming years, when our strategic risks are going to grow alarmingly?
Likewise, how does Payne reconcile her commendable commitment to avoid injuring our relationship with China with the careless and even reckless way that Canberra has needlessly infuriated Beijing in recent months?
Clearly we face an extremely complex task in balancing the competing imperatives to manage this extraordinarily important relationship. What we need are some clear, consistent and well-articulated principles. What we get instead are vapid assertions from Scott Morrison that we will always uphold our values.
Refusing to join Pompeo’s new cold war with China is a good start, but it doesn’t get us very far. The government still needs to decide, and explain to us, how it plans to manage Australia’s most serious foreign policy challenge in many decades.
This piece was originally published on The Ausralian Financial Review here.
This piece was written by Hugh White, Emeritus Professor of Strategic Studies at the Strategic & Defence Studies Centre.
Image by the U.S. Department of State and sourced from Flickr.