On Malcolm Turnbull’s last weekend as prime minister he picked up the phone and called the White House. In the inner sanctum, his government had just made a threshold decision on the hyper-connected, fifth-generation mobile telecommunications future that’s to enable the so-called “internet of things”.
Before he announced it to the world, Turnbull wanted to tell Donald Trump. Specifically, he told Trump that Australia had decided that the risk of allowing Chinese companies to supply any of the gear for the forthcoming multi-billion dollar 5G network was too great.
As the government would announce a few days later, on Turnbull’s last full day as prime minister, Chinese firms would be banned outright. It was, in effect, a profound statement of mistrust in Beijing’s intent.
Trump was pleased. Even impressed: “You’re ahead of us on this,” the President said during the unpublicised call, according to informed sources. The Australian leader was well aware. He’d been urging the US for months to get active on the matter. He raised it with Trump in a meeting in Washington in February, for instance.
Now Australia had taken a decisive step, becoming the first country in the world to ban Chinese suppliers from its 5G network and incurring the customary angry bluster and threats from Beijing as a result. Turnbull evidently hoped that, by taking the lead, Australia would prompt the US and others to follow. It seems likely that it will.
Four weeks after that phone call, the admiral in charge of the US Indo-Pacific Command stood on the deck of a US navy guided missile destroyer in Pearl Harbour, Hawaii. Admiral Phil Davidson is responsible for US military operations across a little over half the earth’s surface.
“I will be totally transparent with you,” Davidson told assembled sailors and guests. “China is moving around the region with an open pocket book greasing the region with money like no other adversary we have ever faced.”
This is strong stuff. He welcomed Australia’s co-operation. And he embraced the term that Australia’s ambassador to the US, Joe Hockey, has been promoting ever since he arrived in the post two and a half years ago. The US, said Davidson, classifies the countries it works with into three tiers – friends, partners and allies.
“And then there’s mates,” said the Admiral, adding a fourth category. “The highest form of relationship you can have.”
Standing with him and the crew of the American destroyer was the crew of the HMAS Hobart, the first of Australia’s three new guided missile destroyers. The Hobart was docked alongside its US counterpart. Both carry the sophisticated American-made Aegis combat system, a statement in itself.
Trump himself, who has adopted the Australian ambassador as a golfing partner, speaks of America’s Aussie “mates” and “mateship”. And while the President has decided to cancel his attendance at the two big annual summits in Asia in November, and the side-trip he had planned to Australia as well, the Vice-President is to make the trip instead.
Mike Pence is set to visit Cairns, a token of American commitment to the alliance. The theme will be the shared priority of a “free and open Indo-Pacific”. This is unsubtle code for “preventing Chinese takeover of international waters and airspace”.
Although the visit has not yet been announced, it’s understood to be a one-day affair. One quirk is that, on the current scheduling, the US Vice-President will come to Australia but not meet the Prime Minister. Scott Morrison is to be in Darwin meeting the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe.
What do these various developments have in common? Shared fear of China’s intentions is holding the alliance together. If anything, it is strengthening the relationship.
In the absence of the China risk, Australia would be inclined to recoil from Trump’s America. The President is personally unpopular with the Australian public and politically distasteful to all but a right-most fringe in Australian politics.
Some of his key policies hurt Australia’s interests. Australia favours free trade. Trump does not. Australia is committed to the Paris carbon accord. Trump is opposed. Australia supports the Iranian nuclear deal. Trump is pulling it apart.
But the threat from the authoritarian party-state in Beijing is so pervasive that Australia and the US are drawn to co-operate more closely in spite of their policy differences.
The cover story in the American journal Foreign Affairs is about China’s plan for cyber dominance. It’s titled: “World Wide War.”
The man who was conducting that war for America until four months ago is retired admiral Mike Rogers; he was the chief signals spy as head of the US National Security Agency and concurrently the chief cyber warrior as head of US Cyber Command.
Rogers tells me that when he started in those two posts four years ago, “We considered the Russians to be our peers in cyber. With China, initially, that wasn’t my judgment. But look at the growth in their expertise. You are seeing China increase their capability and their level of investment. We have to develop responses predicated on the assumption that this is not going to go away.”
And this is a priority that Australia shares. When Xi Jinping said that China aims to become a “cyber superpower” he wasn’t thinking about how to improve shoppers’ retail experience. China seeks to dominate. That’s the shared concern that moved Turnbull to call Trump, the new relevance of an old alliance.
By Peter Hartcher