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Australia has become even keener US 'deputy'

By Bruce Haigh | China Daily Global | Updated: 2021-05-19 09:18
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Former US president George W. Bush referred to Australia as the "deputy sheriff" of the United States in Asia in October 2003. At first, then Australian prime minister John Howard seemed pleased with the descriptor; however, following criticism from Indonesia and Malaysia, he sought to distance himself from it.

However, the term stuck, particularly in light of the fact that Australia had just followed the US into war in Iraq when it had no good reason for doing so. The perception persists that Australia remains in that role, although it has not taken much pressure from the US to hold it there. In fact, under current Prime Minister Scott Morrison, it would be fair to say that Australia has become an even keener deputy sheriff.

The actions Australia has taken in recent times with respect to China should be seen against the background of this role, as well as the emotional connection that conservative Australians have toward the US, particularly the ruling Liberal National Party and particularly after Donald Trump became US president in 2016.

Otherwise, how can the actions of Australia toward China be rationally explained? They defy common sense.

The LNP has not adjusted its thinking post-Trump. If anything, it has become more hard-line, such as the federal government canceling the Belt and Road Initiative memorandums of understanding between the Victorian government and China exactly 12 months after Morrison accused China of "fostering COVID-19" through the so-called wet markets of Wuhan, and unilaterally calling for an international investigation.

In retaliation for canceling the mutually beneficial Victoria-Beijing BRI pacts, China suspended the China-Australia Strategic Economic Dialogue. Though the Beijing move is largely nominal, it set the scene for a further deterioration in relations.

The Wuhan accusation was the trigger on a gun already loaded by Australia's taking the lead to ban Huawei from building its 5G network, undertaken on advice from US security agencies. Responsive trade limits from China followed; however, the economic impact has been hidden from the Australian public by unprecedented levels of borrowing brought about by government stimulus in the face of the COVID pandemic.

For years, anti-Chinese sentiment among the Australian public has been fanned by the Rupert Murdoch media empire, which owns 70 percent of the media in Australia. In light of the Australian government's negativity toward China, other media outlets have felt constrained to follow suit.

Australia has acquiesced to US pressure to increase its defense presence in the Northern Territory and is considering rescinding the 99-year lease that the Chinese company Landbridge has with respect to the Port of Darwin. At the moment there is no domestic counterbalance to the negativity being fostered within Australia toward China.

China no doubt perceives Australian moves as rude ignorance and discriminative animosity toward China. Nonetheless, Chinese "aggression" toward Australia feeds the narrative of the Australian right wing and makes them feel justified in "taking on" China more.

And the US is happy enough to encourage the "deputy sheriff" to swing the lead-a no-lose situation for Uncle Sam. The Australians do their dirty work, the Americans lose nothing; in fact, they have gained trade opportunities at Australia's expense.

The world knows what the US stands for: It is driven by money and power, not morality, not empathy and not compassion.

China can be different. China is a great country and will be a force for good. It does not have to reflect US norms and ways of operating internationally. It can write new rules and deploy new forms of behavior. It should take the lead with confidence.

What is obvious is that the world is looking for leadership. China must rise above the petty games dictated by the US and Australia if it is to realize its full potential.

The author is a former diplomat and political commentator from Australia.

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