US vs China
Australia needs to assert its independence from the US, not fall into line
Both the government and Opposition cling to the idea that Australia doesn’t have to choose between the United States and China, but the proposition is getting harder to maintain as the two nations seem set for collision. “For Australia it’s not a matter of choice between the United States or China,” Defence Minister Linda Reynolds toldRN Breakfast this morning, explaining that “when it comes to China we have a strong and longstanding relationship, and with the United States they remain our strongest ally”. But The Australian’s editor-at-large Paul Kelly writes [$], “Anybody who thinks Australia did not long ago take sides and continues to take sides on a daily basis in the US–China strategic rivalry lives in dreamland.”
Speaking in Kalgoorlie, former prime minister John Howard called the protests in Hong Kong “inspirational” and said Australia should favour the US over increasingly authoritarian China, rather than be mesmerised by the economic importance of the trading relationship. It seems Australia is being softened up for some kind of US–China confrontation, and the possibility that American conventional ground-based mid-range missiles could be located [$] on our soil – as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flagged during AUSMIN talks over the weekend – comes as a wake-up call as to what the US might shortly expect as part of our so-called alliance dues. This morning, Reynolds sounded relieved that her brand-new US counterpart, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, had “confirmed that there was no ask of Australia, and that none was expected”. Likewise, shadow foreign affairs minister Penny Wong told Sky News: “I don’t want to get into a hypothetical discussion about something that is – as I understand from the government’s statement, and that’s consistent with the discussions we had with the defence secretary – something that is not currently on the table.”
Australia needs to do more than cross its fingers and hope a request to host US missiles doesn’t arrive: we need an independent foreign and defence policy. We are being pushed towards a confrontation with our biggest trading partner by a militaristic ally that, by embracing white nationalism, protectionism and climate vandalism, is acting directly against our economic and strategic interests in this region. Already the flash points are multiplying at a frightening rate: from the South China Sea to Hong Kong, from North Korea to Taiwan, and via the rollout of a digital iron curtain exemplified by the Huawei bans. The Australia–China relationship itself is under enormous strain given the ongoing domestic debate over foreign influence, and upcoming criminal and anti-corruption inquiries including into the Crown saga and the detention of writer Yang Hengjun [$]. Adding to this pressure is the treatment of Uyghurs in China’s west, and calls for the re-nationalisation of Darwin Port, which South Australian Labor MP Nick Champion put on the table today.
All this needs careful diplomacy, not sabre-rattling. Asked whether Canberra would be unwise to support Washington in a confrontation with China that America probably cannot win, Mike Pompeo said: “Look, you can sell your soul for a pile of soy beans or you can protect your people. Our mission is to do both. We think it’s possible to achieve both of those outcomes.”
It is inflammatory, un-statesmanlike language that is the opposite of reassuring.
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Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Inside the Greens and the unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?
Both the government and Opposition cling to the idea that Australia doesn’t have to choose between the United States and China, but the proposition is getting harder to maintain as the two nations seem set for collision. “For Australia it’s not a matter of choice between the United States or China,” Defence Minister Linda Reynolds toldRN Breakfast this morning, explaining that “when it comes to China we have a strong and longstanding relationship, and with the United States they remain our strongest ally”. But The Australian’s editor-at-large Paul Kelly writes [$], “Anybody who thinks Australia did not long ago...
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