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Beijing’s Pressure Drives Alliance Push by Australia at G-7

·4-min read

(Bloomberg) -- As worsening geopolitical tensions with China spill into trade reprisals, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is heading to the U.K. to meet global leaders this week with a message: There’s strength in numbers.

“Patterns of cooperation within the liberal rules-based order that has benefited us for so long are under renewed strain,” Morrison said in a speech in Perth on Wednesday, before he heads overseas to attend the Group of Seven leaders’ summit.

In order to support a “world order that favours freedom over autocracy and authoritarianism,” he urged “active cooperation among like-minded countries and liberal democracies not seen for 30 years.”

Since Australia-China relations went into a tailspin after Morrison’s government last year called for Beijing to allow independent investigators to probe the origins of the pandemic, he’s 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 U.S. 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

Morrison, who will be an invited guest of U.K. 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 Morrison’s first face-to-face meeting with President Joe Biden. 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.

“Having led calls for an independent inquiry, it remains Australia’s firm view that understanding the cause of this pandemic has nothing to do with politics -- it’s essential for preventing the next one,” Morrison said on Wednesday.

Such language has repeatedly incensed China, which says it backs the World Health Organization’s efforts to find the virus origin. Since 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 Morrison’s government is making public statements that seem to be stoking tensions with China.

In Wednesday’s speech he omitted several statements from extracts sent earlier by his office. Those statements touched on how Australia wouldn’t be driven to unacceptable compromises, that its network vital global relationships continued to accelerate, and that it wouldn’t set “false deadlines” for phasing out fossil fuels.

‘Risk of Miscalculation’

“The Indo-Pacific region -- Australia’s region -- is the epicenter of renewed strategic competition,” he said. “The risks of miscalculation and conflict are very present and growing. The technological edge enjoyed historically by Australia and our allies is under challenge.”

He’s also calling for reform of the World Trade Organization by reinstalling its appellate body, saying the binding dispute system is needed because “where there are no consequences for coercive behavior, there is little incentive for restraint.”

Before attending the G-7 in Cornwall, Morrison will meet with his counterpart in Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, on Thursday for economic and security discussions. After his visit to the U.K., where he’s seeking to reach an initial agreement on a free-trade deal with Johnson’s government, his itinerary includes a visit to France for talks with President Emmanuel Macron.

Still, Morrison has one important policy stance that he knows won’t be popular with most of his counterparts in Cornwall: He’s 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, Morrison is refusing to commit to a date to reach net-zero emissions, instead saying it’s the nation’s ambition to get there by 2050. That’s even as Biden and some of Australia’s biggest fossil-fuel export markets -- China, Japan and South Korea -- commit to doing more to combat climate change.

(Updates with comments delivered by Morrison in speech throughout)

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