Since 2016, there has been much talk about US-China relations. That’s not really when it began, but that year marks a clear shift in US policy towards China.
Former US President Donald Trump sought not just to contain China’s rise, but to roll it back. Just before leaving office, Trump decided to declassify a very sensitive national security document on January 5. The document’s original declassification date was December 31, 2042.
Titled US Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific, the document details a US strategy that must focus on the Indo-Pacific to “[maintain] US strategic primacy,” counter “Chinese predatory economic practices,” and prevent China from establishing “illiberal spheres of influence”. This, as the document reveals, must be done with the support of Australia, Japan, and South Korea. The document also mentions India and argues that the US must help accelerate “India’s rise as a major defence partner” to “counterbalance…China.”
With Trump losing the election to Joe Biden, the talk shifted to how Biden will approach China. The new administration’s approach now stands clarified by the recently issued Interim National Security Strategic Guidance. The document again talks about “strategic competition” with China but goes on to say that that “should not… preclude [the US from] working with China when it is in our national interest to do so.” It talks about “democratic alliances” as “America’s greatest strategic asset” in the effort to “hold countries like China to account.”
While the tone of this public document is more nuanced compared to the document declassified by Trump, two things are clear: the US considers China a peer competitor and it will do whatever it takes to retain US primacy in an area that is geographically China’s near-abroad. In fact, the term Indo-Pacific is much more expansive and in addition to US traditional allies — Japan, South Korea and Australia — also seeks to pull India into the US-led camp.
For those applying the structural-realist framework, the issue is simple. Great powers do not want peer competitors. The US therefore cannot accept China’s rise; China, as a rising power, cannot accept another hegemon dominating its sphere of influence. Just like the US warned all European powers against intervening in the Western Hemisphere with its Monroe Doctrine, China is projecting power in the eastern and southern hemispheres. By the looks of it, other states at some point will have to decide which of the two camps they want to be in.
A good case study is Australia. Australia is a key US ally but also trades with China to the tune of nearly USD 58 billion. That makes China the biggest trading partner of Australia, imports and exports combined. Compare that with Australia’s trade with the US, a distant second with USD 24 billion.
What are Australia’s choices? It perceives a security threat from China. The only way it can balance China is to bandwagon with the US. Its prosperity, given current trade stats, is linked to China. Is security a bigger concern than prosperity or vice versa? Structural Realism will say “security” without batting an eyelid. But let’s assume Canberra decides on prosperity as the dominant concern. Would it live in a region where China is the regional hegemon?
These issues are not abstract. They are being hotly debated in Australia and for good reasons too. Consider.
Sino-Australian relations went into an obvious slide in 2018. A number of analysts in Australia as well as government officials began voicing concern about China’s growing influence in various sectors of Australian society and government. In November 2019, Channel 9 aired a report alleging that China was trying to infiltrate the Australian parliament. This report was picked up by other wire services like the Associated Press. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman rejected the report and the inquiry, saying some Australian politicians, institutions and media outlets had “reached a state of hysteria and extreme nervousness”. The situation grew worse with Australia speaking out loud about the rights situation in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Speaking about Hong Kong’s new security law, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that Australia had suspended the extradition treaty with Hong Kong. The Morrison government’s public criticism of China’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis, asking for an international inquiry into the virus’ origins and China’s disinformation campaign exacerbated tensions. The situation was further fuelled by Canberra’s references to Beijing’s muscle-flexing in South China Sea.
Result: Beijing decided to punish Australia. In November last year, China made public through Australia’s Channel 9 a list of reasons for Beijing’s sanctions against Australian exports. One Chinese official speaking to the Channel said, “Why should China care about Australia? If you make China the enemy, China will be the enemy.”
The Chinese list of reasons included:
Banning Huawei from the roll-out of 5G over “unfounded” national security concerns;
Foreign interference laws, “viewed as targeting China and in the absence of any evidence”;
Calls for an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus – “siding with the US’ anti-China campaign”;
Speaking out on the South China Sea;
Speaking out on human rights allegations in Xinjiang (described as “peddling lies”);
“Thinly veiled” allegations against China on cyber attacks which Beijing says lacks evidence;
New foreign relations laws which give the federal government power to veto state, or local government agreements with foreign governments.
China knows that no Australian government will be able to meet all these demands. So, why the push and the attended diplomatic and economic pressure? As Hugh White, an Australian professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University wrote, “China has never treated a country this way before.” White also pointed out that “this is the first time China has mounted such a sustained campaign of economic punishment against any country for so long across so many commodities.”
That’s correct. What’s new is that China is sending across a message not just to Australia, but other states in the region too: you are dealing with a regional hegemon. This is, as John Mearsheimer would point out, consistent with what the US has done in the Americas. In fact, the US has done much worse and far more ruthlessly. Put another way, it’s consistent with how great powers operate.
This goes back to the choice Australia is facing: choose between security and prosperity. The impact on Australian economy and exports to China is already showing. Just days ago, former Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop urged the Morrison government to “avoid tit-for-tat exchanges with Beijing.” She also stressed the economic importance of China for Australia and warned that it would be unwise to “unnecessarily offend our largest customer”.
But there’s more to China’s policy of pressuring Australia than just being angry. It is also a signal to the US and Washington’s tariff war with China. If the US really cares about its ally and wants to stand with it, it must negotiate with China. That has already happened. Speaking to The Sidney Morning Herald, Biden’s Indo-Pacific co-ordinator, Kurt Campbell, said: “We have made clear that the US is not prepared to improve relations in a bilateral and separate context at the same time that a close and dear ally is being subjected to a form of economic coercion.”
This works fine for Beijing. It has made its point with Australia. If the US wants to help Australia and not leave it alone on the field, it has to negotiate with China. China has much bigger stakes in those talks and if Australia can work as a piñata for China to get Washington’s attention, that serves Beijing’s interests well. And Australia cannot change its neighbourhood.
The issue of making a choice, however, does not go away. It may be delayed, but Australia, as also many other states, will have to make that choice. That is as inevitable as the inevitability of peer competition between the United States and China.
The writer is a former News Editor of The Friday Times. He tweets @ejazhaider