7 August 2019
Last weekend, Australia’s foreign and defence ministers met with their American counterparts for the annual Australia–US Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN). These days, the forum serves as a sort of litmus test of where Australia is sitting between the US, its closest ally, and China, its largest trading partner. The dilemma for Australia is that China’s rise is testing the US’s primacy in the Asia-Pacific region. This not only reduces the value of the US alliance, but also increases its biggest cost – friction with China. The leading local voice highlighting this predicament, and the need to prepare for it, is Hugh White, a former defence official now at the Australian National University.
Tom Switzer, Director of the Centre for Independent Studies, put White’s case directly to the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, at an event in Sydney on Sunday.
Switzer said: “Let me put White’s argument to you. China buys double what our next-largest customer, Japan, buys from us. The Chinese economy will grow much bigger than America’s in coming years … As a result – and this is Hugh White’s argument – Canberra would be unwise to support Washington in a confrontation with China that America probably cannot win.”
Pompeo responded: “Yeah. Look, you can sell your soul for a pile of soybeans, or you can protect your people … We think it’s possible to achieve both of those outcomes.”
At a press conference on the same day, Pompeo went further. “Let me be clear: the United States is a Pacific nation … we’re here to stay. And I want all Australians to know they can always rely on the United States of America … We think of this as an unbreakable relationship.” Much of the commentariat in Australia greeted this declaration as a triumph – as evidence that the US’s position is unchanged, that it is committed to remaining the region’s predominant power, with Australia under its protective wing.
White, however, was not convinced. Indeed, he told me: “This was, for Australia, a very awkward AUSMIN.”
“Pompeo sees it as a choice between soybeans and security,” he said. “That is not the choice for us at all. The choice is whether or not it makes sense to back an America that is starting a Cold War that it has no capacity to win.” White’s view is that the US foreign policy and defence establishments – with the notable exception of Donald Trump and leading Democratic presidential candidates – are increasingly presenting China as a strategic rival, and they are urging allies such as Australia to back them. During the AUSMIN visit, for instance, Pompeo and the US Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, floated the possibility of Australia hosting intermediate-range US missiles that could be used in Asia, presumably to attack or deter China. Esper accused China of a “disturbing pattern of aggressive behaviour”.
According to White, this approach places the US at odds with Australia, which continues to proclaim support for the US alliance but refuses to endanger its relationship with China. He points, as examples, to Scott Morrison’s swift move on Monday to rule out hosting US missile bases, and to foreign minister Marise Payne’s comments at the AUSMIN press conference that Australia was working with its “key partners” – the US and China – to pursue regional stability.
White argues that Australians have good reasons to fear China’s growing power and influence but are yet to develop an effective plan for countering it, or for dealing with a newly contested Asia. “What we saw in the last few days is the US quite overtly upping their own rhetoric and upping their pressure on Australia to unambiguously support the US to counter China’s position,” he says. “It was as stark as anything we have seen.”
Those critical of White’s position say that he is overstating China’s economic and military strengths and understating the US’s. Certainly, the world he is asking Australia to prepare for is less bright than the one it is leaving behind. On Monday, Pompeo drew a portrait of this world when he said that “the reason I’m here in Australia today is because we’re two democracies that have these deep and abiding, overlapping values … free and open trade, property rights, the liberal order that we all have come to value and benefit from. We want to make sure those are the rules by which the next century is governed as well. It will take a concerted effort on the part of many countries to make sure that that’s the case, and I know we’ve got a great partner in Australia to make that more likely.” It is a comforting outlook, even if its foundations appear increasingly questionable.