With China as its biggest trading partner and the US its key strategic partner, Canberra found itself in a difficult position during talks earlier this month in Sydney between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and their Australian counterparts.
Australia has shared concerns with the US about China’s destabilizing role in the region, but Australia does not like to say this too loudly to avoid offending China.
However, Pompeo had no such hesitation when describing US-Australia ties as “unbreakable.”
“Let me be clear — the United States is a Pacific nation. We care deeply about what happens here, and we’re here to stay,” Pompeo said.
He also lauded the Australian government’s “Pacific setup” against Chinese inroads into small island nations, which Australia regards as its backyard.
“We’re both concerned about China’s militarization of the South China Sea, both keeping an eye on [Chinese] investment [in Pacific island nations] that mires our friends in debt,” Pompeo said.
Even more importantly, Esper had reportedly supported placing intermediate-range missiles “in Asia,” possibly in response to China’s expanding military power in the region.
This followed the collapse of the US-Russian Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which did not apply to China.
Was Australia asked to host these missiles? After some confusion and wavering about where Canberra stood in the matter, it was ruled out in a roundabout way, with Australian Minister for Defence Linda Reynolds saying: “You would expect the US secretary of defense to canvass all those issues in light of what is happening in the Indo-Pacific, but I can confirm that he made no request.”
To apparently soften China’s reaction, Reynolds blandly asserted Canberra’s balanced relationship with the US and China, saying: “For Australia, it is not a matter of choice between the United States and China. When it comes to China, we have a strong and long-standing relationship, and with the United States, they remain our strongest ally.”
However Canberra might try to steer the course between the US and China, the latter is increasingly seen as a destabilizing force and hence a threat to Australia’s security.
In an article in the Sydney Morning Herald published on Thursday last week, Andrew Hastie, chair of the Australian Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, highlighted the dangers posed by an expansionist China, recounting some of the steps Australia has taken to safeguard against interference in its internal affairs.
“Right now our greatest vulnerability lies not in our infrastructure, but in our thinking. That intellectual failure makes us institutionally weak,” Hastie wrote.
“If we don’t understand the challenge ahead for our civil society, parliaments, universities, private enterprises, in our charities ... then choices will be made for us. Our sovereignty, our freedoms, will be diminished,” he added.
He likened Australia’s and the Western world’s failure to grasp China’s threat to Adolf Hitler’s Germany in the 1940.
“The next decade will test our democratic values, economy, alliances and our security like no other time in Australian history,” he said.
Of course, Hastie is not talking for the government, but he is chair of the parliamentary committee and reflects the views of important elements of the establishment.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has sought to play down Hastie’s commentary as one from a backbencher “entirely entitled” to own his views.
However, Australian Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton has defended Hastie, saying that as chair of the committee, Hastie is “privy to a lot of intelligence briefings that others aren’t.”
“There’s no sense pretending that there is nothing to see here” where China is concerned, he added.
Indeed, Australian media have been highlighting a complex web of Chinese activities through its agents of influence operating through opaque — and not so opaque — channels. In fact, it is so complex it would require separate examination.
Suffice it to say that China is seen as a serious security threat, going by the amount of media coverage.
Indeed, Australian academic Hugh White, who was formerly deputy secretary for strategy and intelligence in the Australian Department of Defence, this year wrote a book titled How to Defend Australia, in which he, among other things, advocates that Australia should consider having a debate about acquiring nuclear weapons.
It has not yet made much traction, but to even talk about it is indicative of Australia’s security predicament in the face of China’s strategy to expand its economic, political and security reach.
Sushil Seth is a commentator based in Australia.
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