Australian Leader Warns China Against Trying to Bully Neighbors

  • Turnbull sticks up for smaller nations at security conference
  • Seeks to reassure Asia about U.S. engagement under Trump

Australia's Turnbull Says China Must Rein in North Korea

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull warned China against abusing its growing influence in Asia, while attempting to reassure the region’s leaders that the U.S. remained engaged under President Donald Trump.

Turnbull told dozens of defense officials and military leaders at the Shangri-La security forum in Singapore that China shouldn’t bully smaller states into taking its side as its growing might challenges decades of U.S. dominance. The prime minister said China had gained the most from the region’s peace and stability and therefore had the most to lose if it were disrupted.

Turnbull at the Shangri-La security forum in Singapore, on June 2.

Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg

“A coercive China would find its neighbors resenting demands they cede their autonomy and strategic space, and look to counterweight Beijing’s power by bolstering alliances and partnerships, between themselves and especially with the United States,” Turnbull said in a keynote address Friday. He said a secure world was one in which “the big fish respect the little fish and shrimps.”

Australia has for decades walked a fine line between preserving economic ties with China, its largest trading partner, and the U.S., its most important ally. The speech -- Turnbull’s most high-profile foreign policy address since becoming prime minister in 2015 -- saw him advocating for smaller Asian countries that might be reluctant to openly criticize China.

“This was a very good speech -- very realistic,” Malaysia Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told Bloomberg as delegates filed out of the Shangri-La Hotel. “This needed to be said. Very pragmatic. I told him that after the speech.”

The Chinese sent only a low-level delegation to the event, the first time since 2012 the country hadn’t been represented by an officer of at least the rank of a four-star general. Members of the delegation were observed gesticulating and complaining loudly outside the ballroom after the speech.

One official member of the delegation expressed surprise at what they saw as Turnbull’s harsh remarks and “sucking up” to the U.S. The official said the remarks were unfair coming so soon after Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit in March, during which the two sides announced several trade deals.

Turnbull also sought to reassure regional leaders of the U.S.’s commitment to Asia in the “America First” era. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which includes 11 Pacific Rim nations, and the Paris climate-change accord, had sown doubts among those who had invested in the U.S.-led world order.

Watch: Turnbull tells Bloomberg China must rein in North Korea

“China believes all countries are equal, the big and small ones, and we adhere to the principle of peaceful coexistence with all the nations by maintaining regional stability," Lieutenant General He Lei, the head of the Chinese delegation to Shangri-La, told Chinese media after the speech, according to a video of his remarks.

While Turnbull called the TPP and Paris decisions “disappointing,” he said nations “should take care not to rush to interpret an intent to engage on different terms as one not to engage at all.”

“The United States’ own interests in the Indo-Pacific demand more U.S. engagement, not less,” he said.

Mattis Speech

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis was set to address the Shangri-La Dialogue on Saturday, where he is expected to offer reassurance that the U.S. has no intention of giving up its role as a guarantor of regional peace and stability.

“We have a good friend and partner in Beijing and a steadfast friend and ally in Washington,” Turnbull said, rejecting the view that Australia had to choose sides. “Our foreign policy is determined in Australia’s national interest and Australia’s alone.”

Turnbull’s relationship with Trump got off to a bad start in January, after Trump abruptly ended a phone call with the prime minister that he described as “the worst” among the five world leaders he spoke to that day. They appeared to bury the hatchet last month when they dined aboard the USS Intrepid museum in New York, and Trump said they “would remain friends for a very long time.”

Australia is concerned about Beijing’s military build-up in the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. China, whose actions have also worried Southeast Asian nations with competing claims such as Vietnam and the Philippines, has ignored an international arbitration court ruling rejecting its claims to more than 80 percent of the waters.

China should not try to take advantage of its growing economic and military might to attempt to marginalize the contribution of other nations in the region “particularly the United States,” Turnbull said.

‘Rules-Based Structure’

“If we are to maintain the dynamism of the region, then we must preserve the rules-based structure that has enabled it thus far,” Turnbull said. “This means cooperation, not unilateral actions to seize or create territory or militarize disputed areas.”

Turnbull said one way China could show its good intentions would be to curb North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. “China has gained the most from the peace and harmony in our region, and consequently it has the most to lose if it is threatened.”

For some, Turnbull’s criticism of China’s didn’t go far enough.

“Very disappointing,” said Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, and a former president of the United Nations Security Council. “He was trying to be diplomatic towards the Chinese, but he should have been more direct.”

— With assistance by Jason Koutsoukis, and Marc Champion

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