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Australia’s ‘Unbreakable,’ and Worrisome, Alliance

This week’s Australia Letter is written by Damien Cave, the Australia bureau chief.Sign up to get it by email.


Mike Pompeo, the United States secretary of state, came to Sydney a few days ago and described the American relationship with Australia as an “unbreakable alliance.”

I was there, at the State Library of New South Wales, surrounded by Australia’s foreign policy elite (including Malcolm Turnbull). I noticed both Mr. Pompeo’s stiff delivery of his upbeat, prepared remarks and his more comfortable, combative responses in the question-and-answer session.

Sitting beside Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne, he was most animated when discussing why standing up to Beijing has become a priority for the Trump administration. At one point, his voice slightly raised, he stressed that the American trade war with China was not just about economics.

“Sometimes I’ll hear folks talk about trade and economic issues as separate from national security,” he said. “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.”

The idea that trade and military power go hand in hand is nothing new in geopolitics, of course. But what emerged there in the library, and throughout Mr. Pompeo’s tour of the region, is an American view of China that encapsulates how the Trump administration views the world: through the lens of having been wronged, for far too long, by far too many.

In the United States, as the 2020 campaign begins, the approach is sometimes referred to as grievance politics (white grievance, in particular). Internationally, it looks more like the politics of retaliation.

President Trump has repeatedly sought to punish other countries, including allies like Mexico and Canada, for what he perceives as attempts to take advantage of the United States. China is simply his biggest target — the country that’s inspired the most frustration in the United States, and not just within the White House. The call to “do something about China” spans political parties at a time when few other subjects do.

And increasingly, there is the expectation that other countries will fall in line.

Notice how Mr. Pompeo answered the question, “How worried should Australians be about the rise of China as a great power?”

“We have to be very, very careful. America sat — I think the world, frankly, watched for too long. We were asleep at the switch as China began to behave in ways that it had not done before. So whether that’s efforts to steal data across networks … or militarize 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 are about political control — those are the kind of things that I think everyone needs to have their eyes wide open with respect to. The United States certainly does, and we welcome China’s continued growth, but it’s got to be right. It’s got to be fair. It’s got to be equitable. It’s got to be reciprocal. They have to behave in a way that ensures that the value sets that Australia and the United States have continue to be the rules by which the entire world engages.”

In that answer, I count three related threads. First, there is that sense of outrage — I could hear it in Mr. Pompeo’s voice. Second, there is the appeal to ideals like fairness; and third, there is the expectation of loyalty, not to nation, but to values.

This is where things get tricky for Australia and many other countries. Which of these elements defines the current relationship with the United States? What I hear in conversations with Australians about America these days is a mix of curiosity, attraction and doubt.

Does aligning with the United States mean jumping into a car with an angry, vengeful driver more likely to crash, or joining forces with a still-powerful ally fighting for shared values and the preservation of a rules-based order?

Australian journalists peppered Mr. Pompeo with specific questions, seeming to poke around for clues to how much action the United States wanted Australia to take. Would it be asked to host American missiles? How did the Trump administration want Australia to contribute to its efforts to keep oil flowing from the Middle East?

In his answers, Mr. Pompeo repeatedly promised consultation. He warned against jumping to the most severe conclusions, dismissing “the idea that somehow we’re close to conflict in the military sense with China.”

But in all of these exchanges, there were signs of deeper doubts and concerns about what an “unbreakable alliance” really means, now and in the near future. Fear, it seems, is a natural byproduct of a foreign policy focused on retaliation, and in the wake of Mr. Pompeo’s visit, the discussion about China’s potential threats has already ramped up in Parliament.

So here’s my question for Australia Letter readers. Which country of great importance to Australia do you fear more right now: China, or the United States? Why? And how should those fears guide Australia’s foreign policy, if it all?

Also of note: I’ll be discussing China — more specifically, Hong Kong, and where the protests there might lead — on a free group call on Friday at 10 a.m. A.E.S.T. with Austin Ramzy, who has been covering the demonstrations for us. Jamie Tarabay, an Australia correspondent and former Hong Kong resident, will be moderating. Here’s how to join the call.

Now, here are a few more stories to keep you informed and engaged …


Australia and New ZealandImageCreditKasia Ladczuk/IFC Films

When Rape Onscreen Is Directed by a Woman: A divisive new film, “The Nightingale,” by the same director as “The Babadook,” has been met with praise as well as vitriol and walkouts. The controversy raised questions about how stories involving rape should be told — and by whom.

— Read a review of the film by our critic A.O Scott, who called it “thick with horror and heavy with feeling.”

In Sydney, a Ceramic Artist Who Captures the Beauty of Decay: Alana Wilson’s delicate vessels belie the violent chemical processes she uses to make them.

— What Veterans Say This New Film Gets Right, and Wrong, About Their Vietnam War: In “Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan,” a filmmaker’s dramatization has earned both praise and pushback from the soldiers who survived the attack 53 years ago.

New Zealand Takes On a Long-Avoided Issue: Decriminalizing Abortion: The government is taking on an issue that has long been sidestepped, hoping to fulfill a campaign vow by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

These Giant Parrots Once Roamed New Zealand: They were three feet tall, probably flightless and weighed as much as some bowling balls.

— Canadian Teenage Murder Suspects Found Dead in Manitoba, Police Say: The police said they believed they had found the bodies of two teenagers suspected in a violent rampage that killed an Australian man.


Around the TimesImageCreditKathy Willens/Associated Press

Toni Morrison, Towering Novelist of the Black Experience, Dies at 88: Ms. Morrison, who wrote “Beloved” and “Song of Solomon,” was the first African-American woman to win the Nobel in literature.

The Vegetarians Who Turned Into Butchers: How several former vegans and vegetarians came to see meat as their calling.

Nicolas Cage on Acting, Philosophy and Searching for the Holy Grail: “I wanted to have the mystery of the old stars, always preserved in an enigmatic aura.”

‘Shut the Site Down,’ Says the Creator of 8chan, a Megaphone for Gunmen: The site is a venue for extremists to test out ideas, share violent literature and cheer on the perpetrators of mass killings.

T Presents: 15 New Creative Talents: Working across food, fashion, art and design, these people are reinventing the rules of their professions and inspiring us to look at familiar worlds anew.

… And Over to You

Last week, Isabella Kwai, self-confessed anxious driver, chose four podcasts to explore for your morning commute and asked for your favorite. Thanks to everyone who put forward some choice recommendations — the list grows ever longer! Here are some of them:

— Chat 10 Looks 3 — from Billi McCarthy-Price

— Hamish & Andy — from Andrew Vann

— Human/Ordinary — from Debbie Ann

— Conversations — from Janet Hanson

And from Barry Long: “You should try driving in silence. It greatly enhances your ability to focus on your driving. This is especially important when traveling at high speed or in challenging driving conditions. To me, trying to listen to a podcast is no different to talking on the phone while driving. More and more, people seem to treat driving as sitting in a mobile entertainment center.”

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