Australia enters China’s strategic landscape because of its role as a close military ally of the US. It’s seen by many inside China as the ‘southern anchor’ of America’s alliance system in the Asia–Pacific region. Yet, when compared with Japan, the ‘northern anchor’ of this system, Australia has never generated the same amount of frustration or anxiety among Chinese policymakers. Geography and history combine to produce different security dynamics in China–Australia relations, compared with China–Japan relations, despite Australia and Japan’s identical roles as a close US ally. Since the end of the Cold War, Australia has occasionally been a minor nuisance to China’s strategic planning—rarely a headache, let alone a preoccupation.
But, as the Australian government’s 2016 Defence White Paper points out, the strategic environment of the Indo–Pacific region is changing fast, and Australia must cope with a new set of security uncertainties and risks (1.6). Can the current, relatively uneventful security relationship between Australia and China last under changing circumstances?
The US rebalance to Asia and China’s recent policies in the South China Sea are intensifying strategic competition between the two countries; it’s also increasingly straining the Australia–China security relationship. China was likely embarrassed by the two US freedom of navigation operations carried out in October 2015 and January 2016. It’s not happy with Australia’s air patrols in the South China Sea either, even though the public reaction hasn’t been strong.
Beijing will pay close attention to what the DWP says about the South China Sea. It’ll also look at what the document says about the US rebalance to the region. Chinese officials aren’t so naïve as to expect Australia to lean toward China in the current strategic environment, but they’ll be looking for signs of change in Australia’s strategy toward China’s rise (such as a more forceful military doctrine targeting China), especially if such change is of a long-term nature.
In those respects, the DWP doesn’t send an encouraging signal to Beijing. On the South China Sea, it states that ‘Australia is particularly concerned by the unprecedented pace and scale of China’s land reclamation activities’. Furthermore, it declares that ‘Australia opposes the use of artificial structures in the South China Sea for military purposes’. And that Australia strongly supports freedom of navigation and overflight as well as the peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law.
Those statements make it clear that Australia is supporting the US in opposing China’s island construction in the South China Sea. Judging by its air patrols, Australia is the US’s most active regional ally in asserting military power and rhetorical messaging to oppose Chinese activities—even more so than the Philippines has been.
So it isn’t surprising that China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson described the DWP’s positions on the South China Sea as ‘negative’, nor that Beijing was said to be ‘seriously concerned and dissatisfied’ with this part of the document.
The US and ASEAN released a relevant joint declaration following the Sunnylands summit held in California in February. The document reaffirmed a set of general principles for managing maritime disputes but contained no specific reference to China or the South China Sea. After initial concerns, Beijing was relieved by the moderate tone of the joint declaration and largely chose to ignore it. Beijing might well have hoped for a similar treatment of the South China Sea from the Australian DWP. But Canberra has chosen to eliminate all ambiguities by pointing the finger at China.
Can Beijing hope for a somewhat independent or balanced Australian analysis of the changing Indo–Pacific regional order? The DWP’s treatment of the US rebalance doesn’t inspire confidence. It’s clear that Australia is supporting the US when it comes to defence strategy. As the DWP’s executive summary declares, ‘Australia will seek to broaden and deepen our alliance with the US, including by supporting its critical role in underpinning security in our region through the continued rebalance of the United States military forces.’ To be sure, the DWP also commits Australia to developing defence relations with China. But compared to defence relations with the US, the policy of developing defence ties with China appears no more than a token inclusion to prevent the Australia–China strategic relationship from deteriorating.
Australia’s firm commitment to its alliance with the US should come as no surprise to Beijing. So perhaps Beijing should simply accept Australia’s strong support for the US rebalance as a consequence of its actions in the South China Sea. Still, it’s debatable whether the US strategy of rebalance is the best option available for ensuring peace and stability in the Indo–Pacific region. Since many inside China see the rebalance as a US attempt to check Chinese influence (if not contain it), Australia’s support for the US has the potential to make it a strategic rival of China, which isn’t in Australia’s best interests. Besides, does Canberra really believe that the US attempt to maintain the status quo of US primacy—if that’s possible—is the best way to contribute to stability in the region during China’s rise?
As the DWP establishes, Australia has operated with the US in every major conflict since the First World War, including recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. Will Australia follow the US into a possible clash with China? It’s a legitimate question to ask of the DWP, and the DWP content on this topic (which proffers unconditional support for US strategy of rebalance) is surprisingly biased and shortsighted. One would hope for a more critical—or at least balanced—view of US strategy and a more long-term take on China that goes beyond the current island construction in the South China Sea. This involves two things: first, China’s South China Sea policy reflects the current inclinations of Xi Jinping’s leadership, so it could change in the future; and second, strategy needs to reflect the long-term trend of a changing power balance in the Indo–Pacific as China rises.
If Australia’s strategy toward China follows the DWP’s proposal of making Australia an appendage of the US rebalance, Canberra should desperately hope that the US and China will be able to find a modus vivendi in their strategic competition, in order to avoid breaking its security relationship with China. The irony, of course, is that Australia’s strategic future in the context of US–China relations will be decided by Washington and Beijing, with little input from Canberra.