Things might appear to be all smiles, but Malcolm Turnbull and Donald Trump need to talk about China. (Twitter: Malcolm Turnbull)
Malcolm Turnbull arrives in Washington at a time of tectonic shift in American thinking on China.
This new thinking doesn’t spring from Donald Trump’s ascension, but is a repositioning that began brewing inside the Pentagon and parts of the FBI about three years ago.
In fact, US and Australian-based analysts have told the ABC that America’s stance on China, reflected in two recent strategy documents, would have been very similar had Hillary Clinton won the presidential election instead of Mr Trump.
It’s an approach that isn’t anti-Beijing per se, but one that’s distinctively assertive, clear-eyed and candid about Beijing’s developing economic and military rivalry.
China, along with Russia, is a “revisionist power”, according to December’s National Security Strategy, and wants to displace the US in the Indo-Pacific region, expand its state-driven economic model, and “reorder the region in its favour”.
Last month, the National Defence Strategy was released. It bleeds a similar sentiment.
“China is a strategic competitor using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbours while militarising features in the South China Sea,” it reads.
The two policy documents formally shredded the earnestness of Barack Obama’s approach to Beijing’s authoritarianism; an approach that has largely shaped the way Australia, the US and other Western allies have handled the rising power for decades.
As one well-connected Australian-based China watcher observed:
“For about 40 years, our collective approach has been to smile and be nice to China. We’ve told ourselves, ‘They want to be like us’, when in fact it’s the other way around.”
The National Defence Strategy puts it more clinically:
“For decades, US policy was rooted in the belief that support for China’s rise and for its integration into the post-war international order would liberalise China. Contrary to our hopes, China expanded its power at the expense of the sovereignty of others.”
Australia has a history of anxiety about China
Like sections of the US national security community, career public servants in Australia’s defence and intelligence sector reached this conclusion years back.
These concerns surfaced publicly in the wake of the 2015 sale of the Port of Darwin to a company linked to the Chinese Communist Party.
And the cyber attacks by presumed China-based hackers on the Bureau of Meteorology in late 2015 — which some believe an attempt to burrow into Australian defence systems — only affirmed the rethink.
It’s why the reconfigured US posture on China is so familiar to Australia. Like ours, it is mostly defensive: how do you stop a regime that’s in the business of exploiting weakness?
And not just cyber vulnerabilities, but those inherent in any open democracy; in business dealings and a free economy. The best way to get in is often the front door.
Australia is tackling the intrusion in various ways.
There is overt signalling, such as making chair of the Foreign Investment Review Board David Irvine, a former director-general of both the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and the Australian Secret Intelligence Service.
And then there’s the more subtle, such as a reshaping and modernising of the ancient concepts of treason and espionage.
Australia’s foreign interference laws, which ironically were given priority early last year by the Prime Minister when allegations of Russian involvement in the US presidential election surfaced, are of strong interest to the Americans.
So has been the debate in Australia about the influence of Chinese students in Australian universities.
Last week, FBI director Christopher Wray told Congress Chinese students in US tertiary institutions might be covertly gathering information for the Communist Government back home.
He was asked by one-time presidential candidate Republican senator Marco Rubio about the counter-intelligence risk posed by Chinese students, particularly in “advanced programs in science and mathematics”.
“The use of non-traditional collectors, especially in the academic setting — whether it’s professors, scientists, students — we see in almost every field office that the FBI has around the country,” Mr Wray said.
“It’s not just in major cities. It’s in small ones as well, it’s across basically every discipline.
“And I think the level of naivety on the part of the academic sector about this creates its own issues.”
Cabinet ministers in Australia privately acknowledge strategies are lacking when it comes to tackling Chinese influence in universities, especially when the sector has become so reliant on foreign students.
Yes, this is about global power
If all this sounds like the start of a new power struggle to shape the world order, it’s because it is.
Under Xi Jinping, China has determinedly and methodically set about expanding its regional influence. His One Belt One Road initiative is designed to magnify its presence by creating roads, ports and other infrastructure across Asia, the Pacific and Africa.
But some of China’s methods unnerve the West, with fears they involve capturing ruling cliques in South-East Asia, compromising political processes and debt entrapment.
In the Maldives, former president Mohamed Nasheed last month accused China of seizing 17 islands in the politically turbulent Indian Ocean archipelago in a colonialist “land grab”.
Sri Lanka, which like the Maldives is heavily indebted to China, allowed a 99-year lease on a port, an arrangement denounced by government critics as an erosion of sovereignty.
Pakistan has handed the running of its strategically important Gwadar port to a Chinese state-owned company for 40 years.
And last year, China opened its first overseas military base for the People’s Liberation Army in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa.
We’re not the only ones wary of China’s rise
Australia and the United States are not alone in their alarm. European leaders have also recognised the power play at hand.
German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel is urging the European Union to contest China’s “Silk Road” strategy by offering an alternative infrastructure program targeting Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Africa and other places being courted by the Chinese.
Mr Gabriel told a security summit in Munich this week that an EU alternative to the Belt and Road initiative would allow development on principles of Western liberalism — “freedom, democracy and human rights”.
Trade and development are now seen to be key to combatting export of Chinese authoritarianism.
Aiding Mr Turnbull’s bid to convince Mr Trump to reverse his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, is that many Republicans believe the trade pact would serve as a good foil to Chinese expansionism.
The PM will meet some of those Republicans at the National Governors Association meeting later this week, where he is guest speaker.
One Washington-based Australian observer told the ABC Mr Trump’s decision to withdraw US support for the TPP was considered a “big own goal” within Congress.
And as if to emphasise how strategy is being devised outside of the Oval Office, the National Security Strategy talks of pursuing cooperation through allies, partners and “aspiring partners”, which are described as “fragile, recovering from conflict, and seeking a path forward to sustainable security and economic growth”.
These nation states are the same ones considered susceptible to Chinese influence.
Like the Europeans, there is some early consideration of forming a joint regional development scheme comprising Australia, India, Japan and the US to rival China’s Belt and Road initiative.
Whether it’s defence, trade, cyber or regional security, China will be at the centre of Mr Turnbull’s discussions in Washington.