Over-reaction from Beijing is almost baked into Canberra’s foreign policy calculus at this point. Scorn and sanctions were heaped upon Australia for calling for an independent inquiry into the origin of the coronavirus pandemic. But for all of its bluster, Beijing’s response to the joint US-Australia statement to come out of the ministerial talks in Washington has been – in Beijing’s terms – low-key. The US-Australia joint statement included strong language about China undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy, concern over the repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang, support for Taiwan and its inclusion in the international community, and China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea.
True, the state-run tabloid has shouted headlines about Australia facing “unbearable consequences”, but has also noted that the language was milder than US positions of late. The condemnation from both the China’s ministry of foreign affairs and the Chinese embassy in Canberra was formulaic: boilerplate language that is more of a reflex in the Chinese system rather than anything noteworthy. While Beijing’s response has been far from conciliatory, it could indicate a more nuanced view of the US-Australia relationship. It could even represent a rethink of the utility of having escalating conflict on many fronts, including with Australia, India, the United Kingdom and Sweden.
Is it possible that Beijing heard Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, when she said, “The relationship with China is important, and we have no intention of injuring it”? This was not what US secretary of state Mike Pompeo wanted to hear, having just delivered a statement excoriating the “malign activity” of the Chinese Communist party, among other things China’s disinformation campaign around Covid-19 and the “crushing” of freedom in Hong Kong. The previous week, Pompeo had given an even more incendiary speech in which he described the prior strategy of constructive engagement with China a failure, and alluding to – if not directly calling for – regime change.
Some might argue that Australia’s distancing from Pompeo’s comments are lost on Beijing, which sees the world in black and white terms – Canberra being wholly in Washington’s back pocket and part of a US-led anti-China coalition. US-China relations are arguably at their lowest point in almost half a century. As the rivalry between the two superpowers intensifies, more and more issues will be caught by this zero sum logic – you’re with us, or you’re against us. To be fair, many in the White House hold this belief too. And the US has gone above and beyond to alienate many of its closest partners and allies.
But doubling down on this particular narrative suits China’s interests. It’s much easier to blame any actions Beijing does not like as simply a US-led plot to stem China’s rise, rather than a direct response to China’s own actions. On this self-serving reading, the protests in Hong Kong that triggered the draconian national security law were not a legitimate demand of Hong Kongers but a plot by the US to undermine China’s sovereignty. And Beijing can comfort itself by believing that Australia’s more muscular tone is deferring to the US in its cold war against China, rather than Australian concern about a broad remit of issues, from foreign interference to Huawei, in recent years.
As convenient as it may be to view Canberra’s behaviour that way, Beijing may have read between the lines. Rather than an appeal to Pompeo’s competitive instincts, Australia’s substantive positions on Hong Kong, Taiwan or Xinjiang have not changed, and are an expression of Australian values and interests.
On the South China Sea, Australia’s recent submission to the United Nations was touted by many as following the footsteps of the US. Although Canberra’s rhetoric has intensified and the detail of its grievances on these issues has become more granular, Australia’s submission expanded on an existing 2016 position in accordance with international law. Dismissing Australia as doing the bidding of the United States fails to recognise that Australia’s position in the South China Sea aligns closely with previous submissions provided by Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia to the same legal process. China has been increasing its efforts to court these south-east Asian partners. The US has not even ratified the UN convention under which legal action has been taken on the South China Sea.
It would be misleading and dangerous for Beijing – and Washington too, for that matter – to interpret Australia and the region’s behaviour through the lens of great power competition. There is no doubt that the race to the bottom between Washington and Beijing looms large. But countries in the region have their own agency, and reducing these initiatives to US plots risks the false impression for Beijing that Australia’s commitment is contingent on that of the United States’. Of late, Australia has distanced itself from many policies coming out of the White House. So too has it risked Beijing’s ire to stand up for its own values and interests.
Beijing’s threats to date have been ineffective in forcing compliance from Canberra. The logic of Xi Jinping’s China that favours repression and coercion may lead to reflexive threats against Australia, as domestic pressures are prioritised over diplomacy. But the muted position to date may signal that Beijing recognises Australia’s joint statement with the US as a shift in style rather than substance.
• Natasha Kassam is a research fellow at the Lowy Institute