When President Donald Trump hosts Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the White House, the atmosphere will be exuberant. Two conservative political leaders who like each other can converse about winning elections in defiance of polls and conventional wisdom. But beneath the pomp of a second state dinner and the mateship between longstanding allies, there will be the silent discomfort of a major power cajoling its old friend to step up to the immense challenge posed by China.
Australia needs more “backbone.” The spinal reference emanated from U.S. Ambassador Arthur B. Culvahouse Jr., addressing hundreds of members of Australia’s security community gathered for an annual dinner last Thursday in Canberra. America’s envoy was pressing the Trump administration’s call for allies to stand up to China’s malign behavior through both tougher rhetoric and action. In early August, during the Australia-U.S. Ministerial (AUSMIN) Consultations in Sydney, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper quietly urged their counterparts to elevate their game to counter what amounts to a Chinese political warfare campaign.
Barely a month later, Culvahouse, the one-time country lawyer from Ten Mile, Tenn., told his local audience that, “Americans have more confidence in Australia than Australians have in itself.” In noting that Australia and Russia have economies roughly the same size, he stopped short of suggesting that the only difference between a middle power and a major power is its mindset and political will to act.
Questioning Aussie courage is throwing down the gauntlet. It’s akin to castigating America for shirking global responsibilities. While there may be elements of truth, the idea seems counterintuitive based on the historical record. After all, Australia has fought beside Americans in every war since the Boxer Rebellion, to include both World Wars, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the war in Afghanistan, the Iraq War, and the War on ISIL. Australia also stepped up in untold ways throughout the Cold War.
The last time the United States asked Australia to step up was over East Timor. In 1999, Washington pushed Canberra to lead an International Force East Timor peacekeeping mission to stabilize the newly independent territory on Indonesia’s southernmost island of Timor. Indonesian strongman Suharto had been ousted the year before, and the archipelagic country’s democratic reformation led to a violent parting with the people of East Timor. Australia ably took command, but only reluctantly.
Australia prefers to take the initiative free of pressure. In the past couple of years, Australia took action in a “Pacific step up,” redoubling engagement and investment in the South West Pacific. Last year, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade announced an Australian Fusion Center to enhance maritime domain awareness and a Pacific Island Security College to create a network of professionals who could better manage a myriad of threats such as illegal fishing, natural disasters and cybersecurity. Canberra and Washington are rebuilding a naval facility on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, and Australia is mobilizing resources for other economic, security and people-to-people programs to assist Pacific Island Nations.
These scattered islands face numerous problems: Only a few have viable economies, and all face climate change and geographical dispersion. But China’s attempt to co-opt island leaders through the inducement of Belt and Road initiative infrastructure financing and even less transparent means convinced Canberra that it had been too complacent about its own neighborhood.
This is welcome news in Washington. However, the fact is that the challenge transcends Australia’s backyard. There is a growing recognition that China is pursuing a regional and global struggle for strategic influence through all means short of force, and it is incumbent for like-minded countries to counter that campaign, deter war and forge resilient, adaptive democracies.
Even so, as Morrison meets Trump, he is fully prepared to demonstrate Australia’s political will. From Canberra’s perspective, it is not a lack of backbone, but rather dealing with the challenges of China’s economic clout as well as America’s spotty follow-through.
As the United States rightly calls for Australia to do more, it must be realistic. Australia’s population of 25 million is only a fraction of America’s. Moreover, the democratic powerhouse of the South Pacific depends on trade with China, a country that can cut off purchases of commodities in short order. Recall that even East Timor was seen as a big ask at the time.
For example, Australian officials are aware of their role as a supplier of strategic resources, and they know how Beijing can weaponize everything from tourists to rare-earth minerals. As a senior Morrison administration informed me, the prime minister has a proposal regarding strategic minerals, but it will require the White House to mobilize government and the private sectors to catalyze action.
Yet the long-term challenge of China’s political warfare campaign will require greater allied cooperation to balance security and economic growth. Washington and Canberra, and other like-minded allies and partners, will have to continue to step up in innovative and often arduous ways in the years ahead.