Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds were invited to travel to the US this week to meet face-to-face with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Minister Mark Esper. In what was clearly a follow-up to recent speeches on China by the Americans, Payne firmly declined to join Pompeo in in his call for regime change in China.
Speaking at the post-talks stand-up, Payne was asked a direct question by Nick Schifrin of PBS Newshour regarding Pompeo’s Nixon Center speech:
another aspect of that speech was the admonition to help the Chinese people change the Chinese Government. Do you think that is possible and/or wise?
In response, Payne commented:
rather than I think make individual comments on the Secretary’s speech – Secretary’s speeches are his own; Australia’s positions are our own.
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.
Payne’s remarks were widely interpreted in Australian media as a refusal to join in the coalition of the unwilling that Pompeo had called for at the conclusion of his Nixon Center speech. Strategic Studies Professor Hugh White outlined the nature of this request:
But last week Pompeo made a major speech in California which must have sounded alarm bells in Canberra. It called for a new alliance of democracies which would aim not just to curtail China’s growing influence, but to fundamentally “change China”.
“If the free world doesn’t fundamentally change” the way it deals with China, he said, “Communist China will surely change us”. It was crystal clear that he had in mind nothing less than the removal of the Chinese Communist Party as the government of China.
This is scary stuff. Scarier still, Pompeo blithely assured his audience that this would be easy.
You can’t get any worse form of interference in another country’s affairs than attempted regime change. Pompeo is calling for the Chinese people to rise up against their government with the support of the United States. Hong Kong has been the test ground, to which the Chinese government, legitimately in my opinion, has now called a halt.
However Payne did go on to say without being specific that the Australian government will work with the United States to counter harmful disinformation. It would be more helpful in my view if Australia did its bit to counter rampant US disinformation.
Defense Ministers dodged a question as to whether Australia would allow the US to position intermediate range ballistic missiles in Australia, but did announce there would be a US-funded strategic fuel reserve at Darwin so it might see nuclear-capable bombers based there. They will also work together on hypersonics, and as US Defense Minister Mark Esper said “the full range of capabilities.”
It was mildly ironic that both US and Australia agreed to help other countries with managing the Covid virus.
We can be grateful that Australia has not joined – so far as Hugh White remarked – the US regime-change coalition, but that does not reduce all of the risks for New Zealand.
We need to maintain our independence too as agents for peace, and continued friendly relations with China.