A Sino-US thaw would leave Australia stranded on a rock

Last Updated:2021-11-15

One can imagine the scenes in senior foreign policy circles in Canberra recently – people walking into broom cupboards, bumping into each other, disoriented andconfused. It wasn’t meant to be like this.

First, the US and China announced a mega 20-year LNG deal, which China’s Global Times tabloid gleefully observed was at Australia’s expense. Then, at COP26, theUS and China revealed that for months they had been working together in secret on a major global initiative to cut methane emissions.

Xi Jinping and Joe Biden are trying to avert apath of confrontation. AP

And now Joe Biden and Xi Jinping are meeting in a virtual summit, after they have spoken twice by phone. Although the White House spokesman has predictably tried to lower expectations forthe meeting, discussion will be comprehensive, covering areas of multilateral co operation, security, points of conflflict in the bilateral relationship such as cyber and technology theft, nuclear nonproliferation, Taiwan, North Korea and Afghanistan,to mention a few topics. Australia will not be among Biden’s talking points.  The signs that the US and China are fifinding a newaccommodation have been apparent for months. Senior offificials on both sides haveincreased the frequency of

their meetings. The two most senior foreign policy offificials from the US and China met last month in Zurich. The US’s chief climate change negotiator was in China recently. You can be sure his brief went well beyond
climate change. These days the administration talks more about co-operation with China than competition.

Containment has disappeared from its vocabulary. Talk of a “new” Cold War is archly dismissed by the US National Security Adviser.

While the US President can’t remember the Australian Prime Minister’s name, he is eager to appease France’s President Emmanuel Macron and give Australia a clip behind the ears for embarrassing him over AUKUS.

Such is the world of great power politics. In the old cliché, there are no permanent friends (nor enemies), just permanent interests.
Over the past few months, China has wound back its utterly counterproductive “wolf warrior” diplomacyIt seems also to have curtailed its more abrasive activity in the South China Sea. It blindsided just about everyone
when it said it wished to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacifific Partnership, or TPP-11.
The diffificulty for Canberra is that these days, and for some time now, it has had no controlling vision for how Australia needs to navigate its way in the new multipolar order. The international system is chaotic. Great powers do as they wish. Others try to advance their interests and look after themselves as best they can.