- Jake Sullivan, who President-elect Joe Biden has picked as national security adviser, on Wednesday sent a subtle message of support to Australia, which is locked in an ongoing showdown with China.
- China’s confrontation with Australia has escalated this spring, most recently with Chinese official tweeting an inflammatory image referencing war-crimes accusations against Australian soldiers.
- US observers welcomed Sullivan’s message as a departure from Trump’s attitude toward allies but said Biden needs to follow-through on it after taking office.
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Jake Sullivan, who President-elect Joe Biden has picked to be national security adviser, on Wednesday sent what appeared to be a message of support to Australia amid its ongoing showdown with China.
“The Australian people have made great sacrifices to protect freedom and democracy around the world,” Sullivan tweeted. “As we have for a century, America will stand shoulder to shoulder with our ally Australia and rally fellow democracies to advance our shared security, prosperity, and values.”
Sullivan’s message avoided mentioning China, which has steadily escalated a confrontation with Australia since earlier this year.
After Canberra called for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, Beijing called Australia “a giant kangaroo that serves as a dog to the US.” That was followed by a series of tariffs as well as a months-long cyberattack on Australian governments and businesses purportedly conducted by Beijing.
Beijing recently put tariffs on Australian wine, for which China is the biggest export market. That drew a less-than-subtle message of support from the Trump administration, with which Australia has also had a strained relationship.
Tensions seemed to escalate on Sunday, when a senior Chinese official posted a controversial image on Twitter that referenced war-crimes accusations against Australian troops.
The fabricated image posted by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian showed a smiling Australian soldier slitting a child’s throat. The child was in front of an Afghan flag in the form of an incomplete puzzle. A caption on the photo read, “Don’t be afraid, we are coming to bring you peace!”
Zhao’s tweet came as Australian Defence Force (ADF) released an investigation that recommended current and former special forces soldiers be investigated over the deaths of 39 non-combatants in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2013.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the image was “repugnant” and could not “be justified on any basis.”
“The Chinese Government should be totally ashamed of this post,” Morrison added. “There are undoubtedly tensions that exist between China and Australia, but this is not how you deal with them.”
Chinese officials have refused to apologise and instead questioned Morrison’s grievances in light of the ADF report.
“The Australian side has been reacting so strongly to my colleague’s tweet,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Monday. “Why is that? Do they think that their merciless killing of Afghan civilians is justified but the condemnation of such ruthless brutality is not? Afghan lives matter!”
Zhao’s tweet remains on Twitter as of Wednesday.
While Sullivan’s message drew some criticism for failing to mention China directly, others applauded it as a welcome change from the Trump administration’s dealings with allies.
Jorge Guajardo, Mexico’s ambassador to China from 2007 to 2013, called it “soup for the allies’ soul.” Bonnie Glaser, senior advisor for Asia at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said it was “pitch perfect.”
John Culver, who was US national intelligence officer for East Asia from 2015 to 2018, said Sullivan’s tweet reflected that “Biden’s first China issue will be [China’s] economic pressure and media attacks on a key US ally” and called Beijing’s pressure an “own-goal.”
Abraham Denmark, who was deputy assistant secretary of defence for East Asia from 2015 to January 2017, also said Sullivan’s message was “pitch-perfect in terms of reassurance and vision, but it will need practical and consistent follow-through after inauguration.”
Biden won’t take office until January 20, but Australia’s prime minister was among the first foreign leaders he spoke to his election.
In a November 11 call, Biden thanked Prime Minister Scott Morrison for Morrison’s congratulations on that win and “underscored” the US and Australia’s longstanding relationship, according to a readout.
Biden said he looked forward to working closely with Morrison “on many common challenges,” including containing the pandemic, confronting climate change, and “maintaining a secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region.”
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