The US secretary of state Mike Pompeo has declared “you can sell your soul for a pile of soy beans, or you can protect your people”, dismissing a warning from prominent Australian security analyst Hugh White that Australia should avoid following Donald Trump into a confrontation with Beijing that America probably can’t win.
Pompeo issued the provocative declaration during a question-and-answer session at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney on Sunday.
The public event hosted by the thinktank followed security talks where Australia’s defence minister Linda Reynolds confirmed the Morrison government is seriously considering a request to join a US-led coalition to protect shipping in the Gulf from Iranian military forces.
Trump’s most senior foreign policy adviser contended the catch-up was required because the world had been much too passive as China “began to behave in ways it had not done before”.
“The efforts to steal data across networks … or efforts to militarise the South China Sea, something president Xi promised the world he would not do, or engage in activities where they foist money on nations that are desperate for resources and leave them trapped in debt positions which ultimately aren’t about commercial transactions but about political control,” the secretary of state said.
Pompeo said there was real opportunity in the deep economic relationship between Washington and Beijing, “but everybody needs to have their eyes wide open, and the United States certainly does”.
He noted there was sometimes a rhetorical distinction made between trade and security imperatives, when the issues were actually codependent. “Sometimes I hear folks talk about trade and economic issues as separate from national security,” Pompeo said Sunday.
“Let’s make no mistake about it. China’s capacity, the People’s Liberation Army’s capacity to do exactly what they are doing is a direct result of the trade relationships.
“They grew their country on the back of a set of unfair trade rules, so they were able to grow their economy at a high rate of speed and to steal technology and to force technology transfers.
“Those same economic tools that president Trump is so focused on fixing are what’s enabled China to do all the things they are doing with their military all around the world – it underwrites their capacity to build a military.”
It was put to Pompeo that White, a high-profile professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, had argued Australia’s economic relationship with China was critically important, helping to keep Australia out of recession during the global financial crisis. White had argued Canberra would be unwise to support Washington in a confrontation with China that America probably cannot win.
“Look, you can sell your soul for a pile of soy beans or you can protect your people,” Pompeo said in response to the question. “Our mission is to do both. We think it’s possible to achieve both of those outcomes.
“We think its possible to have trade with China and yet require them to behave with the same set of rules.
“No country, no civilisation, permits this kind of imbalance in rules for an extended period of time and survives. Our effort is to restore that reciprocity.
“We welcome China’s continued growth, but its got to be right and its got to be fair and its got to be equitable and reciprocal.”
The hawkish comments come in the middle of a renewed round of disputation between Washington and Beijing over trade. Trump has threatened to impose new tariffs on $300bn worth of Chinese goods – an action that spooked financial markets. Australia’s trade minister Simon Birmingham said on Sunday if Trump’s threat came to pass it could breach World Trade Organisation rules.
Australia has called repeatedly for the US and China to end the damaging trade dispute which threatens global growth.
Earlier in the day, the US defence secretary Mark Esper used his visit to Australia to give China another significant blast. He declared Beijing engaged in “predatory economics” and the promotion of “state-sponsored theft of other nations’ intellectual property”.
“In the Indo-Pacific, power should not determine position and that should not determine destiny,” Esper said. “The US will not stand by idly while any one nation attempts to reshape the region to its favour at the expense of others.
“We know that our allies and partners would not either.”
By Katharine Murphy