US President Donald Trump and former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull (Image: EPA/Shawn Thew)

In the dying days of the Trump presidency, the ABC got a huge scoop: the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy — which among other things spells out a blueprint for getting tougher on China. The document was released today after Aunty got exclusive early access.

There’s a lot of eyebrow-raising stuff going on here.

First, the document isn’t meant to be declassified for another 30 years — national security sources never get released this early. Second, there’s the question of why it was given to the ABC. Is there some method behind the Trump administration’s madness? And, more worryingly, has the ABC been played?

What’s in the strategy?

The document provides details on the strategy endorsed by US President Donald Trump in 2018. What’s most notable is its bluntness on China, clearly seen as a concern.

The document commits to: “Devise and implement a defence strategy capable of, but not limited to: (1) denying China sustained air and sea dominance inside the ‘first island chain’ in a conflict; (2) defending the first island chain nations, including Taiwan; and (3) dominating all domains outside the first island chain.”

In other words, maintaining American primacy in the region.

As a bulwark against an increasingly assertive China, the strategy pledges a deepening relationship with Australia, Japan and India. On India, which has a historic, and increasingly tense, border dispute with China, the strategy is to accelerate the country’s rise and offer support through diplomatic, military and intelligence channels.

There’s also a bit about convincing North Korea to give up its nuclear program, an ambitious goal no closer to fruition.

Speaking to ABC’s 7.30, head of the Australian National University’s National Security College Professor Rory Medcalf describes the strategy as “very forthright on China — not quite confrontational but very firm”.

But James Laurenceson, UTS Australia-China Relations Institute director, says what’s concerning about the document is that it shows the US “continues to live in la-la land regarding the facts of China’s rise”.

“It commits to American dominance in all domains outside the first island chain,” he said. “As [defence strategist] Hugh White has repeatedly noted, this inability to grasp or admit anything other than American primacy could, in a worst case scenario, see Australia drawn into an unbelievably costly military conflict, or alternatively dumped and left on our lonesome if reality in the US ever does set in.”

Why give it to us?

If this document is such a big deal, why would Trump administration officials give it to the ABC, and not a big American outlet?

The story given to the ABC from “Washington sources” goes a little like this: the strategy was developed by national security officials who’d watched and taken lessons from the way Malcolm Turnbull was handling the China relationship as prime minister. And speaking to Axios, one US official said Australia’s government was made up of “pioneers” who were “ahead of the curve in understanding influence operations and interference”.

The sources said they wanted to remind Australia that even with a new president just a week away, the US remains committed to the Indo-Pacific.

And on top of that they wouldn’t have American allies believing that — despite all the idiocy and the high attrition rate in the White House — the Trump administration was a “strategy-free zone”.

Australian media played?

But there are more sceptical explanations for how the document ended up with the ABC.

China Policy Centre director Adam Ni tells Crikey the release could be an attempt to “bind the hand” of the incoming Biden administration on foreign policy.

As Ni says, there’s a track record of Trump officials giving drops to an Australian media perceived as slightly more credulous. Last year a leaked intelligence “dossier”, which seemed to point out the coronavirus escaped from a Wuhan lab (a pet theory of Trump’s) was dropped to The Daily Telegraph, but later hosed down by the US embassy.

And there’s the more extreme case of how Sky News Australia has spent the months after November’s election pushing baseless claims about voter fraud.

“The end game is perhaps to launder this report through the Australian media and create the impression that this has support from American allies and put pressure on the next administration,” Ni said.

In some ways, Australia is the perfect place to put this strategy out into the world.

“There’s no doubt that Trump administration officials, particularly in the national security space, see Australia as being their most sympathetic audience,” Laurenceson said.

Although other countries in the region have had frostier relations with China over the past few years, it’s in Australia where leader- and ministerial-level dialogue has completely broken down, Laurenceson says.

Putting out the strategy in Australia could help reinforce the idea that a more assertive approach to China is being driven by American allies, putting greater pressure on Biden to maintain continuity.

Ni says there’s clearly an agenda behind the release, one we must be wary of when reporting on it.

“My point is as analysts and media professionals, we have to be really careful of leaked documents and security sources, because they’re doing it for a reason,” he said.

“The ABC aren’t questioning why something that clearly should not be leaked is leaked.”