You have to wonder what Joe Biden, Xi Jinping and Cook Islands’ Mark Brown make of prime minister Albanese’s combined visits to them in the last three weeks.
Looked at individually, each visit makes sense. But the problem is that, unlike the pre-internet days, what our leader does and says in one place is immediately transmitted to the other places – and jarring differences and gaps become nastily noticeable. That’s what’s happened here.
In Washington, Mr Albanese projected the aura of a true partner, saying ‘above all – in these challenging times, I stand here in Washington as the leader of America’s steadfast ally. That’s what the friendship between our nations means.’
Mr Albanese spent his time with president Biden urging him to act quickly to change US law to allow Australia to get US Navy Virginia Class submarines, and pressing Congress to agree to billions of additional US dollars going into submarine production to support the AUKUS deal.
He managed to avoid having to explain why Australia isn’t acting with this same urgency on our own AUKUS ‘must dos’ – like the new submarine base and waste repository. And how AUKUS plus the rest of our Defence Force is possibly affordable at a little over 2 per cent of our GDP, with fractional increases backloaded into future decades as our military’s current capabilities get fragile. Hard to explain to a restive American public and Congress spending 3.5 per cent of its wealth on its own and our collective defence.
And he signed up to working with America to reducing dependency on supply chains out of China for critical minerals – part of the US, EU and every other advanced economy’s efforts to de-risk from China’s economy. Australia failing to secure a free trade agreement with the EU makes a coherent multilateral approach harder.
The context isn’t just that the Chinese government uses trade as a weapon, it’s the growing surveillance and risk of arrests faced by foreign businesses and executives in China under Xi, combined with the outflow of foreign investment because of these risks.
The Washington leg of his journey had a couple of shadows.
In an echo of the surprise 2015 decision to grant the original lease without mentioning it to our allies, Mr Albanese announced just before arriving that Darwin Port would remain in the control of a Chinese company. American and Australian forces will have to continue to use everywhere but the best port in our key northern harbour. The media release also noted that the outcome meant ‘ensuring that Australia remains a competitive destination for foreign [read Chinese] investment’.
And the much reduced military support package for Ukraine Mr Albanese unveiled while in Washington – $20 million, down from the $110 million package announced back in June – will only have made Joe Biden’s work to support Ukraine harder. It will have empowered isolationist voices in the Republican Party who want America to end its support. They were busily rejecting Biden’s request for another $US61 billion for Ukraine’s military and will be delighted to point to an ally who seems already to be moving to the exit.
Overall, though a reasonably successful bilateral visit. Until the Beijing leg.
Again, judged on bilateral terms, getting leader level dialogue with Xi Jinping resumed is a win. And ending trade blocks on wine and lobster will cheer up particular companies and feed some happy wealthy Chinese people.
But there wasn’t a whiff of the steadfast ally and advanced economy reducing dependency on China’s that we saw displayed in Washington. The opposite.
Aside from the euphoric actual meeting with Xi Jinping in the footsteps of Whitlam’s meeting with Mao, the visit was all about mainlining new trade with China as quickly as possible. De-risking was left behind in Washington. Quiet talking points about difficult issues were left for Penny Wong to deliver for the record in side meetings.
Pressed on whether Australian businesses should be cautious about trade with China, Mr Albanese said ‘Well, I think all countries are seeking to diversify their trade, but we encourage positive relation…So, there are wins to be had.’ He was delighted to note with Don Farrell that over 250 Australian businesses at Shanghai’s trade expo were ‘showcasing all the wonderful things Australia has to offer.’
He left after being congratulated by Xi’s regime for returning Australia’s China policy to ‘the right path’, with Chinese state media full of Premier Li’s line about his photo out jogging: ‘People were saying that we have a handsome boy coming from Australia’.
Then it was off to the Pacific Island Forum meeting, hosted by Cook Islands prime minister Brown. Australia’s position on climate change dominated the talks. But Pacific Island leaders who were expecting to be cautioned about too close economic engagement with China must be feeling mystified after watching Mr Albanese in Beijing.
It’s almost impossible to see these leaders and their governments able to do more than chuckle and look up the spelling of hypocrisy should Mr Albanese and his team seek to raise the risks of growing their relationships with Beijing as Mr Sogavare is doing in the Solomon Islands.
Joining the dots, the collected bilateral engagements add up to a very confused set of strategic messages.
We risk looking like we see America as our insurance policy against trouble, with the US meeting the bills and our own contributions on AfterPay, meanwhile viewing Xi’s China as a risk free cash cow. All while confirming to the most cynical of South Pacific people that we aren’t to be taken all that seriously.
Some credible strategic coherence would be welcome.
This article was first published in The Australian.