Pressure from China drives Australia's push for allies at G-7

Australia-China relations went into a tailspin after Australia last year called for China to allow independent investigation of the origins of the pandemic.
Australia-China relations went into a tailspin after Australia last year called for China to allow independent investigation of the origins of the pandemic.PHOTO: AFP

MELBOURNE (BLOOMBERG) - As worsening geopolitical tensions with China spill into trade reprisals, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is heading to Britain to meet global leaders this week with a message: There is strength in numbers.

"We are far from isolated - we have worked hard to ensure we are not a nation that can be easily marginalised and driven to unacceptable compromises," Mr Morrison is expected to say in a speech in Perth on Wednesday (June 9), before he heads overseas to attend the Group of Seven leaders' summit.

"Despite opposition, our network of global and regional relationships vital to our national interest continues to accelerate."

Since Australia-China relations went into a tailspin after Mr Morrison's government last year called for Beijing to allow independent investigators to probe the origins of the pandemic, he has become a vocal proponent of bolstering partnerships between what he calls "like-minded democracies".

Australia has pushed the Quad security relationship, which includes key ally the United States as well as Japan and India, to act as a counter against what it sees as China's assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific. At the same time, the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network has increasingly issued joint statements against Beijing's alleged human rights abuses.

Indo-Pacific focus

Mr Morrison, who will be an invited guest of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson along with leaders of India, South Africa and South Korea, will be aiming for his message to resonate with the other attendees of the G-7, many of whom have had their own clashes with China in recent years.

The trip will include Mr Morrison's first face-to-face meeting with US President Joe Biden.

Mr Morrison is set to welcome Biden's focus on the Indo-Pacific region and offer strong support for his recent call to bolster and accelerate efforts to identify the origins of the pandemic, according to extracts of his speech to be delivered in Perth.

"Having led calls for an independent inquiry, it remains Australia's firm view that understanding the cause of this pandemic is essential for preventing the next one, for the benefit of all people," the extracts say.

Such language has repeatedly incensed China, which says it backs the World Health Organisation's efforts to find the virus origin.

Since Mr Morrison became leader almost three years ago, Australia's ties with its biggest trading partner have plummeted to the point where Beijing ministers refuse to answer phone calls from their counterparts in Canberra.

Crippling tariffs have been placed on barley and wine, and coal imports have been blocked in China's ports. Australian exporters are increasingly concerned that Mr Morrison's government is making public statements that seem to be stoking tensions with China.

Yet in Wednesday's speech, the prime minister is poised to use strong language to underline what he sees as the growing risks.

'Risk of miscalculation'

"The Indo-Pacific region - Australia's region - is the epicentre of renewed strategic competition," the extracts say. "The risks of miscalculation and conflict are growing. And the technological edge enjoyed historically by Australia and our allies is under challenge."

He is also calling for reform of the World Trade Organisation by reinstalling its appellate body, saying the binding dispute system is needed because "where there are no consequences for coercive behaviour, there is little incentive for restraint".

Before attending the G-7 in Cornwall, Mr Morrison will meet his Singaporean counterpart, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, on Thursday for economic and security discussions.

After his visit to Britain, where he is seeking to reach an initial agreement on a free-trade deal with Mr Johnson's government, Mr Morrison's itinerary includes a visit to France for talks with President Emmanuel Macron.

Still, Mr Morrison has one important policy stance that he knows will not be popular with most of his counterparts in Cornwall: He is a strong supporter of Australia's position as one of the world's biggest fossil-fuel exporters.

While Australia's dry continent makes it particularly exposed to the ravages of climate change, Mr Morrison is refusing to commit to a date to reach net-zero emissions, instead saying it is the nation's ambition to get there by 2050. That is even as Mr Biden and some of Australia's biggest fossil-fuel export markets - China, Japan and South Korea - commit to doing more to combat climate change.

"It's important that nation states be accountable for charting their own path to net zero based on their unique economic structures and energy sources," the extracts say. "Australia does not support setting sectoral targets or timeframes for decarbonising particular parts of our economy or setting false deadlines for phasing out specific energy sources."