AUSTRALIAN Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s state visit to Washington later this week is a rare honour — the first for an Australian leader since John Howard in 2006 and only the second, behind French President Emmanuel Macron, granted by this administration. That is a mark of Morrison’s early success in connecting with Trump, a leader not normally known for his acoustic sensibility to close allies.
The visit will undoubtedly give a symbolic flourish to the recent description by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of the US–Australia alliance as ‘unbreakable’. But the Prime Minister’s visit comes at a poignant time for his government’s management of Australian foreign policy. The truism that Canberra can maintain its delicate traversal of the diplomatic tightrope between Washington and Beijing is under genuine test.
One view is that Trump will demand a heavy price for the pageantry by demanding Australia choose America over China. That might be the kind of grandstanding that some equate with Trump, but it is unlikely. In any case, Pompeo’s recent remarks in Sydney — both on the manner of China’s rise and where Australia’s priorities ought to lie — have already done Trump’s dirty work. By raising the possible pre-positioning of US missiles on Australian soil, Pompeo lobbed a rather large stone indelicately into the Australian pond.
For Trump, it will probably suffice that Morrison has expressed sympathy for what the United States is trying to correct in its trade war with China, on holding China to account for how it operates within the international trading system, albeit in language that has little resonance in East Asia and undermines Australian and Asian interests in defence of the global trade rules against Trump’s own assault on them.
Just how much Washington has taken note of the different language Morrison uses on China is less clear. His government has not endorsed the US National Security Strategy’s definition of China as a ‘strategic competitor’, and Morrison consistently eschews the hot talk of a Cold War-style containment policy. The assumptions on which Australia’s China policy are based, expressed most clearly in Morrison’s Asialink speech in June, are antithetical to those held by this US administration. What must Washington insiders think of the Australian leader referring to both the United States and China as Canberra’s ‘great and powerful friends’?
The visit gives Morrison an opportunity to expand on Australia’s position to Trump and a range of figures in Washington. He might also seize the occasion to make the case for why Australia and other US allies would like to see more of an American shoulder put to the diplomatic wheel in Southeast Asia in a way that comprehends the region’s economic security interests. He can reinforce to the President and his advisers the benefits to the region of an engaged and committed United States.
That’s quite different, and much more subtle, than the idea Morrison should go lecturing Washington with a cowboy ‘stand and deliver’ type message that Australia’s support is conditional on America coming up with a viable Asia policy. US presidents generally do not take kindly to ultimatums.
Morrison may consider, though, ladling a little less rhetorical syrup over the US–Australia relationship and this President — one who has so disfigured the character of American political life since his election and done so little to assuage doubts over American resolve and international public purpose. Misty-eyed sentiment seems to come so easily to Australian leaders amid the gleaming white columns of the US capital, but it counts for little when it comes to the hard realities of respective national interests in Asia and globally.
That’s all the more reason to be careful in making assumptions about where US China policy will settle. Writing in The Australian Financial Review last week, Hugh White assumed that the American debate on this question is over. And while current trends on both sides of the political aisle in Washington suggest that America is tumbling headlong down the path of a full-blown, Cold War containment-style policy, it is still too soon to make that call.
The United States is in the throes of relinquishing one of its most cherished myths about China — the notion that Beijing’s entry to the international economic system would lead eventually to political liberalisation. To suggest that the United States is ready to listen to an argument about accommodation with China is, at this stage, a tall order.
To do so — for America to accept that China has legitimate claims to regional and global hegemony — would for many in Washington be the equivalent of denying the very essence of what defines them as American: their exceptionalism. ‘When one is a great power’, once quipped Charles De Gaulle, ‘one does not accept resistance’. America itself is in the midst of coming to terms with the implications of China’s rise for its deeply inscribed beliefs about its world role. The challenge is for Australia to be constructive and strategic in the process.
Before Trump was elected, Henry Kissinger observed that ‘Cold War American exceptionalism is gone’ and that the idea of the country as a shining city on the hill was weakening. An appropriate adaptation, he added, was to be a ‘principal task of the new administration’. If the hardliners in Washington have their way, the new American exceptionalism for the 21st Century will be defined by the containment of China.
That outcome wouldn’t be in Australia’s interests. At the G20 meeting in Biarritz last month, Morrison warned of the dangers of seeing US–China tensions only through the prism of ‘malevolent intent’, and pointed to the risks of this becoming a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’. That is precisely the kind of argument America needs to hear from its Australian ally at this moment.
James Curran is Professor of Modern History at the University of Sydney.
This article is republished from East Asia Forum under a Creative Commons licence.