Malcolm Turnbull’s warning to China not to bully neighbours has been warmly received by America’s foreign policy and security establishment worried by a void of US leadership in the region under Donald Trump.
Jake Sullivan, a former senior foreign policy aide to Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State and presidential candidate, said allies like Australia had to take on responsibility to “buck up” America to remain engaged in the Asia-Pacific.
Mr Sullivan told The Australian Financial Review that Mr Turnbull’s speech in Singapore earlier this month where he called on China to abide by the international rules-based order had been “absolutely” noticed by the US security community.
“Australia is a bellwether because we need Australia as one of our closest allies in the region to be clear-eyed by the challenge China poses even as we all work together to avoid confrontation and manage China’s rise,” he said.
“The fact that the Prime Minister has stood up and said we are not going to accept coercion and bullying and intimidation, that is very important and reassuring to those of us back in Washington who want a positive relationship with China but want to make sure that a positive relationship doesn’t mean acquiescence to China’s regional ambitions.
Mr Sullivan said the foreign policy gap was wide between Mr Trump and his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defence James Mattis, who both visited Australia for annual talks last week.
He said both Mr Mattis and Mr Tillerson towed a very conventional foreign policy line only to be contradicted by Mr Trump.
“Ultimately you’ve got to look at the very signals at the top to know where US policy is headed,” he said.
“If this was all up to Mattis and Tillerson, I would say things would be fine but it’s not. It’s up to Donald Trump and that introduces a level of unpredictability to the equation, which is worrying.”
Mr Sullivan, who arrived on Monday for a speaking tour hosted by the Lowy Institute, is regarded as one of the US’s best and brightest strategic policy minds and was touted to be Mrs Clinton’s pick for national security adviser if she had won the election.
As well as his ties to Mrs Clinton, Mr Sullivan was national security adviser to former vice-president Joe Biden and played a key role in opening nuclear talks with Iran.
He said the most surprising thing under Mr Trump was how his view of China had shifted.
“I did not expect Xi Jinping would be able to go to Mar-a-Lago and simply redirect Donald Trump’s mindset towards China,” he said.
“He basically cares about getting Chinese co-operation on North Korea. On nearly everything he is prepared to tow a pretty soft line vis-a-vis the Chinese.”
Mr Sullivan said Mr Turnbull had done a good job walking the fine line between welcoming China’s growing economic strengths and pushing back against China’s desire to dominate the region.
“I know this is an active debate about how best to calibrate the Australia-China relationship but I think it is very important in this moment to recognise the dangers of being passive,” he said.
Mr Sullivan said the “shoe was on the other foot”, with US allies such as Australia, South Korea and Japan needing to impress upon Mr Trump the need for US leadership in the region.
By Andrew Tillett