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24 March 2021

With Greg Earl

US–China manoeuvring

Top officials of the Biden administration and the Chinese government met for the first time last week in Alaska. The talks started with an unusually acrimonious public exchange, which seemed to suggest the US–China relationship was entering a new phase of confrontation.

But the talks ended with officials making more positive comments, which received less media attention. Chinese state councillor Yang Jiechi described the talks as “candid, constructive and beneficial”. US secretary of state Antony Blinken said participants were able to have “a very candid conversation” on issues not related to Chinese sovereignty.

Both countries, it seems, are trying to work out how much they can cooperate. It’s likely that their earlier public sparring indicated the talks were never aimed at achieving any breakthroughs, and were more about each side getting the measure of the other and making their positions clear.

But the meetings did seem to mark a significant change in the dynamic between the superpowers. Beijing appeared keen to engage with the new administration. Washington, on the other hand, seemed to suggest its diplomatic priorities lie elsewhere.

Chinese officials persistently referred to the meetings as a “high-level strategic dialogue” and were prepared to travel to Alaska for the occasion. Meanwhile, US officials played the talks down, saying they were “not a strategic dialogue”. The fact that the United States held the event after first conducting high-profile meetings with key allies – including Japan, India, South Korea and Australia – also seems symbolic.

If this dynamic persists, the Morrison government may be able to count on more consistent consultation with the United States on China policy. It may even receive US support in dealing with China’s economic sanctions.


Korea war of words

During recent visits to Asia, Biden officials appeared to suggest that US policy on the North Korean nuclear threat had shifted. In the past, the United States has described its focus as the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”. Last week, it described its focus in more pointed and less conciliatory terms as the “denuclearization of North Korea”.

This new language prompted an angry response from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who said the United States was “trying hard to give off [gun]powder smell in our land”.

The Biden official’s choice of words may reflect a change that is stronger in style than in substance, but North Korea’s reaction is a reminder that this is one area in which the United States needs a workable relationship with China if it wants to make progress.

If the Biden administration takes a less diplomatic approach to the issue of Pyongyang, it may also cause difficulties with South Korea. While South Korea is a US ally, it has increased its commitment to establishing better relations with the north under leftist president Moon Jae-in.

Australia has a significant economic interest in avoiding conflict in East Asia, but so far it has not been a frontline participant in North Korean nuclear disarmament talks, which tend to involve Russia, Japan, the United States, China, and North and South Korea.

But that situation may be shifting too. At the recent Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with the United States, Japan and India, Australia signed a wide-ranging communiqué that referenced North Korea and notably endorsed the United States’ new language for its denuclearisation goals.


PNG outbreak

Australia has stepped up its medical and financial assistance to Papua New Guinea after the country revealed a sudden upsurge of COVID-19 cases.

There is evidence that cases originating in Papua New Guinea have been carried to Queensland. The outbreak also poses a threat to Papua New Guinea’s neighbours – from Indonesia to the Solomons Islands – which will likely expect the Morrison government to respond. Most Pacific countries have avoided significant outbreaks but have suffered economic pain from lost tourism.

Australia’s ties with its former colony have evolved significantly in recent years. The two countries have established a more cooperative development-aid relationship, and last year they both signed a formal Comprehensive Strategic and Economic Partnership, through which Australia hopes to fend off growing Chinese involvement in the neighbouring country.

The possibility that COVID-19 could overwhelm Papua New Guinea’s health system and become embedded in isolated communities presents Canberra with one of the biggest challenges it has faced in the country since it achieved independence in 1975.

Australia may have to make the sensitive political decision to direct more supplies of the COVID vaccine to Papua New Guinea at a time when some Australians are disappointed at the pace of its domestic rollout.

It will also need to keep working within the local health system, which has so far proved unable to manage the pandemic amid rising anti-vaccination sentiment.

Australia’s ability to manage instability in Papua New Guinea has always been a very public test for its global reputation as a responsible regional stakeholder. While the Morrison government has already allocated more than A$200 million to help its nearest neighbour fight the pandemic, it will likely need to spend much more.


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