Caught in the middle

Australia has been walking a difficult line of late. Our largest trading partner is locked in a struggle with our ideological and military partner. China’s behaviour in Xinjiang and Hong Kong has earned it rebukes from the Australian government. China has responded with punitive tariffs against some Australian exports. Both parties have accused the other of espionage. The SCMP has a nice timeline here.


So it is with some interest I read Scott Morrison’s speech the UK think tank Policy Exchange. It is mostly a familiar restatement of liberal international values. There are calls for more mutually beneficial international cooperation. Morrison talked up the importance of international institutions as a way of managing conflict and creating positive sum benefits.

More interesting are the various passages where he attempts to reset China-Australia relations:

Australia desires an open, transparent and mutually beneficial relationship with China as our largest trading partner, where there are strong people-to-people ties, complementary economies and a shared interest especially in regional development and wellbeing, particularly in the emerging economies of Southeast Asia.

Equally we are absolutely committed to our enduring alliance with the United States, anchored in our shared worldview, liberal democratic values and market-based economic model.

Australia is not and has never been in the economic containment camp on China, no country has pulled more people out of poverty than China. And  Australia is pleased to have played our role in the economic emancipation of millions of Chinese through the development of the Chinese economy.

The global competition between China and the United States presents new challenges, especially for nation-states in the Indo-Pacific. Like other sovereign nations in the Indo-Pacific, our preference in Australia is not to be forced into any binary choices. 

Our actions are wrongly seen and interpreted by some only through the lens of the strategic competition between China and the United States. It’s as if Australia does not have its own unique interests or it’s own views as an independent sovereign state. This is just false. And worse it needlessly deteriorates relationships.

I see an olive branch to China.

The best case for Australia is clearly the one Morrison’s hopeful rhetoric lays out: that the superpowers will stop forcing binary choices on smaller powers, and international institutions obviate any serious conflict.

However, the speech reveals what happens if that breaks down – shared worldviews don’t create many jobs. Australia’s statement is directed at China, not the United States. It is an assurance to China that while sharing a worldview, values, and economic model with the US, we are not on “Team USA” in any strategic competition.

If, as looks likely, Biden’s administration continues to treat China as a strategic competitor, Australia might soon be asked to repeated again that: “our actions are wrongly seen and interpreted by some only through the lens of the strategic competition between China and the United States.

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