Ahmed Ibrahim, Edith Cowan University and Paul Haskell-Dowland, Edith Cowan UniversityOver the past few years, tensions have been rising between Russia and the United States — not in conventional military terms, but in cyberspace. The issue came to a head at this month’s summit in Geneva, when US President Joe Biden threatened reprisals over allegedly Russian-backed cyber-attacks on US targets.
This confrontation first rose to global attention in 2016, when the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reported Russia had directly influenced the outcome of the presidential election, favouring the Republican candidate Donald Trump by hacking and leaking 60,000 emails from the private account of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign director.
Then, in 2020, a major cyber attack on IT firm SolarWinds compromised the security of a wide range of US government and industry entities, including the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security.
Trump administration Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held Russia responsible for the incident, although Trump himself went against the consensus, seeking to downplay the attack and blame China instead.
Microsoft president Brad Smith described it as the “largest and most sophisticated attack the world has ever seen”. Microsoft began investigating the attack after many of its customers were caught up in it, including major tech companies and federal agencies.
Russia denied any involvement in the SolarWinds incident, publicly rejecting what it described as “unfounded attempts of the US media to blame Russia for hacker attacks on US governmental bodies”.
The attack was ultimately attributed to a cyber-criminal group called Nobelium, which has continued to be active and allegedly perpetrated a series of cyber-attacks earlier this year, although there is no clear evidence it did so with Kremlin backing.
Fuel pipelines and black angus steak
That was followed last month by an attack on meat processor JBS, shutting down parts of its operations in the US, Canada and Australia, and severely disrupting global meat supplies. This time the FBI pointed the finger at REvil, another profitable Russian-based cyber-criminal group.
In both of these cases, the victims reportedly paid ransoms to resume their operations. While this is expensive and arguably encourages future attacks, disruptions in operations can be even more costly.
The FBI claims to have recovered more than US$2 million of the ransom paid by the Colonial Pipeline Company.
A few weeks before the Colonial Pipeline attack, the Biden administration imposed economic sanctions on Russia over its cyber-meddling in US elections. But the US has now understandably made combating ransomware attacks its top priority.
Does the US engage in similar activities?
The US is certainly known for its cyber-offensive capabilities. Perhaps the most widely reported engagement was the 2010 Stuxnet attack on Iran’s nuclear program.
In 2015, the US Cyber Command and National Security Agency successfully hacked key members of ISIS, while the following year Wikileaks revealed the CIA had developed a powerful suite of hacking tools.
The US has both the capability and the motivation to conduct extensive cyber-infiltration of its adversaries.
At this month’s US-Russia summit in Geneva, Biden talked about establishing cyber-norms and declaring certain critical infrastructure as off-limits.
This list identified 16 sectors that should be excluded from offensive action, including government facilities, IT systems, energy infrastructure, and food and agriculture — all four of which have come under suspected Russian-backed attack in recent years.
Some cyber-security advocates have criticised US strategies in recent years as being too weak. Biden’s comments at the Geneva summit seem to be an attempt to strike a firmer tone.
So is this the start of a cyber-war?
Cyberspace is considered the fifth domain for warfare, after land, sea, air and space. But the truth is that IT systems are now so ubiquitous that they are also firmly embedded in the four other domains too, meaning a successful cyber attack can weaken an enemy in many kinds of ways.
This in turn can make it hard to even define what counts as an offensive act of cyber-war, let alone identify the aggressor.
Although the Kremlin continues to deny any association with cyber-criminal gangs such as DarkSide or REvil, Russia nevertheless stands accused of giving them safe harbour.
How do we stop global cyber attacks?
The recent Ransomware Task Force report specifically attempted to address the issue of ransomware. But it also offers useful advice for countering state-backed cyber-crime. It recommends:
- coordinated, international diplomatic and law-enforcement efforts to confront cyber-threats
- establishing relevant agencies to manage cyber incidents
- internationally coordinated efforts to establish frameworks to help organisations that are subject to cyber-attacks.
Successfully stamping out international cyber-attacks will be tremendously hard, and is ultimately only achievable with good diplomacy, trust, cooperation and communication.
While global superpowers continue to sponsor cyber-attacks on foreign shores while decrying attacks against their own assets, all we end up with is the virtual equivalent of mutually assured destruction.
Canberra policymakers will be conducting a root-and-branch reassessment of Australia’s foreign policy following Donald Trump’s defeat in the US presidential election and ahead of an incoming Democrat administration.
Top of the list of items for review will be a leaden-footed China policy. Chinese trade reprisals for perceived Australian slights are doing real harm to Australia’s economic interests.
However, there are other areas of concern that demand attention in anticipation of Joe Biden’s presidency.
High on this agenda will be Middle East policy, which has suffered from the Trump administration’s transactional approach to a region in which America surrendered its traditional “honest broker” role in favour of an “Israel-first” approach.
US Secretary of State-designate Antony Blinken might say, as he did at a Hudson Institute event earlier this year, that “I think we would be doing less not more in the Middle East”.
However, in the world’s most volatile region, history shows this aspiration is easier said than realised. Successive US administrations have endeavoured to pull back from the Middle East. Circumstances conspire to make this difficult.
From an Australian perspective, a Biden administration will inevitably shift the tone of America’s responses to Middle East challenges. This includes attitudes to the Palestinians.
Biden will not be showing the same tolerance for Israel’s settlement expansion as his predecessor, nor would he countenance unilateral Israeli annexation of territories under occupation.
The new administration will return to a two-state formula in its approach to Middle East peacemaking. This is a phrase that was sidelined during the Trump administration.
Canberra policymakers will need to be agile as these shifts work their way through American Middle East policy, which will be less ideological and more focused on what might be described as core principles.
These principles will involve greater emphasis on human rights. This is not good news for serial human rights-abusing countries such as Saudi Arabia, or Israel in its treatment of the Palestinians, for that matter.
Climate issues will weigh, too. This will be awkward for laggards on climate like Saudi Arabia.
A Biden administration can also be expected to take a less tolerant view of inroads Russia and Turkey have made in the Middle East. Both countries have factored themselves into regional calculations in ways not apparent when Biden served as vice-president in the Obama administration.
Moscow and Ankara are now significant regional players down into the Gulf and west to North Africa in their extraterritorial meddling in fractured states such as Libya.
Regional architecture is vastly more complex and, if possible, more challenging than it was four years ago.
This brings us, inevitably, to Iran.
Biden has made clear that among his early foreign policy priorities will be to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA) signed in 2015 by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany and the European Union.
An agreement to forestall an Iranian acquisition of a nuclear capability was the crowning foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration.
Trump irresponsibly abandoned the JCPOA in 2018.
In a September 13 essay on CNN.com, Biden said:
If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations.
In the process, the US would lift crippling oil sanctions imposed by Trump. These have done considerable damage to Iran’s economy.
However, debate on rejoining the JCPOA without concessions from Iran will be fraught.
A Biden administration would come under considerable pressure to renegotiate aspects of the JCPOA after rejoining. This would include an extension of the original 15-year moratorium on Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear device.
US negotiators would be expected to pressure Iran to wind back its support for regional proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and the Palestinian territories.
Washington would also seek to curb Iran’s exports of precision guided missiles to allies in the region and further afield.
Tehran has said such issues would not be on the table in the event of a renegotiated JCPOA. These are highly complex matters.
What does make sense are indications a Biden administration would seek to involve other interested parties in a renegotiated JCPOA.
Biden’s foreign policy team has been talking about adding regional players like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This would certainly help address nuclear proliferation concerns.
In an interview with the New York Times this month, Biden warned of the risks of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East involving Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey in the event that Iran acquires a breakout nuclear capability.
The last goddam thing we need in that part of the world is a build-up of nuclear capability.
Canberra will not have issues with this approach.
Australia’s response to the Trump administration’s abandonment of the JCPOA was cautious. The government conducted a review of Australia’s support and then quietly shelved any objections it might have had.
In any case, Australia hardly rates as anything more than a bystander, albeit one that has maintained diplomatic representation in Tehran since the days of the shah.
This has been useful, as was demonstrated recently by the role Australia’s ambassador in Tehran played in the release of Australian-UK researcher Kylie Moore-Gilbert from a two-year incarceration.
With Australia’s trading relationship with China so stressed, further developing existing markets and seeking new opportunities will be a preoccupation.
While Australia’s trade with the Middle East is relatively small, it is significant. Two-way trade with the region, mostly in the Gulf, amounts to about 2.5% of total trade. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are the most prospective markets for Australian goods and services.
The Gulf region is also home to four of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds. At A$11 billion, the UAE’s investment in Australia is worth noting.
An Australian review of Middle East policy will inevitably involve assessments of what a Biden administration will mean for Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan.
The Trump administration has announced it will draw down its troop presence from the current 4,500 to 2,500 by early 2021. This follows a “peace agreement” with the Taliban struck in February.
Biden has been agnostic on Afghanistan. He was a dissenting voice in the Obama administration against a surge in troops in 2008-2009, but lost that argument.
He is thought likely to favour retaining a small, residual counter-terrorism force in Afghanistan. On his record, he would be most reluctant to increase numbers.
In Australia’s case, its combat troops have long gone. It retains a small training contingent with the Afghan army. This is likely to remain the case under present circumstances.
Finally, in October, Canberra made an important decision about its role in the Middle East. This received little attention at the time.
Defence Minister Linda Reynolds announced Australia would end its naval presence in the Gulf, where the navy had been conducting patrols.
As part of its 2020 Defence Strategic Update, Reynolds said “an increasingly challenging strategic environment” was “placing greater demand on ADF resources closer to home”.
Given China’s continued rise, that would seem to be an understatement.
Back in March, Joe Biden lamented “the international system that the United States so carefully constructed is coming apart at the seams”.
“As president,” he declared, “I will take immediate steps to renew US democracy and alliances, protect the United States’ economic future, and once more have America lead the world.”
Among the closest allies of the US, none arguably has more at stake in Biden making good on his promises than Australia.
The international system Australia wants repaired is one defined by rules and consensus. As a middle-ranking power, it has long recognised its national interests are best protected by international agreements and the rule of law, rather than one in which might makes right.
At the heart of Australia’s desired international trade system are multilateral trade deals, rather than bilateral deals which tend to favour the stronger nation, and a strong international authority – namely the World Trade Organisation – to negotiate rules and adjudicate disputes.
Donald Trump’s presidency undermined both. His “America First”
polices were grounded in grievances about other nations playing the US for “suckers”. He obstructed the WTO, turned his back on multilateral deals and started trade wars.
A Biden presidency promises a return to multilateralism. But it remains to be seen how it approaches the WTO.
Trump’s war on multilateralism
As president, Trump rapidly undid decades of mutilateral trade negotiations.
In his first week in office he withdrew the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the multilateral trade deal intended to strengthen economic ties between Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Singapore, Peru, Vietnam and the US. (The agreement was modified and signed without the US as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.)
Trump’s trade war with China was also an exercise in power over principle. Both the escalating tariffs and the truce struck in January, known as the “Phase One Agreement”, repudiated established free-trade principles.
Along with commitments to reduce “structural barriers”, China is required to buy an extra US$200 billion in specified American goods and services over two years in return for the US cutting tariffs on $US110 billion in Chinese imports.
This worries Australian exporters.
The US shopping list for China includes more American seafood, grain, wine, fruit, meat and energy – all markets in which Australia is a significant exporter to China. As former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd asked at the time the deal was signed:
How can the US pursue another $US32 billion of American beef, wheat, cotton and seafood – all listed in the agreement – without Australian exporters becoming collateral damage?
The deal, as the Minerals Council of Australia rightly noted, undermined “the principles of free trade which have underpinned Australia’s bipartisan approach to trade policy for many decades”.
Blocking the World Trade Organisation
The Trump administration has also continued the slow strangulation of the World Trade Organisation, on the grounds it doesn’t serve American interests.
The US has blocked every recent appointment and reappointment to the WTO’s Appellate Body, which hears appeals to WTO adjudications. Appointments require the agreement of all of the WTO’s 164 member nations, and the Appellate Body requires three judges to hear appeals. US obstruction reduced the number of judges to just one by December 2019, meaning it simply cannot function.
It’s important to note that US antagonism to the WTO predated Trump. The Obama administration also blocked appointments it considered would not sufficiently represent US preferences. But the Trump administration certainly upped the obstructionism.
Indeed, just days before the 2020 election it blocked the appointment of former Nigerian finance minister Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to head the World Trade Organisation. A highly regarded development economist with a 25-year career at the World Bank, Okonjo-Iweala is widely considered to be an outstanding candidate to lead the WTO. The United States stood alone in objecting to her appointment.
What will change under Biden?
Dropping opposition to Okonjo-Iweala and other appointments so the WTO’s processes can function would be an important symbolic and practical first step for Biden. It would reassure Australia and others that global rules still matter.
How quickly, and on what terms, Biden returns the US to multilateralism remains to be seen.
He has acknowledged the importance of deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership to ensure an increasingly powerful China “doesn’t write the rules of the road for the world”. But he has also pledged to not enter any more international agreements “until we have made major investments in our workers and infrastructure”.
For Australia – and other US allies – it is important that the US return to the multilateral negotiating table sooner rather than later. For global stability, long-term interests need to override the temptation of short-term expediency.
For “America to lead again” there’s a long and difficult diplomatic road ahead. The international trade system and the WTO are not perfect, but a world without rules would be far worse.
The election of Joe Biden represents not only a repudiation of Donald Trump and his divisiveness, but an embrace of centrism and a mainstream approach to government and policy.
On the global stage, as at home, Biden is likely to follow a familiar script. Most obviously, he will embrace America’s alliances and strengthen its engagement with multilateral institutions. Rhetorically at least, he will give human rights and democracy a much more prominent role in Washington’s approach to the world.
In short, he is likely to pursue a global role much more in line with how the US has acted globally since the end of the Cold War. While it might be tempting to assume Biden will run foreign policy as a continuation of the Obama administration, there will be some points of continuity but also key changes. And some very significant challenges will remain.
Asia, and particularly China, in focus
One area of continuity, with both Obama and Trump, will be the centrality of Asia to US global strategy. This is in part for the same reasons his predecessors made the region a priority: it will be the most consequential part of the world for decades to come. But it is also because stretched US finances will mean the country will be unable to sustain a significant European presence or the kinds of policies it has pursued in the Middle East.
For Obama, the “pivot” to Asia was a choice about where to focus efforts. For Biden, the scarcity of resources will focus the mind on Asia. It will also mean a scaling back of US activity in those other theatres.
The biggest foreign policy question facing Biden will be how to approach the People’s Republic of China. Under Trump, the US moved toward a posture, on paper at any rate, of full-spectrum strategic competition. The 2017 National Security Strategy described China as intent on eroding Washington’s global advantage, and the US would reorient the instruments of national power to contest that effort.
In practice, Trump’s China policy was incoherent and inconsistent. Trump himself pursued a peculiar relationship with Xi Jinping, even allegedly encouraging the herding of millions of Uyghurs into concentration camps.
Biden is unlikely to move US China policy back to its “engage but hedge” setting of previous years – the mood in the US has hardened decisively, and not only because of Trump. However, the way the US competes with China is likely to change and there will be a need for co-operation. Biden won’t wind back the trade conflict significantly and moves to delink the two economies will continue, particularly in high-technology areas.
The US will continue to work to limit China’s ambitions to change Asia’s regional order, but it is likely to try to build on some areas of common interest to improve co-operation. The aim will be to advance their shared goals on that issue but also mitigate against the more damaging consequences of geopolitical competition.
This is most like to occur in relation to climate change. The Biden administration will put a very high premium on this vast threat and to advance that agenda meaningfully will require collaboration with China. So expect a more moderated approach to competition with the PRC but not an end to contestation in the region.
… and North Korea, too
North Korea was the scene of Trump’s most high-profile foreign policy gambit. While nuclear testing has stopped, it is increasingly clear that, in spite of protestations to the contrary from the president’s Twitter account, North Korea has a functional nuclear weapon capability.
The US-DPRK relationship, such as it is, has become highly personalised and the move away from Trump raises questions as to whether North Korea will revert to its bombastic past form – it has described Biden as a “rabid dog”. The most likely scenario will be a Biden administration that learns to live with a nuclear North Korea and, in contrast to Trump, works closely with its allies in South Korea to co-ordinate their approach.
Resuming normal transmission
The return to normality in Washington will greatly hearten America’s allies. They will no longer be ignored or, in some cases, overtly disparaged by the president. The Biden administration will place a strong emphasis on the role allies play in its foreign policy ambitions. It will value the alliances, rather than debase them, and use the reach they allow and political support they create to drive a more strategic approach to managing China.
But this greater value will not come cost-free. A financially constrained US will expect allies to do more to advance their shared security interests than they have in the past. This will be most evident in Asia, where treaty allies like Australia, Japan and South Korea will be under renewed pressure to play a more expansive, risky and expensive role in the region’s geopolitics. For Australia this will be a challenge in terms of both its capacity and its risk appetite.
A Biden presidency will restore dignity to US leadership and bring a much more integrated approach to managing its global interests. It will also act in stable and predictable ways.
But Biden will inherit an America whose power and credibility are in decline. The global institutions that the US built to stabilise international order and advance its interests are in a parlous state, and not only because of the attacks of the Trump presidency. It faces a global stage with ambitious emerging powers that have shrewdly used the incoherence of the Trump presidency to advance their position.
Biden’s election symbolises a return to orthodox ways in Washington. His instincts, and that of his foreign policy team, will be in line with how the US has approached the world for many decades.
We know the Trump approach has undermined US power and prestige. What remains to be seen is whether Biden’s instincts are the right ones in a dangerous and unstable global environment.
Few would have thought a US-China relationship marked by relative stability for half a century would be upended in just four years.
But US President Donald Trump’s privileged tour of the Forbidden City in November 2017 by Chinese President Xi Jinping now looks like it happened in a bygone era, given the turbulence in the bilateral relationship since then.
The shift in the US’s China policy is no doubt one of the major legacies of the Trump administration’s foreign policy, alongside a renewed peace process in the Middle East.
When Trump’s daughter Ivanka said at the Republican National Convention that “Washington has not changed Donald Trump, Donald Trump has changed Washington”. This would certainly include its handling of China.
From strategic partner to competitor
Although China’s rise had been a concern of the previous Bush and Obama administrations, it was the Trump administration that transformed the entire narrative on China from strategic partner to “strategic competitor”, starting with its National Defence Strategy report released just one month after Trump’s 2017 China visit.
This read, in part,
China and Russia want to shape a world antithetical to US values and interests. China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model and reorder the region in its favour.
This new way of thinking deemed the US’s decades-long engagement strategy, deployed since President Richard Nixon in the early 1970s, a failure.
Prior to Trump, the US had sought to encourage China to grow into a responsible stakeholder of a rules-based international order.
According to the Trump administration, this is centred on “predatory economics” in trade and technology, political coercion of less-powerful democracies and Chinese military advancement in the region.
Trump takes a unilateral, transactional approach
Trump’s sledgehammer approach to the US-China relationship has been problematic at best.
For one, Trump viewed the relationship transactionally, hardly scratching the surface of the deeper structural issues — such as state subsidies and labour standards — that exist between the countries.
He believed he could reduce the massive US trade deficits with China through a “big, beautiful monster” of a trade deal and this would be a silver bullet for both the economy and his re-election prospects.
This explains all the flip-flops during the drawn-out trade negotiations, during which Beijing largely managed to use the deal as bait to keep larger strategic issues off the table.
Moreover, Trump’s policies toward China, at least on the trade front, were unilateral. Instead of finding common ground with allies, Washington angered and deserted its allies by invoking punitive tariffs (Canada), renegotiating trade agreements to the US advantage (Japan and South Korea) and reducing its security commitments under NATO.
At the same time, the Trump administration relinquished US leadership in global institutions dealing with trade, climate change and human rights. As a result, the US lost its allies when it needed them most and gave China a new platform on the international stage.
China hawks get the upper hand
Trump’s China policy has been further mired by competing interests in his cabinet.
According to former National Security Adviser John Bolton, Trump’s team was “badly fractured” in its handling of the trade war against China and its wider China policy.
The spectrum of voices in the cabinet ranged from China moderates such as Treasurer Steven Mnuchin and senior advisor Jared Kushner to sceptics such as US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to more radical China bashers such as Bolton, Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
As Trump became increasingly frustrated with a recalcitrant Xi reneging on “the deal” in mid-2019, followed by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the China hawks in the administration gained the upper hand.
Although this led to a more coherent approach to addressing the strategic challenges posed by China, the result was more direct confrontations with Beijing and heightened tensions.
The past year has marked a low point in relations with tit-for-tat actions on a number of fronts, including
US sanctions on Chinese technology firms
visa restrictions for journalists, students and scholars
and more serious challenges to China’s territorial claims over the South China Sea and Beijing’s policies towards Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
The China hawks in the Trump administration now advocate empowering the Chinese people to change the Communist Party’s behaviour — just shy of calling for a regime change in China.
China becomes more assertive under Xi
Beijing was largely wrong-footed in dealing with a maverick US president so different from previous administrations it had handled with ease.
However, it would be wrong to assign blame for the deteriorating relationship on Washington alone. It takes two to tango.
As Xi has consolidated his power, China has
expanded its surveillance state against perceived threats to the Communist Party
clashed with the US, Britain and others over a harsh national security law in Hong Kong
made shows of force to warn the US against supporting Taiwan
and further militarised its occupied islands and reefs in the South China Sea.
The list goes on. And these were not provoked by the US.
A new president won’t fix the relationship
It is extraordinary that what started as Trump’s petty complaints on trade with China eventually escalated into what many call “a new Cold War”.
Trump may not have succeeded in completely changing Washington, but his administration has at least shifted the public narrative and strategic view of China among the US elites.
Getting tough on China has become a source of rare bipartisan consensus in a polarised political climate. In fact, even if Trump loses the election to Democratic challenger Joe Biden, a fundamental U-turn in US-China relations is still unlikely.
if China has its way, it will keep robbing the United States and American companies of their technology and intellectual property.
However, Biden does suggest he would ditch tariffs as means in securing a fairer trade deal with China. And he wants to build a
united front of US allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviours and human rights violations.
So, if Beijing was hoping the upcoming election would fix its Trump problem by bringing someone new into the White House, it shouldn’t hold its breath.
The US-China relationship has been drastically changed by Trump — and this won’t be undone easily.
Speculation China may be seeking to lower the temperature in its fractious dealings with Australia appears to be premature.
This follows confirmation that Chinese customers have been advised to defer orders of Australian thermal and metallurgical coal.
On top of this, Australian cotton exporters have been advised exports will be cut next year, a blow to a business worth about $2 billion annually.
Australian mining giant BHP has received “deferment requests” for its coal shipments, according to the company’s chairman, Ken MacKenzie.
On the face of it, this is the most damaging trade reprisal by Beijing against what it perceives to be Australia’s hostile attitudes to it in tandem with its security partner, the United States.
It seems more than coincidental that just days after Australia took part in a meeting in Tokyo of the Quad (previously known as the Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue and involving Japan, Australia, India and the US), China took such action.
To put this in perspective, China has targeted Australia’s third-largest export commodity to the Chinese market behind natural gas and iron ore.
In 2018-19, Australia’s exports to China of thermal coal for power stations and metallurgical coal for steel-making reached A$14.1 billion.
The Quad session left no doubt about its purpose. It was squarely aimed at furthering a China containment strategy, and perhaps outlining an Asian NATO.
“Asian NATO” is the description Chinese propagandists apply to the Quad.
Australia finds itself in a grouping that includes a hawkish US Trump administration, a Japan that is understandably anxious about tensions in its own region, and an India that recently found itself in armed conflict with China on its Himalayan border.
In all of this big-power manoeuvring, Australia is the minnow. So it is more vulnerable to Chinese reprisals, trade and otherwise.
In a statement following the Quad, Foreign Minister Marise Payne avoided specific mention of China, but her message was clear. Australia was not hesitating to align itself with its Quad partners in confronting China. The statement said:
Ministers reiterated that states cannot assert maritime claims that are inconsistent with international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
This was aimed at China’s refusal to accept a mediation ruling under UNCLOS that contradicts its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
However, even if Australia wanted to detach itself from a hard-edged American position on China, it would be difficult given the sort of rhetoric emanating from Washington.
For example, in a statement issued by US Secretary Mike Pompeo after his meeting with Payne, he said they had discussed “China’s malign activity in the region”.
Australia’s circumspect foreign minister would not have said this publicly.
The Pompeo remarks play into a Chinese narrative that Canberra is Washington’s appendage. In the conduct of its regional diplomacy in close co-ordination with the US, Australia tends not to challenge this narrative.
In an interview with Nikkei Asia, Pompeo said the Quad would enable participants to “build out a true security framework”. This will not have gone unnoticed in Beijing.
Nor would his description of the Quad as a “fabric” that could “counter the challenge that the Chinese Communist Party presents to all of us”.
Payne would not have gone this far.
In the wake of the Quad meeting, China’s strident mouthpiece, the Global Times, accused Canberra of using the gathering to “promote its own global status”. It asked:
[…] how much strength does Australia own with its limited economy and population? Moreover, if Canberra is bent on infuriating China, Australia will only face dire consequences.
This sort of bombast can be dismissed as simply another case of Beijing letting off steam at the expense of a country that is more vulnerable to Chinese pressures than other Quad members.
On the other hand, Australia’s vulnerability to trade penalties invites the question. What will come next? Will it be Australian wine exports to China worth more than A$1 billion a year, or will gas be the next target?
China has been picking off Australian exports over the past year as relations have soured.
It has slapped tariffs on barley, making the Australian commodity uncompetitive in the Chinese market. It has used non-tariff measures to stifle beef imports from five abattoirs. It has told Chinese students to look elsewhere for education opportunities. It has also discouraged Chinese tourists from visiting Australia.
The latter is moot, since the COVID-19 pandemic means inbound tourism has been stopped.
However, a series of trade reprisals should be deeply concerning for the Australian government as it wrestles with an economy hit hard by recession.
The last thing Australia needs in this environment is for its trading relationship with China to fall off a cliff.
The trade numbers underscore Australia’s unhealthy dependence on China.
In 2018-19, more than one-third, or A$134.7 billion worth, of Australia’s total merchandise exports went to China. On top of that Australia’s services business with China, mainly education, totalled A$18.5 billion.
In the first six months of this year, Australia’s exports to China neared 50% of total exports, mainly due to increased iron ore prices.
This level of business may be advantageous to Australia from a short-term perspective, but in the longer term such heavy reliance on a single market is highly undesirable.
It gives China the option of penalising Australia if Canberra’s policies do not correspond with Beijing’s wishes.
This is precisely what is happening now.
In the circumstances, it is hard to reach any other conclusion than that Beijing is targeting Australia as a means of conveying its displeasure that a regional united front appears to be forming to contain China’s ambitions.
In this context it is worth noting that despite a sometimes acrimonious “trade war” between the US and China, Beijing has, for the most part, refrained from penalising American business.
Of course, China exports far more to the US than it imports.
In the lead-up to the US election on November 3, Australia should be hoping for a Biden victory on the grounds that a more normal diplomatic environment will enable a reset of our relations with Beijing.
The alternative is further nasty surprises weighing on a critical trading relationship.
This week the World Health Assembly, the governing structure of the World Health Organization, endorsed a resolution that comprehensively addressed the global COVID-19 response.
Buried almost at the end, in the penultimate clause of the seven-page document, was the outcome several nations (including Australia) have been clamouring for – or a version of it, at least. The resolution calls for a global investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 outbreak, albeit not in the strongest of terms.
With noticeable caution, it calls on the WHO to:
…initiate, at the earliest appropriate moment, and in consultation with Member States, a stepwise process of impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation, including using existing mechanisms, as appropriate, to review experience gained and lessons learned from the WHO-coordinated international health response to COVID-19.
Specifically, the inquiry will investigate:
the effectiveness of the mechanisms at WHO’s disposal to deal with pandemics
the functioning of the International Health Regulations – a globally agreed set of rules for controlling diseases across borders – and whether prior recommendations had been implemented
WHO’s contributions to the United Nations’ disease control efforts
the specific actions taken by WHO and the timeline of the pandemic response.
The inquiry will also seek recommendations to improve future pandemic preparedness and responses, including potentially strengthening WHO’s powers.
Vindication for Australia?
Some media and politicians hailed the resolution as a vindication of Australia’s call for a deep and searching independent investigation, with a particular spotlight on China’s role in containing the initial outbreak. But China has branded this claim “a joke”.
So what does the resolution actually add, and is it likely to deliver anything concrete?
It is a great example of well-constructed UN “bureaucratese”. It has something for everyone but demands little from anyone. But buried in the verbiage are some important considerations, which suggest how to forge the way ahead.
Australia can take comfort that there is to be an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation”. But it’s not exactly what Australia had in mind. It is left to the WHO’s director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (himself a target of criticism by the United States), to initiate such an enquiry. The timing is vague, although a report on progress (which presumably could include delaying the inquiry altogether), is expected a year from now.
Many countries, including China and several European states, argue such an investigation is needed, but not now. They would like the pandemic to be under control first. But when might that be? It might yet intensify, and could grind on for years. Even if an effective vaccine is developed, getting it to the people of the world will take years, and until almost everyone is vaccinated, nobody will be entirely safe.
The WHO has previously set up investigations into the H1N1 epidemic in 2009 and the 2015 Ebola outbreak. These were led by respected, independent, evidence-driven global health leaders. So we can be confident the WHO has access to people of the right calibre to mount a rigorous and critical inquiry.
Australia will presumably also be gratified by another clause of the resolution, which calls on the WHO, alongside the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), to identify the animal source of the virus and its route of introduction to the human population. Australia’s deputy chief medical officer, Paul Kelly, has cited the risk of such “zoonotic diseases” as a major concern.
Sitting outside the broader evaluation of the WHO response to the pandemic, Australia should actively support an in-depth study of the interfaces between animal and human diseases. Facilitating and resourcing such an investigation in relation to COVID-19, leading to evidence-informed guidance, would be a solid global contribution.
Australia and others can also draw satisfaction from a clause in the resolution calling on all countries to provide the WHO with “timely, accurate and sufficiently detailed” information on the COVID-19 pandemic. Improving incentives to report early and promptly, such as the offer of financial support to offset any recommended travel or trade restrictions, would sharpen the International Health Regulations which frame such action.
Despite being the source of the pandemic, the resolution does not single out China (or indeed any country) for particular scrutiny or accountability. Several clauses refer instead to “national context”, a commonly used piece of diplomatic language that glosses over political contentions.
With more than 5.1 million people infected and 332,000 deaths so far, the world needs cooperation, collaboration and coordination. The resolution offers important elements, and reinforces important values: balancing public health measures alongside human rights and economic concerns; transparency of information; solidarity with the people most affected; a focus on the most vulnerable; support to health workers; and global equity in access to testing, PPE and, ultimately, a vaccine.
All nations must play a part in the global push to curb COVID-19. The political blame games and the United States’ threat to cut funding to WHO are unhelpful.
The WHO should be supported and strengthened to puruse its vital work, and to overcome the weaknesses in current and previous epidemic responses. It needs to be better resourced, better structured and better respected to fulfil the roles we expect and demand of it.
Wealthy countries like Australia should do more to bolster multilateral institutions like the WHO as well as to support low and middle income country health systems. Since 2012 Australia’s official development assistance to health has fallen from almost A$1.8 billion in 2012 to A$1.1 billion in 2018. If Australia really wants its voice to be heard in a forum such as the World Health Assembly, it should step up and let others follow its example.
Ten years ago, the Lowy Institute published a report on the state of Australia’s diplomatic capacity that painted a “sobering picture” of overstretched foreign missions and declining resources.
In the words of then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who was quoted in the report:
Given the vast continent we occupy, the small population we have and our unique geo-strategic circumstances, our diplomacy must be the best in the world.
However, since then we haven’t put enough resources into our diplomacy as we should. New research by Asialink at the University of Melbourne published in Australian Foreign Affairs shows continuing under-investment in Australia’s diplomatic capacity, with funding for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) now at a new low of just 1.3% of the federal budget.
Still in deficit?
According to Allan Gyngell, the founding director of the Lowy Institute, the reason for its 2009 report, Diplomatic Deficit, was simple.
For Australia to do things in the world, it needs a number of assets. These include the instruments of foreign policy, including the overseas network of posts.
The idea for the report was to go beyond the usual suspects and involve people like business leaders in making the case for diplomacy. It made 24 recommendations, many of which were not specifically about funding. These have mostly been met.
Sadly, the situation is less positive for recommendations that called for additional funding. Since 2013, Australia’s total diplomatic, trade and aid budgets have fallen from 1.5% of the federal budget to 1.3%. In pure dollar terms, this is a fall from A$8.3 billion to A$6.7 billion.
At the same time, the budgets for defence, intelligence and security have ballooned. In the almost two decades since the September 11 terror attacks, the Department of Defence budget has increased by 291%, while the allocation for the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation has grown by 528% and the Australian Secret Intelligence Service by 578%.
This systematic under-funding of DFAT has run down Australia’s diplomatic capacity to the point that it is under-resourced to confront current foreign policy challenges.
To give an idea of what this means, these are some examples of what Australia’s diplomats do on a day-to-day basis:
consular work assisting Australians in trouble with law enforcement, such as visiting them in prison and advocating for fair treatment
counter-terrorism cooperation, working with overseas governments to build capacity and help keep Australian travellers safer
business promotion of Australian products and services and investment promotion for companies considering setting up operations in Australia
networking with influential politicians and business people to try to impact decisions that will affect Australians.
When Australia’s diplomats are asked to accomplish more with fewer resources, they have to cut back what they can do.
Scaling back has a real effect on Australia’s influence. If Australia reduces the scholarships to bring future regional leaders to study in Australia, for instance, they’ll likely study and form bonds elsewhere.
If Australia reduces its investment in Indonesia’s education system, it will be dominated by the country’s other major funder, Saudi Arabia.
When Australia pulls back on its diplomacy, other countries take up the slack.
One impetus for the Morrison government’s much-vaunted “Pacific Step Up” was the realisation that cuts in aid and diplomacy had led to lessened Australian influence in its neighbourhood. In the words of one diplomat I spoke to, “China had been eating our lunch”.
The problem is that the “step up” did not come with increased funding for diplomats, meaning that DFAT’s new Office of the Pacific is being formed by taking staff and resources from other parts of department.
Getting back in black
We recommend an immediate increase in spending on diplomacy, trade and aid to 1.5% of the federal budget. This is closer to the spending of countries such as Canada (1.9%) and the Netherlands (4.3%), though still much lower than the challenging era after the second world war, when Australia was spending 9% of the federal budget on diplomacy, trade and aid.
If nothing else, DFAT should be granted an exemption from the efficiency dividend – an annual funding reduction for government agencies – until its budget rises to a more normal, historical level. This measure, usually levied at 1% to 1.25% of the administrative budget, reached 4% in 2012–13. With DFAT cut to the bone, the focus should be on increasing its budget, not constant cuts.
The aspirations for our diplomacy must be upgraded beyond the bare minimum. Ten years on from Diplomatic Deficit, Australia must resist the magical thinking that foreign affairs and trade somehow happen by themselves. In the 2009 report, former DFAT Secretary Richard Woolcott is quoted as saying:
I do feel that the Department of Foreign Affairs … has been allowed to run down to a dangerously low level … we can’t go on doing more with less … these sorts of undertakings do need to be properly resourced.
If only this had changed in the last 10 years.
Mitchell Vandewerdt-Holman, a Master of International Relations student at the University of Melbourne, contributed to this report.
Is America a bully?
As a scholar, under the auspices of the Military Intervention Project, I have been studying every episode of U.S. military intervention from 1776 to 2017.
Historically, the U.S. advanced from a position of isolationism to one of reluctant intervenor, to global policeman. Based on my research since 2001, I believe that the U.S. has transformed itself into what many others view as a global bully.
I do not use the word lightly. But if, by definition, a bully is someone who seeks to intimidate or harm those it perceives as vulnerable, then that is an apt descriptor of contemporary U.S. foreign policy.
The decline of traditional diplomacy
Venezuela is indicative of a larger problem facing U.S. foreign policy, which currently favors troops over diplomats.
During a January press conference addressing the crisis in Venezuela, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton’s legal pad notes indicated that he felt that sending 5,000 American troops to Colombia was the preferred method to solving the presidential crisis in Venezuela.
What began as social, economic and political crisis under former president Hugo Chávez has continued into the presidency of Nicolás Maduro; who is now being pressured to step down through mass civic protests and constitutional challenges. The U.S. has struggled to respond effectively. Part of the difficulty is that the U.S. has not had an ambassador in Venezuela since July 2010.
Historically, as a reward for those with deep donor pockets, political appointees made up only 30% of U.S. ambassadorial appointments, leaving 70% of the posts to career diplomats. Under the current administration, that proportion is nearly reversed.
The professional corps of foreign affairs bureaucrats has also diminished. According to the Office of Personnel Management, under the Trump administration, the State Department lost some 12% of employees in the foreign affairs division. Its remaining diplomats are increasingly isolated from the formation and implementation of U.S. foreign policy, with foreign policy being established much more often by the executive branch, and then implemented by the Department of Defense.
From the perspective of conservative U.S. political elites, U.S. diplomacy has not suffered. Rather, its quality has shifted from often hard-headed and hard-won negotiations among career diplomats in possession of in-depth local knowledge – what we political scientists think of as traditional diplomacy – to what I have elsewhere referred to as “kinetic diplomacy”: “diplomacy” by armed force unsupported by local knowledge.
Examples from recent history
Looking at the overall use of U.S. armed force abroad, it’s clear that the U.S. has escalated over time as compared to both small and great powers.
In our database, we note every hostile incident. We rate each country’s response on a scale from 1 to 5, from the lowest level of no militarized action (1), to threat to use force, display of force, use of force and, finally, war (5). In some cases, states respond; in others, they don’t.
Over time, the U.S. has taken to responding more and more at level 4, the use of armed force. Since 2000 alone, the U.S. has engaged in 92 interventions at level 4 or 5.
Consider Mexico. Data from the Military Intervention Project reveal that the U.S. has been far more likely to attempt to resolve conflicts with Mexico by the use of armed force than has Mexico in its disputes with the U.S.
Granted, the U.S. has become dramatically more powerful in military terms than Mexico, but power in the more traditional sense is not as critical in interstate relations as it once was. Increasingly, smaller states have been able to frustrate the objectives of larger ones.
Nevertheless, our data make clear why so many Mexicans had come to think of America as a belligerent bully.
With Mexico, for instance, the U.S. frequently resorted to the use of force. Often, Mexico didn’t even offer a response to armed U.S. action. From 1806 to 1923, Mexico engaged in 20 interactions with U.S. with varying levels of hostility, while the U.S. engaged in 25, and with higher levels.
Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. levels of hostility have continued to increase. In fact, during the Cold War, the U.S. was relatively less hostile. But once the Soviet Union and its bloc went bust, the U.S. began to engage its armed forces more intensely and more frequently.
Just as with Mexico, U.S. resort to force against Iran is consistently higher than Iran’s use against the U.S. While our database records 11 hostile engagements from Iran directed at the U.S. from 1953 to 2009, the U.S. intervened in Iran 14 times.
Of course, Mexico and Iran are relatively small powers compared to the U.S. But what of China?
As with Mexico and Iran, the U.S. resort to force is much more consistent and at higher levels toward China than vice versa. From 1854 to 2009, the U.S. intervened nearly twice as much in China as China did in the U.S. Our database records 17 incidents for China and 37 for the U.S.
Tanking US global reputation
Is kinetic diplomacy – bullying – an effective way to advance U.S. national interests?
In terms of the country’s global reputation, being a bully is not paying off. A February survey revealed 45% of global respondents viewed U.S. power and influence as a major threat to global security, with the largest shares originating in South Korea, Japan and Mexico – notably all U.S. allies.
The U.S. is now seen globally as a bigger threat to global prosperity and peace than China and Russia.
The U.S. is seen as a threat not simply because it has expanded its use of armed force abroad over time, but because at the same time it has abrogated a number of its own core principles of legitimacy.
Among the principles that have been abandoned: The U.S. maintains it has a right to treat “enemy combatants” outside the rules of the laws of armed conflict, while insisting its own armed forces not be subject to international investigations.
It has detained people without trial, sometimes indefinitely and without legal representation.
It has even allowed its chief executive – in this case President Barack Obama – to order the execution of an American citizen abroad without trial.
It has separated young children from their asylum-seeking parents in order to deter other families from seeking asylum, regardless of the validity of their asylum claims.
In short, the U.S. has surrendered its moral high ground. That makes any U.S. use of armed force increasingly appear illegitimate to the residents of other countries, and increasingly our own.