Week of 1 to 7 November 2021

Strange bedfellows

Point four of the Joint Statement on the finalisation of the Australia – Vietnam Enhanced Economic Engagement Strategy:

“The Strategy reaffirms both countries’ commitment to strengthening the rules-based global trading system as the basis for open international trade and working together to address economic challenges and coercive economic practices.”

Quick take:

This makes Vietnam the first South-East Asian country to explicitly call out economic coercion/coercive economic practices in a joint statement with Australia. Although China is not mentioned by name, the context of the messaging leaves little to the imagination regarding who the coercive party might be. China’s internationally renowned and explicitly coercive economic pressure campaign against Australia means that most audiences would fully understand that Beijing’s trade restrictions are at issue. This conclusion would be especially easy to reach given that Vietnam likely also felt the sting of China’s politically motivated trade restrictions in 2014.

Adding Vietnam to the list of countries that have previously voiced concerns about economic coercion alongside Australia leads to a total of 10 countries raising these concerns in 11 joint statements, communiques, and readouts. Some countries, such as Japan, New Zealand, and the United States, have joined Australia in raising concerns about economic coercion multiple times and some countries have done so multilaterally via the G7. Here’s my rough working tally:

  • Australia-Japan; 17 November 2020; Leader; Bilateral
  • G7; 5 May 2021; Ministerial (foreign affairs and development); Multilateral
  • Australia-United States; 13 May 2021; Ministerial (foreign affairs); Bilateral [NB Strictly speaking, this was not a joint statement/communique, coming as it did from Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a press conference with Foreign Minister Marise Payne.]
  • Australia-New Zealand; 31 May 2021; Leader; Bilateral
  • Australia-Japan; 9 June 2021; Ministerial (2+2 foreign affairs and defence); Bilateral
  • Australia-United States; 21 July 2021; Ministerial (trade); Bilateral
  • Australia-France; 30 August 2021; Ministerial (2+2 foreign affairs and defence); Bilateral
  • Australia-India; 11 September 2021; Ministerial (2+2 foreign affairs and defence); Bilateral
  • Australia-United States; 16 September 2021; Ministerial (2+2 ASUMIN – foreign affairs and defence); Bilateral
  • Australia-New Zealand; 20 September 2021; Ministerial (trade); Bilateral
  • Australia-Vietnam; 3 November 2021; Leader; Bilateral

In addition to the above countries and multilateral groupings, both the Quad and Singapore have raised concerns about “coercion,” albeit without specifying in the economic domain. This lengthening list again suggests that Australia is making a concerted effort to build a coalition of countries willing to raise concerns about economic coercion and, by extension, impose some reputational costs on China (without mentioning Beijing explicitly). Beyond this, the latest joint statement with Vietnam also highlights the way in which contemporary international politics makes for strange bedfellows.

Despite Vietnam’s historical and recent experiences of war and conquest with China, Beijing’s and Hanoi’s interests are now relatively closely aligned on questions of domestic governance and the primacy of their respective communist parties. As President Xi Jinping stressed in a call with Nguyen Phu Trong, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), earlier this year: “[I]t serves both sides’ fundamental and strategic interests to safeguard the Communist Party’s governance and the institution of socialism. China firmly supports Comrade General Secretary in leading the CPV and the Vietnamese people to follow the socialist path that suits its national conditions.”

Unsurprisingly, the values embodied by Hanoi’s communist one-party system of government share more ideological affinity with Beijing’s Leninist Party-state than Canberra’s liberal democracy. But despite this deep political divide between Australia and Vietnam, Hanoi and Canberra share overlapping interests and goals when it comes to advancing key elements of the rules-based international order, including on trade liberalisation and elements of international law. This close alignment between certain Australian and Vietnamese international policy priorities combined with a striking misalignment on human rights and domestic political questions highlights the limitations of ideological lenses for analysing contemporary international politics.

Although the era of great power competition might be ideologically tinged (some might say infused?), strategic interests often won’t overlap with political preferences. Consider, for example, the about-face performed by many like-minded countries that went from denying Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visas on human rights grounds to feting him as the leader of a fellow liberal democracy. Framing strategic competition with China in terms of values will therefore only be partially effective considering that counterbalancing Beijing’s power and influence will regularly involve reaching across the ideological aisle, so to speak.

Sticking to the message

Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) spokesperson Wang Wenbin’s taciturn response to a question about Australia’s reputation and whether Prime Minister Scott Morrison lied to French President Emmanuel Macron:

“I have noted relevant reports.”

Quick take:

Twice last week MFA spokesperson Wang was asked about the France-Australia submarine drama. And beyond a short quip about Australia giving an “honest answers to its partner’s questioning,” twice he refused to weigh in on the substance of the diplomatic stoush between Paris and Canberra. Like a consummate public relations professional, he kept to the dictum that you should answer the question you wish you’d been asked. In response to both questions about the Franco-Australian diplomatic rift, he pivoted seamlessly to nuclear non-proliferation concerns and the way in which Beijing believes AUKUS undermines the rules-based international order.

Whether China’s diplomatic strategy of linking AUKUS to perceptions of rule flouting by Australia and its allies and partners will be successful remains to be seen. Recent bilateral and multilateral statements and repeated efforts by a number of Australian ministers to reassure South-East Asia and the wider world point to some early traction for China. But regardless, steering clear of the France-Australia fracas and hammering home non-proliferation concerns points to China’s determination to seek to use AUKUS to inflict reputational damage on Australia and some of its closest allies and partners.

What wasn’t said

The number of references to AUKUS and/or nuclear proliferation in the MFA and New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade readouts of President Xi’s call with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern:


Quick take:

In the context of Wellington’s longstanding aversion to both nuclear-powered military platforms and nuclear weapons, Beijing might have been hoping for jointly expressed concern about AUKUS. Especially considering that many of New Zealand’s close Pacific neighbours were willing to join China in making their reservations about new nuclear-powered military platforms in the region known.

But a more prosaic explanation for the nonmention of the nuclear issue might simply be that President Xi didn’t bring it up. China’s recent meetings in the region that have raised concerns about AUKUS and/or nuclear proliferation were at the foreign minister-level. Meanwhile, despite all the warm atmospherics of President Xi’s recent call with Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister James Marape, there was no mention of AUKUS or proliferation concerns. Perhaps Beijing judges that it’s preferable to position President Xi above the fray and keep the divisive issue of anti-AUKUS diplomacy at arm’s length from the highest level of the Party-state?

Regardless, Canberra can draw some comfort from the nonmention. Even if President Xi did raise AUKUS and his government’s proliferation concerns, New Zealand seemingly won’t be publicly drawn into a China-driven effort to foster AUKUS scepticism.

As always, thank you for reading and please excuse any errors (typographical or otherwise). Any and all objections, criticisms, and corrections are very much appreciated.