Shaping the US approach to China and the rules-based international order
Ben Scott
Director, Australia’s Security and the Rules-Based Order Project

“Canberra should urge a more sophisticated and sustainable approach, drawing on America’s political and economic strengths, rather than its military weight, and be more inclusive of allies and partners.”

The US–China relationship is more adversarial and brittle than at any time since ties were normalised in 1979. Having claimed victory over COVID-19, Chinese President Xi Jinping has turned to subduing supposedly hostile ‘foreign forces’ on fronts from Hong Kong to India. Eager to shift blame for his failure to manage the pandemic, US President Donald Trump has injected increasingly confrontational rhetoric into Washington’s sporadically competitive China policy. The UN-centred order was built up to help manage great power tensions like these, but has shown itself to be battered and ineffective.

Canberra faces a particularly daunting challenge. It is deeply enmeshed with the United States — its longstanding security ally — but has China as its dominant trading partner. The continuing US–China escalation could, as well as weakening international cooperation against COVID-19 and its economic impact, see China further restricting Australian access to its markets. And, though US–China military conflict is still unlikely, the risks are growing. Any war would be especially catastrophic for our region.

To forestall escalation, Australia should pursue three broad lines of effort.

First, Canberra should engage Beijing diplomatically, while understanding that there is not much Australia can do to moderate China’s current threat perception.

Second, Australia should collaborate more with like-minded middle powers to salvage the rules-based order and increase cooperation. This work is well underway, but remains extremely difficult without US leadership.

Third, Australia should seek to shape Washington’s approach to China and the rules-based international order.

Australia wants the United States to balance Chinese power and deter Chinese coercion. Washington’s new bipartisan willingness to compete with China broadly accords with Australia’s interests.

But Canberra should urge a more sophisticated and sustainable approach. That would draw on America’s political and economic strengths, rather than its military weight, and be more inclusive of allies and partners. It would also balance competition on national security issues, with cooperation on matters such as health and mutually beneficial trade.

From Canberra’s perspective, the ideal US policy would be like Goldilocks’ perfect porridge — not too hot, not too cold. That’s a big ask, but still the best objective for Australia’s near-term efforts.

The US elections in November could open a window of opportunity for change. Admittedly, a Biden Administration would be domestically focused and may have little appetite for committing scarce resources to countering distant China. But those resource constraints could also compel America to compete with China in a smarter way.

A Biden Administration would be receptive to Australian views. Canberra has standing in Washington, especially on China. Australia has arguably accepted more risk to its China equities than any other country as it has hardened protections of its political life and communication networks, and has sought to investigate the origins of COVID-19.

Australia’s first goal should be inducing the next US government into a modified (and better-named) version of the CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership). This agreement embodies a more sophisticated, rules-based, approach to balancing China. The United States would clearly accrue economic benefits and, despite rising protectionist sentiment, Vice President Joe Biden has sounded more positive about this approach than the last Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton did. Still, Australia should work to make the deal more attractive. In the aftermath of COVID-19, existing signatories should be receptive to adding mechanisms for securing medical or other critical supply chains. That would also give the agreement new salience in Washington.

Australian leaders and diplomats should make these arguments soon, and do so more publicly than they ordinarily would in the lead-up to a US election. The stakes are high, as are Australia’s stocks in the wake of its successful COVID performance. But social distancing will preclude the discreet discussions of more normal times. So the time to speak up is now.