29 July 2020 — Indian Punchline
The Asian chancelleries have a great deal to mull over after the extraordinary joint press conference by the US and Australia following the AUSMIN meeting of their foreign and defence ministers in Washington, DC, on July 28. It is improbable that the Ministry of External Affairs in South Block missed out on the event.
How can a joint press conference become ‘extraordinary’? Simply put, when its timing and contents are conjoined at the hips, making them inseparable and, most importantly, when it brings out geopolitical fault lines for the benefit of the discerning eye and leads to reflection over the realms of possibility that one hadn’t suspected.
And in this case, it also happens that the joint press conference involved two countries that they themselves and the world at large tend to describe as an “Unbreakable Alliance.” The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pointedly recalled the uniqueness of the situation by singling out that “not many” of his counterparts would subject themselves to a 14-day quarantine when they get back home on account of a travel to the US where a pandemic is raging, simply for having an “important conversation.”
The setting for the AUSMIN meeting was prepared by Pompeo personally with his much-touted alliance-of-democracies speech at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in California on July 23. The content of that speech was highlighted in its Churchillian title, Communist China and the Free World’s Future.
Without doubt, Pompeo meant it as his “Iron Curtain Speech” which would survive the Trump presidency. Most certainly, the former Kansas senator intends to hark back to it if the flame of burning desire in his heart to become the 50th president of the United States of America doesn’t get extinguished by the cold wind of the realities of American politics by the time the 2024 election approaches.
Evidently, Pompeo saw himself as a man of history uniting the world community against China. He exhorted:
“If we bend the knee now, our children’s children may be at the mercy of the Chinese Communist Party, whose actions are the primary challenge today in the free world. General Secretary Xi is not destined to tyrannise inside and outside of China forever, unless we allow it. Now, this isn’t about containment. Don’t buy that. It’s about a complex new challenge that we’ve never faced before. The USSR was closed off from the free world. Communist China is already within our borders.”
However, the world at large would know Pompeo is no Churchill. His California speech has already generated much embarrassment within America — including among Nixon’s admirers — and quite visibly so among the US’ close allies, including, as it appears, Australia.
Thus, in the presence of Pompeo, Australian FM Marise Payne chose to set the record straight. From all appearance, it was a premeditated move on her part, as Payne was reading out a written statement. When asked about Pompeo’s Iron Curtain speech at California, Payne responded:
“Secretary’s speeches [on China] are his own; Australia’s positions are our own. And we operate, as you would expect, on the basis of our shared values, actually, which are reflected in both the approach of the United States and the approach of Australia.
“But most importantly from our perspective, we make our own decisions, our own judgments in the Australian national interest and about upholding our security, our prosperity, and our values.
“So we deal with China in the same way. We have a strong economic engagement, other engagement, and it works in the interests of both countries.
“That said, of course, we don’t agree on everything. We are very different countries. We are very different systems, and it’s the points on which we disagree that we should be able to articulate in a mature and sensible way and advance, as I said, our interests and our values.
“As my prime minister put it recently, the relationship that we have with China is important, and we have no intention of injuring it, but nor do we intend to do things that are contrary to our interests, and that is the premise from which we begin.”
This bordered on public admonition at the level of a seasoned politician and diplomat but it was timely and even overdue. In his Iron Speech Pompeo needlessly pushed the envelope and refused to pay heed to the gently warning from the US’ closest ally, the United Kingdom, just 3 days earlier that as America’s top diplomat he is perilously close to making the Trump administration’s foreign policy look surreal by caricaturing the planet as a flat place like the Kansas prairies.
In a statement at the House of Commons on July 20, this was how Foreign Secretary Dominic Rabb framed the UK’s outlook on the relations with China as such, even as his government crosses swords with Beijing’s approach to the situation in Hong Kong, which of course used to be a British colony:
“Thank you Mr Speaker. With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement updating the House on the latest developments with respect to China and in particular Hong Kong.
“As I told the House on the 1st of July, the UK wants a positive relationship with China. China has undergone an extraordinary transformation in recent decades. Grounded in one of the world’s ancient cultures, not only is China the world’s second largest economy, it has a huge base in tech and science.
“The UK government recognises China’s remarkable success in raising millions of its own people out of poverty. China is also the world’s biggest investor in renewable technology, so it will be an essential global partner when it comes to tackling global climate change, and the Chinese people travel, study and work all over the world, making an extraordinary contribution.
“So, Mr Speaker, let me be really clear about this. We want to work with China. There is enormous scope for positive, constructive, engagement. There are wide-ranging opportunities, from increasing trade, to cooperation in tackling climate change as I’ve said, in particular with a view to the COP 26 summit next year which the UK will of course be hosting.”
Pompeo’s legacy on the diplomatic stage as the Trump administration’s foreign policies enter the lame duck period is dismal as it is. Indeed, the Trump presidency has cut the US adrift as a long ranger in the wilderness with whom friends and partners are increasingly chary of associating.
True, the international community has disagreements with some of Beijing’s domestic and foreign policies. But here too, it is a mixed picture. For, no one in his senses would say China is undermining the world order. On the contrary, it fault lies in being a stakeholder who did phenomenally well to optimally perform. Traders are status quoists, and a great trading nation such as China cannot be otherwise.
What China has achieved under the leadership of the Communist Party has no parallels in human history — lifting hundreds of millions of people above poverty level in a timeline of a couple of decades. As of 2018, the number of people living below China’s national poverty line of 2,300 yuan per year (in 2010 constant prices) was 16.6 million in a population exceeding 1400000 million, which translates to 1.7% of the population — which also the CCP is pledged to totally eradicate by 2020.
What is the corresponding picture in the US? Millions of people are moving in the opposite direction, turning to food banks, turning up for work due to a lack of sick pay and dying because of health inequalities. Joseph Stiglitz said recently with despair, “It is like a third world country.” He estimated that 14% of the American population is dependent on food stamps and the country is on course for a second Great Depression. Yet, Stiglitz added, “If we (US) had the right policy structure in place we could avoid it easily.” What is this “free-world” business Pompeo is talking about?
In the entire press conference in Washington yesterday, Australian FM Payne did not once mention the “Wuhan virus” or the Chinese Communist Party, leave lone call “General Secretary Xi” by name. (Nor did Australian defence minister Linda Reynolds who spoke after Payne.)
Now, Australia’s differences with China are galore and need no iteration. But it has gingerly retraced its steps from the initial abrasive posturing by PM Scott Morrison, a great friend of President Trump, when he took centre stage over the “Wuhan virus.”
A combination of circumstances is at work today, thanks to the belated realisation in Canberra that Morrison stepped out of line to please his friend, whereas, Australia which owes its prosperity significantly to China should not bind the hand that feeds it; Australia’s loss by annoying China will be other countries’ gain and never China’s net loss; the US global leadership no longer appeals to the world community, including America’s traditional allies.
Australia cannot be unaware that Pompeo’s tirade against the CCP or “General Secretary Xi” may not even be representing Trump’s thinking — and, more importantly, its shelf life is even less if there is going to be a transfer of power in the White House on coming January 21. Payne carefully measured the quintessence of the US-Australia partnership:
“Australia and the United States’ strong and enduring relationship is built on our shared values. It’s built on our resolute belief in the rule of law, a respect for human rights, our promotion of gender equality, our protection of freedoms of religion and belief. It’s built on the fact that we are both strong, liberal democracies that cherish freedom of expression and diversity of opinion. And it’s built on our confidence in making decisions in our interests.”
From the above, conceivably, Australia would have far more in common with a Joe Biden administration than with Trump. Payne’s statement was almost entirely devoted to the Covid-19 pandemic in the Asia-Pacific, which she called a “crisis” in terms of its health, economic and security challenges. Payne reminded the Trump administration, “The role of multilateral institutions is more important now than ever in supporting our values and our strategic objectives as the world responds to the health and economic challenges of COVID-19.”
The highlight of the press conference came toward the end when an Australian correspondent, Amelia Adams with Nine Network went on to ask:
“Secretary Pompeo, if I could start with you, there’s a lot of concern in Australia about the growing rift between your administration and China. As you know, Australia is very dependent on China. Should Australians be concerned about the long-term consequences of the breakdown in relations between your two countries for our regional security? And perhaps, Minister Payne, if you could talk to the same question after the Secretary.”
The plucky journalist put the bombastic US state secretary in a tight corner. He waffled. Nonetheless, Payne didn’t let the opportunity pass. She responded in Pompeo’s hearing:
“Amelia, I think in part I answered the question in response to the question from our first representative this afternoon, but from Australia’s perspective, let me reiterate that we make our own decisions. We do that based on our values — many of which are shared values, overwhelmingly — but most importantly, in Australia’s national interest. We do often hold common positions with the United States because we do share so many of those fundamental values, and we both want the same kind of region: We want it to be secure, we want it to be stable, we want it to be free, we want it to be prosperous.”
Payne went on to describe the AUSMIN platform as about “the alignment of the broad perspectives of Australia and the United States on global and regional issues,” which of course “includes our discussions in relation to China. It includes our discussions in relation to COVID-19 response and recovery.”
Having said that, Payne repeated, “We have, I think, a demonstrable track record of making decisions based on our own interests… We don’t agree on everything, though, and that’s part of a respectful relationship.”
Why did the two brave Australian stateswomen decide to circumnavigate the world and journey to the US where deaths from Covid-19 rose for a third week in a row to more than 6,300 people in the seven days ended July 26, and the virus even entered the White House to infect Trump’s National Security Advisor — and, when even Payne and Reynold’s male counterparts don’t dare to travel to Washington, DC?
Couldn’t the AUSMIN meeting have been deferred? The answer is simple: Canberra wanted to convey to the world community that Australian policies should not be confused with Pompeo’s evangelical mission.
Australia is watching in disbelief that despite the discord over Hong Kong, Britain still welcomes Chinese students to go its universities for higher studies, and that Britain’s stance on 5G remains highly ambivalent still, and the US’ European allies are manifestly marking distance from Washington.
Above all, Canberra wants Beijing to sense that it intends to pursue a China policy that is far from an American clone, and that it is interested in chartering an independent trajectory toward crafting a mutually beneficial relationship despite all differences.