top of page

Friends like these

Under Joe Biden, Misha Zelinsky asserts, America wants to deepen relationships with its friends, but what does this mean for Australian foreign policy?

Joe Biden’s administration has made enormous changes at home. Starting with fiscal spending not seen since FDR, to a proper rollout of vaccines and getting serious on climate change; Biden has all but upended the Trump legacy, such as it was, in the first one hundred days of his presidency.

However, there is one issue Biden has carried over from Trump – China. And this will have enormous implications for Australia.

Morning in America

One of the least appreciated shifts that occurred during the Trump era was the US body politic’s attitude to China. Easy to miss amongst the chaos of late-night Tweets and despicable conduct, was the clear-eyed view in Washington that the US had got it wrong on China. Gone was the optimistic, long-held view that China would first become rich and then gradually more democratic and socially liberal. Hard realism belatedly took over as the US woke up to the totalitarian dragon on its doorstep.

In a country that can’t agree on much, Democrats and Republicans are utterly united – Chinese strategic engagement is out, and strategic competition is in. In fact, had Hillary Clinton been elected in 2016 it’s quite possible that her administration would have gone even further in challenging some of Xi Jinping’s gambits around the world. Irrespective of who controls the White House, big power competition is back. For a middle power country like Australia uncomfortably wedged between the two great powers of our age, this has enormous implications.

But while Biden has maintained – and arguably hardened – the United States’ resolve to treat China as a strategic competitor there has been a return to mean in respect to foreign policy predictability. That is, the goal remains the same, but the tactics and strategy have shifted significantly none more so than in alliance management.

Trump was fixated on addressing China’s trade surplus with the US. In fact, Trump made it clear to Xi he was prepared to effectively sell out long standing allies – including Australia – if it meant cutting a more favourable trade deal as part of his ‘America First’ isolationist approach. Under Biden, the US has declared it will compete with China across the board in the traditional spaces such as economy, diplomacy and military as well as emerging areas such as biotech, information warfare, AI and space. Biden has however made it clear that unlike Trump, he will keep his friends close.

Falling out of love

Australians are not surprised that the US has awoken to the China challenge. In fact, some might ask what has taken so long. It goes without saying that Australia’s relationship with the Chinese Communist Party is not in a good state. The descent has been as quick has it has been steep. Thus, like any bad relationship the question is – who changed? Starting with Gough Whitlam, ramping up with Hawke and flying through the Howard, Rudd and Gillard years Australia fell in love with the possibilities of China and geared up for a prosperous and peaceful ‘Asian Century’.

For a long time, it looked like Australia could have its cake and eat it too – as John Howard put it ‘not having to choose’ – when it came to its defence alliance with the US and its booming trading relationship with China. Since the middle of last decade, Australia’s stance has started to shift. Discomfit with the Chinese Communist Party increasingly worrisome behaviour in our region and indeed within our own country has manifested into a series of discrete policy shifts designed to protect our security and sovereignty.

As China has increasingly revealed itself as a domestic totalitarian state with global ambitions, Australia has responded with policies designed to secure and safeguard itself from the reach of that ambition. Each of those shifts has increasingly displeased the CCP and meant a gradual erosion in the bilateral relationship. This has culminated in billions of dollars of CCP trade sanctions on key Australian exports and the formal ending of the Strategic Dialogue – a signature Gillard Government achievement. Australia is being punished for its choices. So how did we get here? Firstly, Australia seeks no quarrel with China.

In fact, Australia amongst all western nations was perhaps most forward leaning in seeking to engage with China. We saw the benefits of a rising China and hoped it would become more like us as we welcomed them into the world. Partly because of its virtue and partly because the alternative is so unthinkable, the ‘peaceful rise’ doctrine was so widely and tightly held that Australian policy makers continued to believe in it even as the evidence mounted against it.

The stone-cold truth is that China, under Xi Jinping, has changed – just not in the way we hoped – and with it has Australia’s attitude and policy settings. The choice we were told we could avoid has been made for us. It is perhaps the closeness of our relationship that has given us the wakeup call faster than other nations. We’ve seen the very real changes from Xi Jinping as he pursues his ‘China Dream’ – a revisionist world view that places China and its omnipotent and omnipresent Chinese Communist Party at the centre of the world’s affairs with all other nations acquiescent to the regime’s benevolence. Or else.

Given many of these problems have arisen under the terms of the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison Governments, it makes political sense to sheet blame to the Liberals for ‘mishandling’ a critical bilateral relationship or getting the tone wrong on their watch. While tone is absolutely critical in foreign policy, unfortunately this view is both factually wrong and, in the long run, counterproductive to Labor’s prospects of winning government.

Firstly, Abbott doubled down on the status quo ‘Howard formula’ by pursuing the China free trade agreement, overseeing the sale of the Darwin Port all while trying to buy submarines from China’s historic rival, Japan. Abbott was PM for Xi’s historic address to both houses of the Australian Parliament, even lauding Xi’s alleged commitment that China “would be fully democratic by 2050.” Turnbull – a China booster before getting the top job – began making some of the harder calls as the facts became clear while Morrison has continued the course charted during that time with bipartisan support from Labor.

This has culminated in the famous ’14 grievances’ tabled by the CCP as it sought to blame Australia for the collapse in bilateral relations. Assessing China’s list of issues with Australia should give pause to those who think there’s a way to return to the cosy old Howard formula.

The list of grievances includes Australia’s enacting of foreign interference laws, the banning Huawei from the 5G network, government funding for “anti-China” research at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, raids on Chinese journalists and academic visa cancellations, “spearheading a crusade” in multilateral forums on China’s affairs in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang, criticism from Australia’s free press, calling for an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19, and blocking Chinese foreign investment deals across infrastructure, agriculture and other strategic sectors.

Those who somehow believe the challenge in the relationship is ‘tonal’ must answer – what would you give up from that list? Furthermore, are we to honestly believe that if we more politely put forward our case for the banning of Huawei or instituting strong foreign interference laws that all would be apples? Australians expect their politicians to be honest with them about these challenges.

Public polling shows Aussies to well ahead of the political class when it comes to assessing the risks posed by an assertive CCP – they want a rational, clear eyed debate about how we handle this global challenge. As national security comes roaring back into the political arena as a ‘ready for governing’ test, Labor ignores their concerns at its peril.

Strength in numbers

For a nation heavily dependent on alliances, globally agreed rules and highly advanced defence capability – and the United States underwriting of all three – America’s return to the geopolitical field as multilateral player is extremely welcome for Australia. But that doesn’t mean the path ahead will be easy. The days of smooth sailing in foreign policy are regrettably gone. The choices ahead are sharp.

Whether deliberate or negligent, Trump’s behaviour had the US on track to destroy one of America’s principal and unique advantages – its global system of alliances. These alliances have been built up over several generations since World War Two and paid for in both US blood and treasure. While they’re a US asset, they’re core to the interests of nations like Australia. Via its China strategy, Biden’s America is resuscitating an idea that is as time tested for nations and workers – there is strength and protection in numbers.

This strategy is good for smaller nations that cannot function in a ‘might is right’ world and also for the US superpower who rightly worries about squaring off with China one on one. China fears this system of American friends and allies almost above all else. Maybe one day China can hope to knock Uncle Sam off the perch as top dog (analysts differ here) – but the CCP absolutely knows it can’t take on everyone at once. So, while Trump’s instincts told him China was a threat to America, his worse instincts lead him to pursue that challenge in a counterproductive way.

Through his own brand of manoa-mano political machismo he set aside America’s global role as team captain, in favour of bilateral negotiations. Trump’s approach ironically played right into the hands of Xi Jinping, whose CCP has long preferred to pick off nations one on one in unfair fights. As CCP representatives repeatedly point out – ‘China is a big country and other countries are small countries; and that’s a fact.’ In pursuing its alliance strategy, Joe Biden’s team would rightly have expected that there would be a lot of lost ground to make up over what felt like a very long four years.

But what’s stark is that despite the blundering, boorish behaviour of the Trump Whitehouse, the world did not leap into the waiting arms of Xi Jinping’s China. The CCP saw a US weakened by the GFC, fatigued by decades of war in the Middle East, tearing itself apart under Trump and retreating from global leadership as a superpower in terminal decline and wrongly believed its time had come. Xi decided to drop Deng Xiaoping’s dictum of ‘hide your strength, bide your time’ and start playing hardball with those around it.

With the US out of the game, the CCP would be free to project its own values onto the world as nations submitted to the inevitable, one by one. The CCP badly miscalculated. Despite a free shot at global leadership during the Trump era, its devolving to so-called ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy has left it with almost no allies and a couple of rogue client states like North Korea.

The strategy has even sent fervent US critics running back to Uncle Sam’s protection. As Turnbull said in a recent interview on my ‘Diplomates’ podcast, “China is defeating China”. Nations fearful of CCP ideology and bullying practically begged the US to get its head back in the game of geopolitics. Biden’s election was celebrated far beyond the shores of the US.

The choices ahead

CCP representatives warn us that “if China is treated an enemy, it will become an enemy.” This is undoubtedly true. China is not our enemy and we do not seek it to be. Australia and its allies should be extremely careful about following some fatalistic view that conflict with a CCP ruled China is inevitable. It is not, nor is it desirable. Fatalism as much as anything else drew the world into the horrors of World War One and we should do everything to actively avoid that destructive outcome. Words do matter in foreign policy, and any loose talk of ‘drums of war’ is dangerous and – to be clear – is biting off far more than Australia can chew. As a middle power our job we can shape but not determine the final outcome of major events. But the CCP would be wise to reflect on why the world is suddenly so worried about it.

The Chinese proverb that ‘a good neighbour is a priceless treasure’ is instructive. None of us want to be here. There is still time to course correct. Given we now know that Communist China under Xi will not become more like the free and democratic world but will instead seek to make the world more like itself, there are some serious questions we must ask ourselves and answer honestly.

Are we comfortable with a world run and shaped by CCP totalitarian ideology? Are there human rights abuses we are prepared to ignore in the name of good relations? At what point and to what extent are we prepared to suffer economic pain to stand up for our values or principles? Who agrees with our world view and who doesn’t?

“Ignoring these questions does not make them go away any more than disliking some of the answers they invoke.”

In the absence of a shift in policy from Xi and the CPP, there is regrettably no way back to ‘no choice’ Howardism. We should never stop encouraging this shift, but we must operate and prepare in the reality it is unlikely. Given these challenges, Labor must adopt policy principles that are adaptive to the fast-moving environment while providing strong ideological guideposts that make our direction methodical and predictable.

1. No bullshit – Labor must be honest, direct and calm about the behaviour we are seeing, the policy choices ahead and the risks posed. We mustn’t be alarmist or provocative, but Aussies are already onto it and using weasel words or skirting around the issues will be rightly punished.

2. No surprises and reciprocity – Likewise, we should be clear with the CCP what the rules of engagement are and where our red lines exist. There should be no surprises when decisions get made in Australia that would never be considered in China. For example, it is hard to imagine China allowing Americans to build their 5G network.

3. No politics – We should avoid domestic politicking or point scoring but lean into policy areas that are overlooked or under done by the Morrison Government. Sovereign capability is a glaring area of national weakness exposed by the pandemic that Labor could punch holes in. Rebuilding our industrial capability is an economic narrative of hope Australians in all parts of the country could get around. Hugging more tightly and making more use of our amazing Chinese-Australian diaspora is another.

4. Find areas of collaboration with China – We need to keep working with China and where possible reward and further encourage its constructive global leadership. Climate change is an obvious area where interests align while joint humanitarian aid efforts should be actively sought.

5. Don’t get out ahead of our skis – Australia has bravely led the way on some big calls on China policy, but there is value in coordination. Maurise Payne announcing Australia’s call for an investigation into COVID-19 origins on the ABC’s Insiders program is one example of an unnecessary leading with the chin on delivery rather than substance. Stirring up emotions won’t get us anywhere good.

6. Touch one touch all – Unionists around the world know the power of the ‘touch one touch all’ maxim and the power of unity. Working closely with our democratic friends is critical to building pressure on the CCP and will also make it harder for the regime to single out nations for retaliation in the manner Australia is experiencing. The CCP will try to assert such behaviour encirclement or criticism as racist, which is why a deepening of ties with India, Japan, South Korea and Indonesia is so critical. In foreign policy you should choose your values and then choose your friends – Asian and Indo-Pacific democracies should become our best friends.

“No generation seeks the challenges that land on its doorstep. Navigating these successfully will take nothing less than Labor’s very best.”


bottom of page