Australia will not be deputy sheriff in US-China tensions, Morrison declares

By Rob Harris and Anthony Galloway

November 23, 2020 — 8.00pm

Prime Minister Scott Morrison says Australia’s pursuit of its national interests on the world stage has been wrongly interpreted as siding with the United States over China, declaring his government will not make a “binary choice” between the superpowers.

In fresh attempts to thaw the frosty relationship between Canberra and Beijing, Mr Morrison used a speech to a British think tank to declare the most significant geopolitical challenge of the future would be dealing with the complexities of tensions between the world’s largest economic and military powers.

PM Scott Morrison: "We are not, and have never been, in the economic containment camp on China."
PM Scott Morrison: “We are not, and have never been, in the economic containment camp on China.”CREDIT:JOE ARMAO

Mr Morrison said it was wrong to describe the strategic competition between Washington and Beijing as a new Cold War, with the world no longer divided into two blocs with their own economic realm.

He said Australia’s relationships were made more complex by assumptions about Canberra’s actions such as raids on Chinese journalists and academic visa cancellations, calling for an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19, banning Huawei from the nation’s 5G network in 2018 and blocking 10 Chinese foreign investment deals across infrastructure and agriculture.Advertisement

In return, China has escalated its diplomatic rhetoric towards Australia, with verbal instructions to state-linked traders to stop importing products. The trade strikes on up to a dozen products including wine, beef, barley, timber, lobster and coal now threaten $20 billion of Australian exports.


Prime Minister Scott Morrison
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“Our actions are wrongly seen and interpreted by some only through the lens of the strategic competition between China and the United States,” Mr Morrison told Policy Exchange on Monday night as he accepted the inaugural Grotius Prize for his work in support of the international rules-based order.

“It’s as if Australia does not have its own unique interests or views as an independent sovereign state. This is false and needlessly deteriorates relationships.”

His comments will be seen as a stark shift away from the Trump administration’s trade wars with Beijing and its harsh rhetoric, which was viewed by China as an attempt to contain its economic development.

“We are not, and have never been, in the economic containment camp on China,” he said.

Fresh from his second G20 summit since taking office, Mr Morrison told the virtual event that Australia desired an “open, transparent and mutually beneficial relationship” with China, its largest trading partner, and a shared interest in regional development and wellbeing. Video

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The Prime Minister says he will not back down over an explosive dossier listing Beijing’s problems with Australia.

“Equally we are absolutely committed to our enduring alliance with the United States, anchored in our shared world view, liberal democratic values and market-based economic model,” he said.

“Pursuing these interests in the midst of strategic competition between the United States and China is not straightforward. It is made more complex by the assumptions cast on Australia’s actions.

“Like other sovereign nations in the Indo-Pacific, our preference is not to be forced into binary choices.”


Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers an address to the opening ceremony of the China International Import Expo in Novemner
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‘If you make China the enemy, China will be the enemy’: Beijing’s fresh threat to Australia

He said more nuanced appreciation of individual states’ interests would be critical to how they dealt with the major powers, with stark choices “in no-one’s interests”.

“Greater latitude will be required from the world’s largest powers to accommodate the individual interests of their partners and allies. We all need a bit more room to move,” he said.

“Our international institutions also have an important role to play as circuit breakers. To provide the space and frameworks for meaningful and positive interaction to be maintained, as a bulwark against any emerging divide.”

While the Chinese government mouthpiece Global Times has accused Australia of being the US’s “deputy-sheriff”, Mr Morrison’s speech will not be the first time this year Canberra has attempted to differentiate itself from the US in its increasingly tense stand-off with Beijing.

In July, Foreign Minister Marise Payne declined to echo US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s strident rhetoric on Beijing, saying “the secretary’s positions are his own. Australia’s position is our own”.

While US President-elect Joe Biden has signalled he will maintain a strong stance against Beijing, his likely new secretary of state, Tony Blinken, has spoken of the importance of communication and co-operation between the two nations.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson praised Mr Morrison for “sticking up for things that both the UK and Australia believe in together and believe in passionately: our common security, our principles, our belief in democracy, in fundamental freedoms, in the rules based international system”.

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Rob Harris
Rob Harris

Rob Harris is the National Affairs Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra

Anthony Galloway
Anthony Galloway

Anthony is foreign affairs and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.0

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