Australia takes lead in backing Trump on China as Europe dithers

Australia takes lead in backing Trump on China as Europe dithers

Joel Gerhke – The Washington Examiner – Thursday 07 May 2020

Australian leaders are taking a hard line with China despite the communist power’s economic influence Down Under, giving President Trump a forceful ally at a time when China’s financial influence has made it tougher to stand up to Beijing.

“It’s not worth sacrificing our national interests, and our sovereignty, and our values in order to preserve a trading relationship, because if you follow that to its logical conclusion, that is a path to being a vassal state,” Sen. James Paterson, a member of Australia’s center-right Liberal Party, told the Washington Examiner. “It is not a path to being an independent, proud country.”

That sentiment reflects Australian public opinion and the thinking of the political class, according to Paterson, the deputy chair of Australia’s select committee for responding to the coronavirus pandemic. It raises the possibility that the Western political incentives could shift in ways that blunt the wedge that China’s economic clout has driven between the United States and crucial European allies.

“No boycott or sanctions or trade disruption that China could impose upon us could be worse than what they’ve already done to the global economy by exporting the coronavirus around the world,” Paterson said. “They’ve already done the worst thing they could possibly do to the Australian economy.”

That frustration has emboldened Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to lead a call for an international review of how the contagion emerged in China and spread around the world, as well as the World Health Organization’s much-maligned acceptance of Chinese Communist claims about the crisis. Chinese officials responded with thinly veiled threats of economic retaliation conveyed by newly aggressive “wolf warrior” Chinese diplomats.

“The Chinese are overreacting, I think — the wolf warrior stuff, some of that is an overreaction,” the Heritage Foundation’s Dean Cheng, a senior analyst in the conservative think tank’s Asian studies center, told the Washington Examiner. “The Chinese have got a lot more in the way of subtlety available to them, and I would not [assume that] while they screw up now, they would screw up consistently in the future.”

Though Europe has mostly avoided the tough stances against China advocated by Trump or has sought to wait until the crisis passes before making decisions, there has been some movement there too toward the president’s position. British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab emphasized recently that “there’s no doubt we can’t have business as usual [with China] after this crisis.” And the European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, also acknowledged that European officials have been “naive” about China’s willingness to flout international norms.

“I’m heartened by this newfound realism,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday in reference to Borrell’s comment. “The free nations of the world are starting to understand that China doesn’t share those democratic values that we hold dear or their economic interests and that this matters to the entire world.”

Trump’s allies hope to capitalize on this geopolitical moment in the just-launched trade negotiations with the United Kingdom, on the theory that a deal could be “the tip of the spear in pushing back China’s attempts to co-opt Europe.” And some British lawmakers, including Foreign Affairs Chairman Tom Tugendhat, have renewed their efforts to convince Prime Minister Boris Johnson to ban Huawei from the U.K.’s 5G wireless telecommunication networks.

Still, it’s not certain that the pandemic will drive Western leaders into Trump’s arms. Prominent EU and European officials have stopped short of aligning with the Trump administration in recent weeks, and the economic calamity brought by the coronavirus might make economic partnership with China all the more tempting.

“When you’re the second-largest economy in the world, you can say and do a lot of things, and a lot of people will basically be unhappy, and feel you’re obnoxious, etc, and then still go along with you at the end of the day,” Cheng said. “At the end of the day, when the Chinese are floating contracts, post-COVID, when the Chinese are offering to build your 5G network at a third of the price, post-COVID, are you really so sure that, ‘Oh, of course, we won’t do that.’”

In Australia, Paterson believes, the answer will be clear. And if Chinese officials carry out their threats, Canberra has economic weapons of its own, in the form of the natural gas, coal, and iron ore that China imports from the Australians.

“Although Australia is dependent on China, China is dependent on Australia as well,” the senator said. “It would be very difficult for them to replace those imports from any other country easily. … And they’re crucial inputs to the Chinese economy, particularly if the Chinese economy wants to rebound on the other side of this crisis.”

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