Australia’s worsening China relationship is – at its core - a product of our close alliance with the US. Beijing sees itself as being in a zero-sum contest with Washington, and Australia as being on the wrong side of the ledger.
What can we expect from our US allies in this hour of need? Incoming National Security adviser Jake Sullivan has tweeted that “America will stand shoulder to shoulder with our ally, Australia, and rally fellow democracies to advance our shared security, prosperity, and values.”
That’s reassuring but not very specific. So, the real question is: what should Canberra seek from Washington? As Washington’s vast interagency policy machine grinds back into operation, our embassy should have many opportunities to be heard. On China issues, Australia is in good standing on both sides of US politics. But we should be blunt where necessary in pointing out how the world has changed, and how US policy must too.
Still, our advocacy must fall within the parameters of the Joe Biden administration’s China policy. That policy won’t be Obama 2.0 or Trump 2.0 – despite all the talk of a new China consensus in Washington.
The Trump administration’s strategic documents declared that the US was entering “great power competition” with China. But the objective of this competition was never clear. Donald Trump added an extra layer of incoherence.
This didn’t make Australia’s effort to “balance and engage” China any easier. The Turnbull government struggled to counter growing security threats from China – in our region and inside our borders – while retaining mutually beneficial economic ties. Standing next to Malcolm Turnbull in the White House, Trump gave an inverse take on China:
“Other than the fact they've been … absolutely killing the United States on trade … we have developed a great relationship with China, probably closer than we've ever had. And my personal relationship as Malcolm can tell you with President Xi is I think quite extraordinary.”
Canberra should argue that the US should aim for more than mere coexistence with China.
Although we can expect more coherence from Biden, the drafters of his National Security Strategy will have a daunting task as they try balance and tie together the various economic, security, human rights and environmental strands of the US-China relationship.
A good way to get a sense of how they might start is an October 2019 essay co-authored by Jake Sullivan and Kurt Campbell. He argues that any effort to “transform” China – whether through engagement or competition – is futile. Rather, the US should aim for a “a steady state of clear-eyed coexistence on terms favourable to U.S. interests and values. Such coexistence would involve elements of competition and cooperation.”
Canberra should argue that the US should aim for more than mere coexistence with China. We want that coexistence to be ordered by more acceptance – on both sides – of widely accepted norms and rules. Those norms should apply equally to all states, not just the great powers. But that would require the US to be more compliant with international law than it has been in the past.
Greater US and Chinese acceptance of the rules-based order. among other things, see more compliance with a revived World Trade Organisation and the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement. And it would help prevent US-China competition from escalating into conflict.
Sullivan’s acknowledgement of the need for a mix of competition and cooperation puts him much closer to Australia’s “balance and engage” policy than Trump’s policy ever was. More US-China cooperation – especially on climate change – is necessary for its own sake but also because it can constrain competition.
On the other hand, Australia does not want the Biden administration to – as Obama did – overlook China’s creeping takeover of the South China Sea in order to win agreement on global issues. On this issue Sullivan argues that “the best approach” is “to lead with competition, follow with offers of cooperation, and refuse to negotiate any linkages between Chinese assistance on global challenges and concessions on U.S. interests.”
Biden’s strong emphasis on closer cooperation with partners is obviously welcome news for Australia, especially as we seek to strategically balance China in our region. Sullivan’s emphasis on rallying fellow democracies is also welcome. It’s not unreasonable to hope that, over time, the US could evolve strategic partnerships into geoeconomic ones that could collectively balance and counter Chinese economic coercion.
But to work more effectively with partners to balance China the US will have to look beyond fellow democracies, and develop a facility for nuance that it has long lacked. In his Lowy lecture, Fareed Zakaria described great powers as offering a prix fixe menu. Australia’s message should be blunt: unless the US can offer more a la carte options it will lose.
Nowhere is this more true than in our region. Success in Southeast Asia is essential to any Indo-Pacific strategy. But the US national security bureaucracy has long viewed the region as a backwater and deprioritised understanding or engaging it. More is needed because this is a complex region with few democracies and a well-honed ability to resist binary choices.
Beijing will be watching the formation of Biden’s China policy closely and trying to get ahead of it, including by making an example of Australia. Rather than distance ourselves from Washington we should ensure that our voice is heard there.
Ben Scott is Director of the Australia’s Security and the Rules-Based Order Project at the Lowy Institute.