Australians of late have been shocked by the unravelling of US soft power globally and China’s offensive use of sharp power targeting their country. At issue is the prospect of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific upheld by the norms and institutions of a liberal rules-based order.
This matters because, while Australia is partly dependent on China for its prosperity, and largely dependent on the United States for its military security, it is heavily dependent on universal respect for the norms and institutions of the regional postwar order for managing its broader international relations and finding room to maneuver in regional diplomacy. Neither China under Xi Jinping nor the US under Donald Trump appears committed to upholding this order. Australia has kept the door open to the US by adapting its diplomacy to suit Trump’s personal style and avoiding an open clash with the US administration on key points of difference. Its success in this respect is a testament to Australia’s soft power. Xi’s authoritarian drift, however, has resulted in a more open split with China marked by abrasive language and threats of trade retaliation. And yet, China’s failed soft power is handicapping its attempts to deploy sharp power to get its way with Australia. Australians have made their choice and await an American administration that can provide real leadership in championing a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.
Trying to maintain trade and investment links with China and defense ties with the US, when the two countries are disengaging from each another and effectively sabotaging the order Australia seeks to preserve, presents formidable challenges for international relations and bilateral diplomacy. This is the troubled reality of mid-2020. How well is Australia responding to this array of challenges? What could it do better? This article draws on public statements by senior officials and commentaries by prominent specialists and media figures, to illustrate how Australia is probing for answers to a new array of soft power tactics and sharp power challenges before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Australia and COVID-19
No one anywhere was prepared for the pandemic, and few national governments were properly equipped to deal with it. States with a high degree of economic and security exposure to China, however, were better prepared for the spread of bad news from Wuhan than many others. Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and Australia have each done reasonably well. They make up four of China’s top six trading partners, and China is the largest trading partner for each of them. While engaging extensively with China, the four states also maintain close security ties with the US. While other factors contributed to the effectiveness of their responses, the combination of economic engagement with China and security arrangements with the US sensitized all four to the risks involved in dealing closely with China while aligned with America.
Australia’s exposure to China is especially significant. It ships around one third of its total exports there and purchases one quarter of its imports by value from China. Comparatively speaking, the share of Australia’s two-way trade with China is growing relative to other economies at a time when China’s share of US trade has fallen from first to third behind Mexico and Canada. According to the Lowy Institute, based on current trends, Australia is likely to be twice as dependent on China in two-way trade than on the US in the near future.1
In addition to general trade dependence, the issue of strategic trade dependence emerged starkly during the pandemic, when shortages of critical supplies drew attention to relative strategic resilience and dependence. The Henry Jackson Society has identified three conditions that indicate one country’s strategic dependence on another.2 These conditions establish whether Australia is a net importer of a particular good; whether it imports more than 50% of that good from China; and whether China controls more than 30% of the global market in that particular product. On these indicators Australia shows considerably greater strategic dependence on China across a range of products than other Five Eyes countries and many of its peers globally.
Before the pandemic, Australian authorities noted with concern Beijing’s attempts to leverage trade for political purposes in other countries, including South Korea, Taiwan, Canada, and Norway, and braced themselves for possible punitive trade measures targeting Australia in light of its relative trade dependence. The government also grew wary of China’s sharp power operations in Australia targeting political parties, community groups, media organisations, universities, and business interests; it introduced legislation to expose these operations while outlining strategies to minimize their impact.3 The net result of China’s influence operations in Australia has been a precipitous fall in the level of popular goodwill towards China well ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has, if anything, made Australian governments and communities more acutely sensitive to signs of economic coercion arising from trade dependence on China. A backlash against China’s egregious use of sharp power has not led China to turn instead to soft power.
Australian relations with the US
As far as public perceptions are concerned, the most striking revelation of the pandemic has been US failure to exercise global leadership and the Trump administration’s incompetence in managing the crisis at home. The revelation has done little to uphold American credibility in Australia. Washington’s failure of leadership hobbled a number of international institutions, including the World Trade Organization (WTO) and G7, which Australia expected to assist in coordinating a global response to economic as well public health aspects of the pandemic. The Australian government stepped in where it could to assist these institutions, for example by trying to keep the WTO functioning after the White House blocked appointments to vacancies in its appellate system. In this case, Australia secured support from 19 international parties including China, the EU, and Canada for interim appellate arrangements. And while senior Australian ministers have been critical of the leadership of the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Morrison government continues to work closely with WHO offices in the region and has shown little inclination to damage the institution.
Again, in the absence of American leadership, Australia partnered with the EU to press for an international review into the origins and management of the viral pandemic by agencies affiliated with the WHO. The EU’s ambassador to Australia, Michael Pulch, was reported as saying the Australian government’s decision to call for a global coronavirus review was pivotal in securing support at the World Health Assembly.4 Further, Australia’s national intelligence agencies and Morrison declined to endorse claims by Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo that the virus spread initially from an experimental laboratory in Wuhan. The US and international press took note of Canberra’s divergence from Washington on this issue.5
Polling has yet to confirm a decline in popular sentiment toward America comparable to the fall in support for China. Nevertheless, the sense increasingly conveyed in mainstream media is that Washington is not to be trusted either. Prominent editorial writers for Australia’s two most influential newspaper groups have started to highlight growing Australian concerns over policy differences with the US and to question its reliability as an ally under Donald Trump. Senior editor Paul Kelly at the News Corporation’s Australian newspaper and political editor Peter Hartcher of the Sydney Morning Herald/Melbourne Age group have long raised public concerns over China’s conduct. They focus increasingly on the US.
The new American challenge for Australia, as Paul Kelly describes it, is that Trump is a “high-risk alliance partner.”
His ‘America First’ doctrine aims to dismantle the global model of US leadership, strategic alliances, open trade, economic interdependence and liberal international principles that have delivered unprecedented prosperity and much stability since 1945. Australia’s national interest has been built on the foundations of this system.6
During the pandemic, Kelly observed, Australia’s interests are increasingly in tension with the “America First” doctrine of Trump on issues going well beyond the alliance partnership, including multilateral trade, climate change, the WTO and WHO, and the shame-and-blame politics surrounding the pandemic itself.
At the height of the pandemic, senior political editor for the Sydney Morning Herald/Melbourne Age group Peter Hartcher questioned the reliability of the US as an alliance partner. “Australia has spent the last three-quarters of a century as America’s uniquely loyal ally,” he wrote.7 Canberra sent troops into war “in the belief that it was paying an insurance premium against the day when Australia needed US help. Now that Australia finds itself facing its most precarious geopolitical situation since World War II, the insurance policy is looking pretty threadbare. Donald Trump has shown that he is happy to ignore, insult and injure American allies whenever the mood takes him.”
Judging from the mainstream press, the emerging consensus in Australia appears to be that Trump’s parochial and transactional way of Making America Great Again is sabotaging the liberal rules-based order that is widely regarded as the foundation of American greatness. Australia’s determination to preserve this order is itself parochial in the sense that the country enjoyed security and prosperity in the decades after WWII, at considerable cost in American blood and treasure, and that Australia continues to do so partly at American expense. Nevertheless, it has pulled its weight as an alliance partner, as its media and diplomats frequently remind their American counterparts, and appears determined to uphold the agreements, norms, and institutions of the postwar order whatever Washington may think. Within Australia, preserving this order is widely acknowledged as one of the few foreign policy imperatives that all federal governments must accept on taking office.8
Canberra’s approach is more principled than strategic, or, at best, strategic in the sense that abiding by agreed norms and principles is a time-tested strategy for a middle-ranking power. The government has spoken out independently and often on many of the issues relating to China that concern Washington without actually endorsing Washington’s strategic vision. It has no intention of joining the US in decoupling from China nor does it see itself as directly engaged in strategic competition with China.
Speaking out on China’s conduct has nevertheless come at considerable cost to Australia’s relations with that country. The government openly challenged China’s claims to disputed maritime territories at a time when other countries in the region kept their silence, it addressed the communist party’s domestic influence and interference operations overseas ahead of US efforts to do so, and it alerted countries to the risks of China-based telecommunications firms installing new generation infrastructure before others were aware of the danger. On each of these issues Canberra was publicly rebuked by Beijing for taking a leading international position. One of China’s most outspoken Australia-watchers described Australia as the leading instigator of a global anti-China campaign and warned it would suffer the consequences.9 Just three months ahead of the pandemic, bilateral relations were rated by a former Australian ambassador to China at “the lowest point since diplomatic relations began.”10
Australia-US relations: the birth of a new diplomacy
While Trump has been blasting alliance partners, forcing renegotiation of trade agreements, and working to undermine international institutions, Australian governments have been moving in the opposite direction. The governments of Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison have given universal values and rule of law a higher profile in foreign policy through the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper11, sought work-arounds to revive international institutions, tried to uphold existing international agreements and collaborate in building new ones, and partnered in trying to repair the liberal trading order to accommodate changing geopolitical realities.12
At the same time, Australia has engaged the US through a new diplomacy which, as one leading newspaper editor candidly remarks, nobody really wants to talk about.13 This involves pulling all available levers to secure the support of the Trump administration, as an alliance partner, while at every available opportunity distancing Australia from the US administration on important issues over which the two sides disagree. One result of Trump’s behavior has been to complicate Australia’s long-standing challenge of balancing economic dependence on China with its security dependence on the US. Trying to maintain trade and investment links with China and defense links with the US when both are undermining the order Australia is struggling to maintain presents formidable challenges for bilateral diplomacy with each country.In the case of America, at least, Australia will not fail for want of trying.
In a maneuver that Ambassador Joe Hockey likened to “a rebirth of the art of diplomacy,” Canberra rewrote the diplomatic playbook to match the Trump administration’s transactional approach to international politics. In an interview on his retirement with The Australian newspaper, Hockey offered important insights into the new diplomacy.14 First, government approaches to the US government had to be personalized. It no longer made sense to work though the State Department or appeal to due process or shared commitments to principles and values as had been the practice with earlier administrations. President Obama’s government was “very structural, very procedural and very predictable,” Hockey explained. “And then along comes President Trump and all the normal processes are shredded because it is an unconventional administration. You have to have personal relationships because the decisions are being made within such a small circle of people.” The embassy mobilized personal networks and appealed to the particular tastes of Trump and his team.
Hockey began by approaching the US-based Australian golfer Greg Norman. “I knew there were no protocols in place for the transition of the Trump presidency so I rang Greg and asked if he had Donald Trump’s number,” says Hockey. With the aid of a celebrity golfer the prime minister got through to the American president. Hockey also worked with White House staffers close to Trump, and he teamed up with former US ambassador to Australia, John Berry, then serving as president of the American-Australian Association. With Berry he found opportunities to pitch Australia’s special historical relationship with the US to Trump and his White House team on special occasions, focused on military comradeship or “mateship.”
A second feature of this new diplomacy was its unwavering focus on the particularity of the bilateral relationship. The aim was to highlight features that distinguished America’s relations with Australia from those with other countries. With his embassy, Hockey devised a public relations campaign around the theme “100 Years of Mateship,” which underscored Australia’s record in military combat alongside US forces in every major war since the Battle of Hamel in the Great War a century earlier. The aim was to persuade the president and his team that Australia was not just America’s closest military ally but also a country that least threatened American jobs. “The more we spoke with the President and the White House,” Hockey told his interviewer, “the more they realised that Australia was different.”
The two approaches were mutually reinforcing. As a government relations exercise, the focus on mateship succeeded in winning support from senior figures in the Trump administration. Richard Spencer, secretary of the US Navy, was reported as saying that “mateship goes back 100 years” and “the fact that in every major conflict Australians have been by our side means a tremendous amount to our navy and marine corps.” The new diplomacy also worked in a material sense. Under the umbrella of the “Century of Mateship,” Hockey joined with Turnbull in lobbying Trump and his advisers to exempt Australia from threatened tariffs on imported steel and aluminium. The president acceded to their lobbying efforts by listing Australia among a small number of exceptions to his suite of tariffs.
Along with its successes the new bilateral diplomacy carries risks. The focus on mateship inserted a value proposition into relations between Australia and the US based essentially on comradeship at arms. And yet, while this new diplomacy was being crafted in the Washington embassy, the Turnbull government back in Canberra was drafting a substantially revised foreign policy white paper that would for the first time define maintenance of the liberal values, principles, rule of law, due process and the like, which sat at the center of the liberal international order, as core national interests. If mateship had earned mention in earlier foreign policy white papers along with other distinctive folkloric “national values,” it was omitted from the 2017 white paper.15
Diplomacy is the art of finessing contradictions, but in this case the reduction of a richly textured bilateral relationship to one of loyalty among soldiers came close to caricature. More seriously, the focus on military loyalty made light of the contradiction between the Trump administration’s declared commitment to strategic competition with China and Australia’s reluctance to partner in that effort. In this respect the shift in the diplomatic language of Australian-American relations from universal civic values to particularistic martial ones carried challenges of a fairly high order.
Some of these challenges were laid bare during the Australia-United States Ministerial (AUSMIN) consultations in Sydney in August 2019, attended by a high-level US delegation including Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Neither needed much encouragement to call on Australia to lend additional military assistance in support of US strategies abroad, and they found mateship a useful term for framing their suggestions about how Australia could assist. Esper took up the century of mateship theme, referring to “our second century of mateship” before discussing the deployment of US warships in the Straits of Hurmuz to promote freedom of navigation and commence.16 A fortnight later, Morrison announced deployment of an Australian Navy frigate, surveillance aircraft, and ground-support personnel in support of the US mission in the Persian Gulf.17 The Australian hosts exercised greater caution when it came to US naval exercises on China’s periphery. Australia’s silence on the South China Sea issue before and during the AUSMIN meeting was, as one analyst put it, deafening.18
Australian commitments and official comments aside, the conclusion drawn by security analyst Alan Dupont was that the ministerial consultations and sideline meetings foreshadowed “a more prominent role for Australia as a potential sanctuary, marshalling area, support base and force multiplier for US forces in the Indo-Pacific,” with likely future US requests for port facilities, airfields, and defence infrastructure in Australia.19 This is likely to be the shape of things in the second century of mateship, whatever the state of US soft power.
Australia-China relations – exhausting an old diplomatic paradigm
Australia is practicing an adroit but highly opportunistic style of soft-power diplomacy with the US, and a less adroit but principled form of diplomacy in relations with China. The contrast appears confusing to government spokespersons and media analysts in China who do not appear to be aware of Australia’s growing divergence from Washington on important global issues, or to appreciate the particular nature of the new diplomacy tailored specifically to appeal to Trump. China’s diplomats and media consistently brand Australia a racist country, on an American leash, and threaten sanctions and other punitive measures to whip Australia into line.
As far as upholding international law, norms, and institutions, Australia’s approach to China is consistent with its approach to Trump’s America. The key difference is that where nobody wants to talk about Australia’s new diplomacy with the US, all sides want to have a say about Australia’s diplomatic difficulties with China. China’s interference activities in Australia, preemptive claims in the South China Sea, and belligerent style of public diplomacy are partly to blame. On the Australian side, growing community awareness of the value differences separating Australia as an inclusive liberal democracy from an increasingly authoritarian China under General Party Secretary Xi Jinping is prompting even greater outspokenness. And where, as a rule, Australia and the US agree to differ on many points of strategy and policy, Australia finds it increasingly difficult to disagree with China on any substantive issue and yet maintain a routine working relationship.
Relations with China are in fact deep and multi-faceted. The common conceit that Australia is caught between balancing economic ties with China and security ties with the US can give a misleading impression that Australia relates to China through trade and to the US through alliance networks. In fact, relations with America are far more extensive, at every level. In the case of People’s China, half a century of migration, trade, educational exchanges, and tourism built a substantial foundation for popular goodwill toward China before Xi Jinping came to office. According to Lowy Institute polls, as late as 2017 over half of all adult Australians trusted China to act responsibly in the world.20 By 2019 less than a third of them said they trusted it.
The immediate source of this decline were China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea and exposure of its clandestine interference operations in Australian political, social, and cultural life. Media exposure of United Front sharp power operations dragged on for several years before culminating in the fall from office of a prominent federal politician, Senator Sam Dastyari, and fall from grace of several other public figures, including former ministers in the federal parliament.21 This shift in public sentiment has been closely matched in political circles. Former prime minister John Howard coined the original paradigm of value-free engagement with China during his term from 1996 to 2007.22 The ascent of Xi Jinping altered his judgment. Speaking on the perimeter of the AUSMIN consultations in August 2019, Howard said that Australia’s relationship with China was more difficult than in his own time as prime minister because the government in China was “a lot more authoritarian than the one that was in power 10 years ago.”23 China’s economic importance remained “overwhelming” but Australia would always be closer to the US because the two shared “fundamental human values.”
The pandemic has accentuated these differences. The effect on Australia’s trade with China was immediate, if limited, with minerals, energy, and ship-borne agricultural products and livestock marginally affected, but trade in goods that were dependent on airborne travel, including fresh meat and seafood, collapsed overnight. The numbers of incoming tourists and international students also fell away, with a disproportionate effect on services trade. In 2019 over 720,000 international students were enrolled across all education sectors in Australia with Chinese students accounting for 28% of the total.24 Tourists from China made up 15% of the 8.7 million international tourists who visited that year.25
For the tourism and education sectors, the short-term travel restrictions imposed during the pandemic could turn out to be the least of their worries. The pandemic triggered a number of public controversies that led to warnings from China over possible consumer boycotts of Australian service industries and consumer products. These controversies merit close attention because, in tandem, they surfaced a degree of hostility in the relationship which could inflict lasting damage on sensitive consumer markets in Australia and in China. Australia’s first affront to China, reasonable as it might appear, was to ban incoming passenger arrivals from that country. The decision was taken after a week or more of lobbying from state premiers and consultations between the health minister and Australia’s chief medical officer, but the timing was unfortunate. The decision was announced on February 1, the day after Trump announced a ban on entry into the US of foreign nationals who had recently travelled to China. Beijing expressed its displeasure with Washington and Canberra together, setting a pattern for subsequent reprimands from China’s government during the pandemic in which Australian decisions taken on Australian advice were consistently read as proxies for decisions taken in Washington.
China’s United Front operatives in Australia echoed Beijing’s complaints about flight restrictions. Speaking on Beijing-funded local Chinese community radio, representatives of the Australia Council for Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China said Australia was playing alliance politics at a time when China was honestly trying to reach out and help where it could. Beijing also took offense over a series of media reports contesting China’s claims regarding the origins of the coronavirus, criticizing the initial cover-up in Wuhan, and pointing to the WHO’s gullibility in reproducing misleading advice from China on the potential for person-to-person transmission. In addition, mainstream media in Australia carried reports that Chinese firms in Australia surreptitiously acquired protective equipment, medications, and respirators from around the country for shipping to China in January when authorities in Beijing were still pressing the WHO not to elevate the threat-level to pandemic. When the disease took hold in Australia, by these accounts, the country was found to have been deprived of the PPE and other equipment required to manage the outbreak. On the Australian side, United Front figures were reported to have been involved.26
There was little out of the ordinary in this style of media coverage, some of it accurate and some speculative, particularly at a time when similar questions were being asked around the world. What marked these commentaries out for treatment in the bilateral relationship was the decision by China’s consulate general in Sydney to challenge a series of articles that appeared in the local Daily Telegraph, which were accompanied by a graphic image of China’s national crest crowned with a viral corona. On April 1, the consul general forwarded a letter of complaint to the newspaper, which prompted an extensive and acrimonious exchange between consular officers and the local tabloid editor that reflected little glory on either.27
In normal times a dispute of this kind would count for little. Popular media commentary has been a persistent source of low-grade tension between Australia and the PRC since relations were established in the early 1970s. As a rule, consular officials convey their concerns privately to Australian government officers or, in more serious cases, deliver stern rebukes to deputy secretaries in cloistered offices. The world never hears about them. Long before the recent advent of “wolf warrior diplomacy,” however, China’s embassy and consular offices started to go public in Australia with accusations of “bigotry” and “racism” in popular media coverage, and occasionally applauding the violence of Chinese patriots defending China’s honor on Australian soil.28 By going public on sensitive issues in this way, consular officials surrendered the respect their offices would normally command in public life. The consulate’s dispute with the Daily Telegraph escalated dramatically when the newspaper published the letter from the consulate, not in its correspondence column, but in a dedicated article that rebutted the consular letter, paragraph by paragraph, in offensive tabloid style.
What had been a minor media incident escalated when the People’s Daily published a formal rebuke of the rambunctious Sydney tabloid on April 28 under the by-line Zhong Sheng (Voice of the Center), which is generally reserved for central party commentaries on matters of critical importance in foreign affairs.29 “The COVID-19 pandemic tests the world’s morality and civilization,” the People’s Daily proclaimed. Sydney’s Daily Telegraph failed the test as its “racist remarks about the novel coronavirus and the consequent racial discrimination, racial contradictions, and racial conflicts are all blatant provocations against modern civilization that should be resisted by the international community.” More broadly, the editorial signalled to party and government agencies and to the management of China’s state-owned enterprises that a decision had been taken at the highest levels to adopt a hostile position towards Australia as a country of irredeemable racists who were in thrall to America.
An interview Ambassador Cheng Jingye gave to the Australian Financial Review, late in April, caused controversy too when he stated that if Australia continued on its current course China’s students and tourists might stop coming, and its consumers could lose their taste for Australian beef and wine.30 Some read his remarks as a dire threat, others as an honest warning, but in the highly-charged atmosphere of the pandemic, with critical goods in short supply, they clarified in a public way the risks arising from excessive dependence on China.
Again, this local media controversy involving a Chinese government representative was amplified back in China, on this occasion through China’s home-grown tabloid the Global Times. The editor, Hu Xijin, had long published editorials calling for China to impose trade boycotts on Australia to teach the country a lesson and bring it into line on issues such as China’s unilateral claims to disputed territories in the South China Sea.31 Cheng’s remarks prompted Hu to address his followers on the need for trade sanctions against Australia, a country he described as “a bit like a piece of chewed up gum stuck under China’s shoe. Sometimes you just have to find a stone and scrape it off.” This intervention by a party-authorised media celebrity may have raised smirks in China, but it did not go down well in Australia.
A further dispute which appears to have finally triggered trade retaliation arose from an interview that Foreign Minister Marise Payne gave to the ABC’s Sunday current affairs program Insiders on April 19, calling for an independent, international review into the origins and management of the pandemic.32 Again, Beijing detected collusion between Canberra and Washington. China’s foreign ministry rejected the idea as “dancing to the tune of a certain country to hype up the situation.”33 It issued further statements condemning Payne’s proposal before its embassy in Canberra leaked details of a telephone conversation held April 27 between the ambassador and the head of the foreign affairs and trade department Frances Adamson, apparently to buttress its claim that the Australian proposal for an independent review had little merit. Shortly afterward, Beijing imposed an 80% tariff on Australia barley imports and moved to limit beef imports through selective bans on a number of abattoirs for procedural violations. Referring to selective trading boycotts as a form of “economic coercion,” Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said, “Australia is no more going to change our policy position on a major public health issue because of economic coercion or threats of coercion, than we would change our policy position in matters of national security.”34
The dispute over Payne’s call for an independent inquiry continued to May 19 when the World Health Assembly (WHA) approved a motion, led by the EU and Australia, for an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” of the international health response to COVID-19.35 China’s embassy in Canberra haughtily dismissed any suggestion of a connection linking the Australian proposal and the final WHA motion as “nothing but a joke.”36 Again the Australia trade minister responded, this time characterizing the embassy’s comments as “provocative” and concluding, “I would have thought the appropriate response from China’s ambassador would be to welcome these outcomes and welcome the opportunity for us to work together on this important issue.”37
During Trump’s term in office, Australia has managed to retain close defense and security ties with the US, while distancing itself from Washington on important international issues ranging from multilateral trade to climate change and the role of international institutions such as the WTO and WHO. This has involved significant engagement among many different arms of government and some fairly deft diplomacy. US soft power has been badly damaged, but there remains a reservoir of trust capable of being revived in a post-Trump administration.
With China, Australia has invested less in diplomacy and more in surfacing the differences that separate the two countries. These differences are not trivial and include extraordinary sensitivity in China to public criticism. Xi sets the terms on which relations can happily proceed, and they are not generally to Australia’s liking. Despite government intentions, the country’s relations with China appear to be deteriorating at roughly the same pace as US-China relations, because authorities in China interpret Australian government conduct as a pale reflection of US government intentions and regard Australians as racist.
Given these misperceptions in Beijing, Australia needs to be mindful of where US-China relations are heading. In the judgement of Jude Blanchette, the deterioration in US-China relations is more than incremental and amounts to a new paradigm “defined by the proliferation of flash points, the downward spiral of hostility, the rise in zero-sum thinking, and the breakdown of mediating and mitigating institutions.”38 This judgment appears to have been confirmed on May 20, when Trump signed a new document on China policy39, “The United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China,” signalling a new consensus in Washington grounded in “all-out strategic competition.”40
While they may not regard themselves as engaged in strategic competition with China, Australian governments can no longer imagine that they are in strategic alignment with Beijing. There was a time, before Xi Jinping, that Canberra thought there was real scope for alignment. In 2014 Australia and China agreed to describe the bilateral relationship as a “comprehensive strategic partnership” that would include an Annual Leaders’ Meeting between the prime minister and the Chinese premier. Other dialogues that had developed separately and incrementally in an earlier era, covering a wide range of bilateral, regional, and global issues, were brought together under the comprehensive strategic partnership on the cusp of Xi Jinping announcing the arrival of his signature “New Era of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.” Xi has since shown by his actions in arresting lawyers and newspaper editors, closing churches, and incarcerating one in every two adult male Uighurs in Xinjiang what this New Era holds in store for China and the World. Australia wants little part in it.
Australian governments cannot realistically expect to restore relations to the level of engagement enjoyed before Xi Jinping came to office. The head of the department of foreign affairs and trade at that time, Peter Varghese, recently told The Australian newspaper that Australia needed to “quietly abandon the notion that we can have a comprehensive strategic partnership with China for as long as it remains a one-party authoritarian state.”41 Ambitious bilateral programs designed to bring the two together in an earlier era do not match the expectations of Xi Jinping’s new era. Some of the dialogues that were brought under the bilateral strategic umbrella in 2014 will presumably survive its collapse, including those dealing with trade, international security, law enforcement, development cooperation, and climate change. As flash points in the relationship proliferate, however, the two countries will need to maintain a number of mediating dialogues and institutions to mitigate their impacts.
At the same time, Australia is likely to look beyond the US and China for partners in sustaining an order that its governments believe essential for the country’s long-term security and prosperity. Initiatives to revive the WTO and to join with the EU in drafting the WHO resolution on the global pandemic review hint at this approach. When the World Health Assembly passed the EU/Australian motion on the pandemic review, the EU’s ambassador to Australia Pulch, was reported as saying that this style of middle-power diplomacy could be a model for future negotiations.42 Australian governments are likely to agree.
Xi Jinping may try to employ sharp power tactics, such as restrictions on trade and investment, to secure his wishes in Australia, but his abandonment of soft power complicates that task. In 2020 Australians have little choice but to resist China’s pressure by quietly working around Trump’s deficiencies while looking to the future for help in sustaining an order now under duress. Only one of them is president for life.
1. Greg Earl, “Economic diplomacy: China dependency and a notable departure,” Lowy Institute, August 15, 2019, https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/economic-diplomacy-china-dependency-and-notable-departure
2. James Rogers, Andrew Foxall, Matthew Henderson, and Sam Armstrong, “Breaking the China Supply Chain,” Henry Jackson Society, https://henryjacksonsociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Breaking-the-China-Chain.pdf
3. John Fitzgerald, “China in Xi’s “New Era”: Overstepping Down Under,” Journal of Democracy 29:2 (2018), 59-67.
4. Eryk Bagshaw and Anthony Galloway, “EU ambassador says Australia played ‘bad cop’ to Europe’s ‘good cop’ to get motion up,” The Age, May 21, 2020, https://www.theage.com.au/politics/federal/eu-ambassador-says-australia-played-bad-cop-to-europe-s-good-cop-to-get-motion-up-20200521-p54vat.html
5. Damien Cave and Isabella Kwai, “China Is Defensive. The U.S. Is Absent. Can the Rest of the World Fill the Void?” The New York Times, May 11, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/11/world/australia/coronavirus-china-inquiry.html
6. Paul Kelly, “US-China rivalry tests Australia’s diplomacy,” The Australian, August 7, 2019, https://www.theaustralian.com.au/commentary/uschina-rivalry-tests-australias-diplomacy/news-story/fb3056f880fa835989342d6cbd576648
7. Peter Hartcher, “China Is Defensive. The U.S. Is Absent. Can the Rest of the World Fill the Void?” The Age, May 19, 2020, https://www.theage.com.au/national/on-the-brink-of-peril-australia-is-left-wondering-what-the-mad-sheriff-has-in-mind-20200518-p54txp.html
8. Other acknowledged imperatives are to ally with a strong global partner and to find a place for Australia in its immediate neighborhood. Allan Gyngell, Fear of Abandonment: Australia in the World since 1942 (Melbourne: La Trobe University Press, 2017), p. 11.
9. Eryk Bagshaw and Rob Harris, “China claims Australia the ‘pioneer’ of a global anti-China campaign,” The Sydney Morning Herald, September 24, 2019, https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/china-claims-australia-the-pioneer-of-a-global-anti-china-campaign-20190924-p52ufk.html
10. Geoff Raby, “The fall and fall of China relations,” Financial Review, October 29, 2019, https://www.afr.com/world/asia/the-fall-and-fall-of-china-relations-20191028-p534vh
11. “2017 Foreign Policy White Paper,” https://www.dfat.gov.au/sites/default/files/2017-foreign-policy-white-paper.pdf
12. “Opening Remarks to Asia Briefing Live Economy and Business Session,” https://www.pmc.gov.au/news-centre/pmc/secretary-opening-remarks-asia-briefing
13. “Best Not Forget Beijing’s Script,” The Australian, May 22, 2020, https://www.theaustralian.com.au/nation/politics/best-not-forget-beijings-script-but-its-not-based-on-a-true-story/news-story/f3a7bc384ca7e43c7d0b107d6375ec35
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