Home World America As China-US tensions escalate, Australia is in a bind

As China-US tensions escalate, Australia is in a bind

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In a place where weasel words often pass muster, the most powerful intelligence officials in the world delivered a message to the United States Congress in clear, concise terms — China is a threat to America.

Instances of military aggression, cyberattacks, bullying of smaller neighbours and attempts to interfere in western politics were referenced.

Director of National Security Dan Coats declared “a lot” of China’s recent remarkable technological advancements had been driven “by stealing information”.

His FBI counterpart, Christopher Wray, was asked if China poses “the most significant counterintelligence threat” America has faced.

He replied:

“The Chinese counterintelligence threat is more deep, more diverse, more vexing, more challenging, more comprehensive and more concerning than any counterintelligence threat I can think of.”

The comments received broad bipartisan support in Congress.

They came just a day after sweeping criminal charges against Chinese technology giant Huawei and its chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, were unveiled.

Taken together, they are a sign of just how much the ground has shifted in recent years.

America’s intelligence community is confronting China head on.

Australia must navigate carefully

Middle powers, like Canada and Australia, are also deeply alarmed by some of Beijing’s behaviour and have agreed their approach needs to change.

But for both, China is a vital trading partner.

For both, the United States is the most important military ally.

Both also have citizens currently held in China, seemingly on spurious charges. (In Canada’s case this almost certainly seems punishment for angering Beijing.)

And both are slightly wary of a transactional US President, who has a history of making sudden deals and at times has appeared to treat close allies with disdain.

“We knew this day would come,” said David Mulroney, who served as Canada’s ambassador to Beijing between 2009 and 2012.

“The United States may not be as reliable a partner as it has always been. Australia and Canada are going to have to navigate their own way more and more.

“Australia is ahead of Canada on this.”

Publicly, government ministers in both nations continue to speak cautiously about the deepening diplomatic tensions.

This week delivered one clear example.

Only hours after intelligence chiefs gave their blunt assessments, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne held a press conference in a neighbouring Senate office building in Washington.

Asked specifically about China and the threat posed by Huawei, she talked in broad, guarded terms about the importance of “protecting Australia’s national interests and security”.

How to deal with an assertive China?

There are many deeply disputed parts of the US-China relationship, like trade.

Key talks have taken place in Washington this week and some sort of deal should eventually be reached.

But tensions over technology now seem set to be a permanent fixture.

America has been urging allies around the world to block Huawei from building 5G networks.

A recent report in the New York Times suggested some Trump officials believed they were involved in a new arms race to dominate the cutting-edge IT world.

Cyberattacks now pose just as much danger to national security as many conventional weapons — the internet is becoming as vital to our modern lives as electricity.

The current Huawei case may make a rupture in the global telecommunications market inevitable with countries divided by their use of Chinese or western critical infrastructure.

Safety in numbers

In years past, some countries that have spoken out about China’s actions — on a wide variety of issues — have been left to deal with Beijing’s wrath on their own.

Norway, for example, found itself in the freezer after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to jailed democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo.

But some foreign-policy experts believe like-minded nations should be speaking out together and swapping notes about their run-ins with the Chinese leadership, even if the United States is not always involved.

“They get nervous when multiple serious countries say the same thing, though they won’t admit that publicly,” Mr Mulroney said.

“And that’s where President Xi is probably most vulnerable.

“As powerful as he is, he’s vulnerable to the accusation that he’s pushed too hard, too far, too fast and that there is a backlash growing from countries that China tends to respect.”

Of course, warnings about Chinese intentions, theft and spying are not new.

This diplomatic storm between the world’s two largest economies has been building for a long time, though it now threatens to escalate significantly.

Smaller, yet influential, countries like Canada, Britain, Sweden and many others will need to weather it in a world that seems increasingly less friendly.

But Australia is probably the most exposed.

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