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United front? Why Payne and Reynolds went to Washington

A lot has changed since Payne’s last visit to Washington to meet her US counterpart Mike Pompeo, less than five months ago.

In March Payne came to the State Department with an important message as the coronavirus had begun ravaging the US. While the pandemic needed to be dealt with, Payne told Pompeo it should not diminish any of the other priorities facing the two nations. Mindful that Beijing would look to make a major strategic play under the cover of the pandemic, the security of Australia’s immediate region was front of mind.

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In the end, Beijing decided to make multiple major moves: the Hong Kong national security laws which effectively ended “one country, two systems”; the ramping-up of territorial expansion in the South China Sea; and the launch of large-scale disinformation campaigns about the coronavirus.

So far the COVID-19 crisis has not turned out to be an event that reshapes the global balance of power. Instead, all the challenges present before the crisis remain; they are just accelerated. With this in mind, Payne and Reynolds decided they needed to see their US counterparts in person this week.

After two days of meetings, the joint statement on Wednesday read like a list of grievances: An eight-strike hit on China’s actions in Hong Kong and the South China Sea, disinformation, malicious cyber attacks, its treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang, the place of Taiwan in the global order, the future of Huawei’s 5G network and concerns about nuclear non-proliferation.

Of the 10 key concerns about security in the Indo-Pacific, eight were directed at China. Only two, a commitment to support the United Nations and defeat Islamic State, looked elsewhere.

Despite the unprecedented emphasis on China, rhetorical approaches to managing its rise differed sharply. For all the optics of a united front, this week marked the sharpest distinction to date between US and Australian interests.

When Pompeo invited Australia to condemn Beijing’s “coercive pressure”, Payne resisted. When he accused China of using exports “as a cudgel against Australia”, Payne demurred. When she was asked by US media if she would match Pompeo’s call in a speech last week for Chinese residents to rise up against the Chinese Communist Party, it was the same story.

“The secretary of state has made his views clear,” Payne said. “We make our own decisions and we use our own language.

“The relationship with China is important and we have no intention of injuring it.”

In Canberra, the government has become increasingly wary of being pulled into the US election vortex. The risk of a decade of Australian foreign policy being set to satisfy voters in Arizona and Michigan in November is palpable.

Payne’s declaration of independence was not the first in recent years: at key junctures since 2018 the Turnbull and Morrison governments have not been shy in politely disassociating themselves from comments by the Trump administration.

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In April, Prime Minister Scott Morrison raised doubts about claims from Trump and Pompeo that COVID-19 started in a Wuhan laboratory, after Australian intelligence officials were unable to find any evidence to support the theory. At the time Australia was pushing for an independent review into handling of the pandemic and saw the US attempt to link it to a Chinese conspiracy as hampering those efforts.

And for all of China’s claims of Australia following the US as its “deputy sherriff”, Canberra has actually moved first on some of the key challenges Beijing has presented. Australia was the first to ban Chinese telecom giant Huawei from next-generation networks, first to enact foreign interference laws and ahead of the curve on blocking foreign investment in critical national infrastructure. But while Pompeo calls for an “end to blind engagement”, Australia is insisting lines of communication with Beijing remain open.

Australia’s insistence on travelling to Washington this week was not about kowtowing to its major security ally; it was about ensuring Australia has a seat at the table in shaping the future of the Indo-Pacific.

Lowy Institute executive director Michael Fullilove says Payne’s comments were “well-judged”.

“I think it was an important message to send a couple of months before a presidential election that Australia … makes decisions on the basis of its own interests,” he says.

Fullilove says Pompeo’s “needlessly aggressive” speech on China was unhelpful for Australia because he framed US diplomacy as an “alliance of democracies” and a crusade against the Chinese Communist Party. He says it also excludes some non-democracies and quasi-democracies in Asia that the US and Australia want to work with.

Unlike Pompeo, Trump is not necessarily a China hawk: according to his former national security adviser John Bolton, Trump gave his approval for China’s mass internment of Uighurs in Xinjiang and sought the help of Chinese President Xi Jinping to win re-election.

Fullilove says it is relatively easy for Australia to stay out of the US’s domestic political debate on China, as opposed to the Iraq War, when there was a lot of partisan dispute within Washington on the merits of the intervention.

If there is any difference between the Republicans and Democrats, it is about how to handle the relationship with allies in the region.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s position is expected to be closer to what Australia is trying to do: transition to a multipolar region where Beijing is accommodated but counterbalanced by regional powers including Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Vietnam and the US. At times, Trump and Pompeo’s approach seems to be an attempt to maintain the US as regional hegemon – something Canberra quietly gave up on a few years ago.

Fullilove says in some ways a Biden administration would be tougher on China and may make requests of Australia which are harder to refuse.

“It would be good for Australia if our great security ally the United States were not run by a preposterous figure who is poorly suited to the presidency and is deeply unpopular around the world,” Fullilove says.

“President Trump’s worldview runs counter to Australians’ view of the world, as measured in the Lowy Institute’s polling.

US Defence Secretary Mark Esper delivered a blunt warning about China's ambitions in the South China Sea.

US Defence Secretary Mark Esper delivered a blunt warning about China’s ambitions in the South China Sea.Credit:Bloomberg, AP

“He is an alliance sceptic whereas Australians are alliance believers; he is sympathetic to isolationism, whereas Australians are inclined towards internationalism; he is hostile to free trade whereas we are a trading nation; he swoons over autocrats and strongmen, whereas we are an old democracy and a free society.”

Morrison was unusually frank about the US electoral cycle on Wednesday, hours after Pompeo, Payne, Reynolds and US Defence Secretary Mark Esper took off their face masks and walked up to the podium in Washington.

“We are both passionate, vibrant liberal democracies and thank God for that. And that means that in the seasonal politics, as is occurring [in] many other democracies around the world, there will be elements of politics that come into that,” he said.

“I have no doubt in the engagements I have with leaders around our region that we can factor out what is the noise of politics and be able to focus clearly on the issues of substance.”

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As Payne and Pompeo worked out the details of their joint statement on Wednesday, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi was on the phone to France.

With Trump falling further behind in published opinion polls as the pandemic crisis deepens, the US election was also on his mind.

“A certain political faction in the US, driven by the need to lift [presidential] campaign prospects and maintain unipolar hegemony, are going all-out to negate the history of China-US relations, suppress China on every front, provoke China on its core interests, attack the social system chosen by the Chinese people and vilify the ruling party,” Wang told French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

“It is as if we can already see the ghost of McCarthyism coming back from the ashes. Should such conspiracy theories be allowed to have their way, not only will China-US relations fall into the abyss of confrontation, but the whole world will face a crisis of division and … mankind’s future will be in peril.”

Wang told Le Drian China was not interested in stirring up trouble and “always exercises maximum restraint” but its recent track record in Hong Kong and Xinjiang and on foreign interference and cyber espionage speaks for itself.

In the South China Sea, satellite images from July 15 show China has stationed eight fighter jets on an island near the disputed zone. It is China’s incursions into this area between Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines, through which up to a third of the world’s shipping passes each year, that Washington and Canberra focused their attention on, after declaring China’s territorial claims illegal.

One of the few concrete commitments to come out of this week was the establishment of a US-funded commercially operated strategic military fuel reserve in Darwin Harbour.

The fuel will be there if tensions continue to rise and more missions need to be undertaken by US or Australian jets. It is an $86.4 million insurance policy.

“This is not about an assertive war footing, this is about addressing a strategic vulnerability,” says John Coyne, a former national security expert with the Australian Federal Police and now head of the North and Australia’s Security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

“It’s an activity of defence diplomacy to maintain the peace that we have today despite the strategic uncertainty. It is not just about whacking down bases.”

Coyne says the fuel reserve should quadruple the amount of fuel storage in northern Australia, allowing for an expansion of US Marines training activity, increasing the number of US Marines and duration of deployment beyond the usual six-month time frame.

“Maybe we will see more US strategic bombers flying through northern Australia,” says Coyne. “It’s great news that this facility is going to be built but it’s ironic that we are relying on US foreign investment to fix a national sovereignty issue of fuel resilience.”

Australia’s resilience is also being tested in another key area: trade. The national interest, defined by Morrison and Payne as the key threshold for Australia’s policy positions, is tied to the economy’s ability to bounce back from the worst economic crisis since the 1930s.

Two separate pieces this week in China’s jingoistic state media outlet The Global Times were published as Payne and Reynolds were in the air heading for Washington.

Their warnings were directed at two high-profile exports: “Australian iron ore can’t prop up souring economic ties with Beijing” and “Australian agricultural sector is likely to lose Chinese market”.

Australia is the only country outside the US to be hit by China with more than threats on trade this year.

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China’s strikes earlier this year on beef, barley, students and tourists show it will target exports that have a minimal impact on its domestic market. That has led to the belief that Australia’s key exports – mining resources – are less susceptible to hits because they power the Chinese economy. Preliminary trade data from June shows Australia’s total exports to China increased by over $2billion over the past financial year on the back of record iron ore deliveries.

But an announcement last week from China’s Ministry of Transport and the National Development and Reform Commission may dent the long-term prospects of that theory.

Four new 400,000-tonne iron ore terminals have been approved along the Chinese coast to welcome enormous vessels 1½ times the size of Australia’s ships from BHP and Rio Tinto. Only Brazil’s Vale, Australia’s great iron ore competitor, has ships that size.

Japan and New Zealand do not have the resource trade protection with China that Australia has historically enjoyed. China is also their largest trading partner. Notably, both have let other countries throw the first punches on China’s incursions before quietly following suit and protecting their trade balances in the process.

Chinese state media noted New Zealand’s potential to take over Australia’s agriculture market in China this week after being singled out for the “importance it attaches to developing relations”.

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“There is a world watching all of us,” New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Winston Peters said on Wednesday. “Megaphone diplomacy doesn’t help anyone.”

New Zealand has followed the US and Australia in a lot of the major decisions on China in recent years, always attracting less blowback from Beijing than its Trans-Tasman neighbour.

Australia has decided it does not have that luxury.

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