Barack Obama’s former top envoy in Australia has backed Donald Trump’s tough approach to China, vowing the days of Beijing pursuing “unfair, unbalanced, unprincipled rules of the road” are over.
John Berry, the former US Ambassador in Canberra, told Fairfax Media that China could expect “straightforward competition” from the US on trade and strategic affairs.
He was speaking after giving an address in Canberra on Thursday night in which he warned that the “dreams are now over” that as China grows richer it will become freer, more democratic and fairer in its trade deals and sovereignty disputes.
Instead, Communist Party rule under strongman Xi Jinping was more powerfully ensconced than ever, he told the Australian Naval Institute.
Mr Berry, who now heads the American Australian Association, said President Trump had pressured Beijing into finally talking about reducing its unfairly high tariffs.
Expanding his views to Fairfax Media on Friday, he said this was the way the US would deal with China now that it was clearly determined to compete with the US while refusing to play by international rules.
“For years, China wanted it both ways. They wanted to be a world power and be treated equally as a world power and then whenever you wanted a level playing field, or you wanted to reverse and apply the same rules to them, they would suddenly cry, ‘Oh no, no, no, we’re a developing power. We’re so poor. We have so far to go.’
“It’s a new world … The way to be at the big boy table, they need to play fairly. It’s going to be straightforward competition. The United States is going to demand that level playing field and the days of looking the other way because of the economic challenges they faced as they rose are now over.”
He said the US would continue to co-operate with China where it could, but “it will not be used as an excuse to continue unfair, unbalanced, unprincipled rules of the road that benefit them to the pain of democracies”.
Mr Berry also pointed to Mr Xi’s vow during a visit to the US in 2015 that China would not militarise its artificial islands in the South China Sea.
“President Xi said in black and white, in front of the world, these will not be militarised. Well, he lied. He lied. And it’s clear to everybody now,” he said.
Mr Berry told an audience of Australian military chiefs and diplomats at the Australian Naval Institute that “confrontation … must be the last tool used in our policy toolbox”.
To avoid having their relationships with China end in confrontation, Australia and the US had to “pursue a clear-eyed strategy of risk-management”.
This included strengthening their own democratic systems against meddling, he said, in a tacit backing of the Turnbull government’s proposed foreign interference laws.
Mr Berry said there was “no legitimate purpose, ever” for an authoritarian nation to make financial contributions or engage in social media activity for political purposes in democratic nations.
“Such actions should be illegal in each and every democratic nation,” he said.
On the importance of alliances, he said Washington had learnt from the backlash against the Trump administration’s steel and aluminium tariffs and acknowledged “we are not doing as good a job right now being sensitive to our allies and we could do better”.