Week of 31 May to 6 June 2021

Say my name

Number of references to Australia/Australian in answers at last week’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) press conference

Number of which were positive: 

Number of which were negative: 

Number of which were neutral: 

Quick take:

Australia is now a regular focus at MFA press conferences. Despite a recent call to “build a credible, lovable and respectable image of China,” MFA messaging rarely features any positive overtures to Canberra. Don’t expect that to change.

In the struggle for international public opinion, Australia is not in the prospective “friend circle.” Indeed, policy planners in Beijing might be tempted to conclude that negative views of China have already spread so quickly and so wide that Australia is a lost cause. So even if the hard edge of recent MFA diplomacy softens in places, it’s likely that there won’t be any letup for Australia.

The quiet part out loud

US Senator Todd Young (R) of Indiana: 

“We mustn’t simply contain our leading global competitor. […] We must go on offense.” 

Quick take:

Beyond further confirming the bipartisan embrace of strategic competition with China, it’s unclear what precisely this kind of rhetoric presages for the direction of US China policy. But regardless of the specifics, the tougher US stance on China is likely to make it incrementally harder for Canberra to manage its ties with Beijing.

Since at least the 1990s, Beijing’s suspicions of Canberra have been (to at least a significant extent) driven by a combination of two factors: 1. Perceptions that the US is pursuing a containment strategy against China in the Western Pacific. & 2. Perceptions that Australia is the southern anchor (so to speak) of this supposed US effort to hold China back.

Irrespective of their accuracy, these assessments have been mainstays of China’s diplomatic messaging for decades. And Canberra has for years responded with a swift (albeit often softly spoken and sometimes indirect) 1-2 counterpunch: 1. Neither Australia nor the United States are pursuing containment. & 2. Regardless of US strategy, Australia pursues an independent foreign policy.

Statements such as the above from Senator Young make Canberra’s claim no. 1 look increasingly implausible (although Secretary of State Antony Blinken explicitly disavows containment). Meanwhile, the growing alignment of tough China policies among many liberal democracies makes claim no. 2 harder to convey in a succinct and compelling fashion (even if it’s true).

This is not to say that claim no. 2 is now false or deceptive. But for the purposes of diplomatic messaging to Beijing, it is becoming harder to distinguish Australian and US grand strategy when Canberra and many other liberal democratic capitals are converging on a set of common elements of China policy, much (though, of course, not all) of which is shared with Washington.

Given the above, are we likely to see some signaling from an Australian minister distancing Canberra from the rising containment murmurs coming out of Washington? Perhaps something along the lines of Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s below statement at AUSMIN 2020 responding to comments from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (emphasis added)?

“[T]he Secretary’s speeches are his own — Australia’s positions are our own. And we operate, as you would expect, on the basis of our shared values, actually, which are reflected in both the approach of the United States and the approach of Australia. But most importantly from our perspective, we make our own decisions, our own judgments in the Australian national interest and about upholding our security, our prosperity, and our values. So, we deal with China in the same way. We have a strong economic engagement, other engagement, and it works in the interests of both countries.” 

Don’t say the “c” word

According to the Strategic Competition Act of 2021, which is reportedly facing imminent Senate vote: 

“It is the policy of the United States, in pursuing strategic competition with the PRC, to pursue the following objectives: 

(1) The United States global leadership role is sustained and its political system and major foundations of national power are postured for long-term political, economic, technological, and military competition with the PRC. 

(2) The balance of power in the Indo-Pacific remains favorable to the United States and its allies. The United States and its allies maintain unfettered access to the region, including through freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce, consistent with international law and practice, and the PRC neither dominates the region nor coerces its neighbors.” 

Quick take:

China-focussed legislation working its way through Congress is disciplined in its use of language. The Strategic Competition Act of 2021 makes no mention of containment, despite its emphasis on “long-term political, economic, technological, and military competition with the PRC.” But while this and other similar bills don’t use the “c” word, they are still likely to further complicate Canberra’s efforts to manage its testy ties with Beijing.

The Strategic Competition Act’s goals of sustaining US “global leadership” and ensuring that US allies and partners “align themselves with the United States” will compound China’s suspicions of close US allies such as Australia. This is not to say that this bill is bad per se or that its impact on Australia-China rations should be a priority consideration for lawmakers in Washington. But the policy of strategic competition with China is likely to have unintended consequences for US allies and partners managing complex and challenging relationships with China.

US strategic competition with China combined with the Biden Administration’s determined international coalition building is likely to heighten Beijing’s deep-seated and long-held fear and loathing of containment. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is in turn likely to put further pressure on Australia-China relations as Beijing increasingly views Canberra’s behavior through the prism of China’s showdown with the United States—now a self-avowed strategic competitor.

4 June and Australia

Tandee Wang, “Beyond Hawke’s Tiananmen Tears,” The China Story, 3 June 2021:

“We too often represent Tiananmen, and the contemporary Chinese diaspora more broadly, as an issue of states and statesmen—a story about nations and their contestations. We talk about these Huaren as Hawke-ren, forgetting the rich dimensions of Chinese migrant lives except as passive recipients of (Australian) state beneficence or (Chinese) state violence. 

But the story of the Chinese diaspora caught up in the Tiananmen Square massacre is as much a national one as it is global and transnational, familial and personal. In this respect, we would do well to move beyond Hawke’s Tiananmen tears.”