When asked during his joint press conference alongside Anthony Albanese about the latter’s meeting with Xi Jinping next week, Joe Biden gave our Prime Minister some friendly but blunt advice: trust but verify.
Trust but verify is, of course, a deliberate contradiction in terms. But make no mistake: Biden is issuing a clear warning to our PM that China’s motivations are never straightforward and it shouldn’t be trusted when it comes to delivering on its promises. The phrase is not new, either. It was popularised by Ronald Reagan during disarmament talks with the former Soviet Union, and was earlier used by Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin – two men who never took anyone at their word.
In the past, Biden’s aides have implicitly used the excuse of advancing age to walk back some of the President’s comments.
His advice to Albanese was clear and his comments will not be walked back on this occasion; this is because there are genuine US concerns the Albanese government is vulnerable to the strategic and diplomatic traps set out by China as it seeks to thaw relations.
To be clear, Biden is not worried Albanese is about to fundamentally change Australia’s strategic direction from one of countering and restraining the most dangerous elements of Chinese policy. On winning government, Albanese was quick to affirm his support for core initiatives, such as AUKUS and to advance the country’s interests (often at China’s expense) in East Asia and the Pacific.
Instead, the US anxiety is regarding several related aspects of the Albanese approach to China. The first, in the name of stabilisation, is the tendency of the Albanese government to always try to reduce the diplomatic temperature with China – an overcorrection from the Scott Morrison era. Diplomatic calm is, prima facie, preferable to turmoil. To achieve the former, the government’s preference is to frame Australian policy as supporting the existing rules-based order rather than us choosing a side in the global competition between a US-led coalition on the one hand and China on the other.
Let’s consider this preferred framing. The problem here is that supporting the rules-based order will often require confrontation, particularly when China is brazenly undermining that order.
For example, there was disenchantment among some of our allies, including the US, when Australia suspended the cases against China in the World Trade Organisation on behalf of our barley and wine exporters. Instead, the government opted for a bilateral negotiation with China. Nineteen countries joined the Australian action on wine restrictions while 13 joined the barley case. China desperately wanted Australia to drop the WTO actions.
Beijing’s method for normalizing coercive and illegitimate actions – often before it seeks “stabilization” as a gesture of grace and friendship – is antithetical to the rules-based order. In suspending these cases and seeking bilateral negotiations, Beijing suffers no economic or institutional injury; its indiscretions are not formally assessed against or punished through existing rules. That Australia appears almost grateful to China for lifting its trade tariffs (which were coercive and illegitimate in the first place) has likely annoyed the White House.
Another cause for US concern is a perception that Australia is more prepared to swim within China’s strategic and diplomatic lanes. One of the things that enraged Beijing during the Turnbull and Morrison governments was the tendency for Australia to not just call out coercive Chinese behaviour but to persuade other countries to adopt Australian positions, which negatively affected Chinese interests.
This might even be described as middle-power activism. Hence, Australia taking the lead in demanding China abide by the 2016 arbitration decision that invalidated many of China’s claims in the South China Sea, urging others to exclude Chinese firms from their 5G networks, or championing the importance of outlawing Chinese foreign interference in one’s domestic institutions were consistently raised by Beijing as reasons why Australia had to be punished.
But that was then. Contemporary issues of high importance include the extent to which Australia is willing to argue against China’s membership of the CPTPP trade pact (which is a no-brainer), as well as Taiwan’s ascension to it. China is encouraging Australia to refrain from lobbying against its application and doing nothing to advance Taiwan’s. But that would leave Japan, our most important partner in Asia, isolated.
Swimming within China’s preferred lanes also includes minimal commentary about human rights abuses and playing down the issue of the urgency of deterring China from using force in Northeast Asia, even though this is what much of the AUKUS Pillar Two initiative is about.
Beijing also wants Australia to cease rallying countries to oppose Chinese attempts to dominate global bodies such as the various specialized agencies in the United Nations pertaining to geopolitically important areas such as development, health, human rights, intellectual property rights and aviation.
This is the motivation behind Beijing’s resetting of bilateral relations with Australia and the reason it offered Albanese the first leaders’ meeting since 2016. It also explains the US President’s candid warning.