US diplomats have been pressed to explain why their boss, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, said Washington would “disconnect” from Australia if China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) threatened US intelligence security. The southern Australian state of Victoria is part of the BRI, but it has yet to lay out concrete plans for the project. Furthermore, Australia has expressly prohibited telecommunications projects between the two nations.
Pompeo: ‘We Will Simply Separate’
“I don’t know the nature of those projects precisely, but to the extent they have an adverse impact on our ability to protect telecommunications from our private citizens, or security networks for our defense and intelligence communities, we will simply disconnect, we will simply separate,” Pompeo said. “We’re going to preserve trust in networks for important information. We hope our friends and partners and allies across the world, especially our Five Eyes partners like Australia, will do the same.”
Among the Five Eyes partners, New Zealand, Australia, and the US have banned Huawei and ZTE from building 5G networks in their states. Canada and the UK have also launched investigations into whether there are valid security concerns, possibly leaning towards banning the companies as well.
The possible security implications of Chinese, state-owned manufacturers providing 5G infrastructure for a Five Eyes partner are at the root of Pompeo’s argument and the reason he suggested severing America’s intelligence ties with Australia. The secretary made the comment in an interview on Sky News, a conservative-leaning channel, as the Guardian reported.
When Maximum Pressure Consumes You
Pompeo’s rushed reaction to Victoria’s partnership with Beijing is a result of the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign against Huawei and ZTE. As soon as US President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning them from building 5G networks on the basis of national security, his advisors moved quickly to pressure America’s allies to follow suit. Many of them complied and Australia was actually one of the first.
Therefore, Pompeo’s speediness to find a solution lacks a problem. The Australian government has perhaps been the most aligned with Washington on the issue. Furthermore, the BRI’s status in Victoria is also still up for debate. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, responding to Pompeo’s statement, said Canberra had initially opposed an agreement with Beijing. In fact, all that exists presently is a non-binding deal.
The threat of Chinese espionage through 5G telecommunications giants, whether real or not (no credible evidence has been provided yet), has the Trump administration over eager to pursue Chinese companies. Consequently, it is landing harsh and swift blows upon its allies, even Israel, which Pompeo said might have cooperation problems in the future due to its deals with China.
Pompeo admitted he did not know the status and scope of Victoria’s projects, when in fact none currently exist, so the best course would have been to avoid commenting. Instead, the US secretary laid bare the most extreme possible reaction in an undiplomatic manner. His underlings were forced to pick up the pieces from the interview.
Cleaning Up Pompeo’s Mess
The US ambassador to Australia, Arthur B. Culvahouse Jr., said Pompeo didn’t mean anything by the remark, as Reuters reported.
“The United States has absolute confidence in the Australian government’s ability to protect the security of its telecommunications networks and those of its Five Eyes partners,” Culvahouse said. “The Secretary was asked to address a hypothetical, and he carefully noted he was not familiar with the State of Victoria’s BRI discussions.”
In America, Pompeo’s suggestion of cutting off one of the oldest US allies reverberated throughout Capitol Hill. The ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee called Pompeo’s remarks “thoughtless.”
“Only in the Trump Admin would our most senior diplomat casually threaten to ‘disconnect’ from a long standing ally,” Chairman Eliot Engel, D–N.Y., said in a tweet from the committee.
Pompeo’s Terrible Timing
Finally, Pompeo’s comment came at the worst time for another reason: Australia is presently engaged in a trade spat with China following a COVID-19 fallout. Canberra is calling for an independent investigation into the origins of the virus and in retaliation, Beijing imposed an 80% increase in barley tariffs.
Pompeo should be familiar with Australia’s row with China because only a week prior, Pompeo was commending Canberra for standing up against Beijing, as Newsweek reported.
“We stand with Australia and the more than 120 nations who have taken up the American call for an inquiry into the origins of the virus so we can understand what went wrong and save lives,” Pompeo said on May 20.
The idea that the US secretary could be so quick to formulate a reaction despite admitting he knew none of the facts could have been a diplomatic disaster had America’s ambassador not stepped up to clarify the remark. Instead of jumping the gun, Pompeo should recognize what Washington has in Canberra — a willing, trustworthy ally that is under Beijing’s skin almost as much as the US.