One of Joe Biden’s most senior advisers says China is trying to “cut Australia out of the herd” but the diplomatic freeze and targeting of Australian exporters is only driving Canberra to deepen its ties with Washington.
Kurt Campbell, the White House coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, raised doubts about any imminent improvement in the relationship between China and Australia, saying he saw “a harshness” in Beijing’s approach “that appears unyielding”.
China has blocked ministerial-level talks with Australia for at least the past year, amid a souring of the relationship over a range of issues including the Morrison government’s early public calls for a Covid-19 inquiry and criticism of China over the crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong and human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
Over the past year, Beijing has rolled out tariffs and other trade actions against Australian export sectors including barley, wine, seafood and coal, and has argued the Australian government “bears full responsibility” for the breakdown in the relationship because it bears a “cold war mentality and ideological bias”.
Addressing a webinar organised by the Asia Society, Campbell said there were “a lot of theories about how China conceptualises Australia”.
“I think from our perspective, it looks at least [on] some level that there is an attempt to cut Australia out of the herd, and to try to see if they can effect Australia to completely change how it both sees itself and sees the world,” Campbell said late on Tuesday night Australian time.
Campbell said the US president and other top officials had tried to make clear “that we’re not going to leave Australia on the field – that’s just not going to happen”.
“And if anything what we’ve seen over the last six to eight months is a deepening, intensifying relationship between Canberra and Washington,” he said.
Campbell observed that the Morrison government and the Biden administration were “not completely like-minded governments” but had shared “a tremendous sense of common purpose” on the challenges they were facing in the region.
Campbell said the prime minister, Scott Morrison, had been “the leading supporter” of the Quad grouping – which also includes Japan and India – moving ahead with leader-level meetings for the first time this year.
Morrison had also encouraged the US to “substantially to step up our game, both in the Pacific and south-east Asia”.
The previous assumption in diplomatic circles was that China would rarely try to take on more than one big foreign policy challenge simultaneously, but that was no longer the case, according to Campbell.
China was now taking on many countries simultaneously, Campbell said, while engaging in “much greater assertive actions across the Taiwan Strait” and deploying “economic coercive actions against a number of states, most pointedly Australia”.
Campbell told the event he was not sure whether China had “the strategic thinking to go back to a different kind of diplomacy towards Australia right now”.
“I see little yield, and if anything, a rising sense of nationalism and a sense of aggrievement and a determination to continue to prosecute a various assertive case internationally across the board,” Campbell said.
Campbell asked Kevin Rudd, the former Australian prime minister and one of the moderators of the Asia Society event, whether he shared the view “that we were basically settling in for the long haul in terms of tensions between China and Australia”.
Rudd replied: “I spoke to a Chinese forum on Saturday and simply said I thought it was useful for both capitals – Beijing and Canberra – just to push the pause button for a few months, as far as the rhetoric is concerned, and see what can be done to re-stabilise.”
China’s foreign ministry questioned the strength of US support for Australia. The ministry seized on reports that US exporters were increasing their supply to China in some of the agricultural sectors where Australia has suffered from trade actions from Beijing.
“When a certain country acts as a cat’s paw for others, it is the people that pay for misguided government policies,” a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, said at a regular media conference on Tuesday.
Zhao said China would “not allow any country to reap benefits from doing business with China while groundlessly accusing and smearing China”.
A new source of tensions emerged on Tuesday when the Australian government denied undermining China’s plan to roll out Covid vaccines to Pacific countries after Beijing lashed Canberra’s purported “callous” and “irresponsible behaviour”.
Xi said anyone who tried to bully, oppress or subjugate China “will find themselves on a collision course with a steel wall forged by 1.4 billion people”.