The Trump administration has invited Australia and all the countries of the free world to join a great campaign. Including, quite possibly, a war.

Top US officials have given a series of stern speeches on China, culminating in a battle cry for freedom by the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, late last week: “Today China is increasingly authoritarian at home, and more aggressive in its hostility to freedom everywhere else. And President Trump has said: enough.”

US-China relations have plunged since Donald Trump and Xi Jinping met at the G20 in June last year.
US-China relations have plunged since Donald Trump and Xi Jinping met at the G20 in June last year.CREDIT:THE NEW YORK TIMES

The speech was designed to be a historic one. Pompeo delivered it at the birthplace and library of Richard Nixon, the former president. It was Nixon who began the era of US engagement with China in 1972. The point of Pompeo’s speech was to end it.

“If we want to have a free 21st century, and not the Chinese century of which Xi Jinping dreams, the old paradigm of blind engagement with China simply won’t get it done. We must not continue it and we must not return to it.”

He offered US policy on the South China Sea as an example: “We reversed, two weeks ago, eight years of cheek-turning with respect to international law in the South China Sea.”

It was a reference to a US statement that rejected as “unlawful” China’s claims to huge swathes of the sea. Pompeo called for action. He didn’t explicitly call for the overthrow of the Chinese Communist Party’s rule. The call was there, nonetheless: “We, the freedom-loving nations of the world, must induce China to change,” said Pompeo. “We must induce China to change in more creative and assertive ways.”

And he claimed to be acting on behalf of other countries. Including the people of Australia: “I have faith. I have faith because of the awakening I see among other nations that know we can’t go back to the past in the same way that we do here in America. I’ve heard this from Brussels, to Sydney, to Hanoi.”

In fact, Pompeo demanded that countries pick a side. “The division,” he said, “is between freedom and tyranny. I think that’s the decision that we’re asking each of these nations to make.” What should Australia reply to this invitation from Trump’s America?

Australian ministers are in the US now. Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds are to meet Pompeo and US Defence Secretary Mark Esper late on Tuesday night, Australian time, for the annual AUSMIN consultations.

Australia would agree with Pompeo’s portrayal of Xi Jinping’s regime as authoritarian at home and increasingly hostile to freedom elsewhere. That’s not news.

Illustration: Andrew Dyson
Illustration: Andrew DysonCREDIT:

But there is a big difference between describing a problem and prescribing a solution. The first fatal flaw of Pompeo’s speech is that he glides seamlessly, illogically from one to the other – as if the only and inevitable response to China’s authoritarianism were regime change.

The US was unable to achieve regime change in poor, weak Iraq. Even with Britain and Australia joining the invasion. What makes Pompeo think the US can achieve it in a near-peer, nuclear-armed competitor such as China?

Payne and Reynolds should make it plain that Australia has picked a side – the side of freedom. But that Australia is rising to the China challenge by defending liberty at home, not by advancing adventurism and aggression abroad.

Indeed, Australia should embrace a full work program of measures to protect its democracy from Xi’s efforts at influence and interference. The Morrison government has only just started to enforce its foreign interference laws – the investigation into NSW Labor politician Shaoquett Moselmane is its first such effort.

Other vital measures await. These include tightening Australia’s absurdly ramshackle political donations laws, introducing security screening for new MPs and senators, and developing a national resilience agenda.

Australia’s vulnerability to China for critical medical supplies has been newly exposed, for instance. So, too, its over-reliance on China as an export market.

The Australian ministers should also let their US counterparts know that while Canberra will continue to defend freedom of navigation and the rule of law in the international waters of the South China Sea, it will not support the US in any new recklessness or any effort to pick a fight there.

But will Australia miss a tremendous opportunity if it doesn’t fulsomely support the new US confrontation of China?

Pompeo said in his speech: “The timing is perfect. It’s time for free nations to act.”

But why is the timing perfect? Australia, Japan, India, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and others would have welcomed a tougher US stance in the South China Sea years ago. Barack Obama proved ineffectual in deterring China’s maritime territorial ambitions. And what has Trump been doing? He’s spent the past three years trying to cut trade deals with China, sometimes at Australia’s expense.

His former national security adviser, John Bolton, tells us that Trump asked Xi for help with his re-election by buying US farm produce. At the same time, Trump endorsed Xi’s mass incarceration of the Uighur minority in concentration camps.

Now that Trump has given up hope that a China trade deal will help him get re-elected, it seems he’s decided a China confrontation might do the trick instead. The timing is perfect because it’s 100 days to the presidential election.

Pompeo portrays the clash with China as a struggle for freedom against tyranny. Yet Trump was prepared to trade the Uighurs’ freedom for soybean sales. And we have seen him often siding with tyranny’s champions such as Putin and Xi.

Pompeo is inviting Australia to join a great campaign, yes, but it’s not one of principle or strategy. It’s a political campaign. The campaign for the re-election of Donald Trump.

Payne and Reynolds should continue the Australian policy of co-operating with the US on areas of mutual interest. And politely resist the invitation to join one US candidate’s election campaign.

Even if we did, we could never be sure that Trump wouldn’t cut some secret deal with Xi and leave Australia out in the cold.

What’s the point of protecting Australia’s sovereignty against China only to yield it to Donald Trump’s latest quixotic enthusiasm?

Peter Hartcher is international editor.