Choosing America?
27 Nov 2013|

As the annual AUSMIN consultations between American and Australian foreign and defence ministers concluded in Annapolis, I was busy attending the Australian Institute of International Affairs 80th national conference. Perhaps it was the influence of Hugh White, who held forth on the dangers of US–China confrontation, as is his wont, or former diplomat John McCarthy’s warning that Australia isn’t perceived within the region as pursuing a foreign policy independent to that of the United States. Either way, the language around engagement with Japan which emerged in the AUSMIN Joint Communiqué is striking. The United States and Australia agreed:

to deepen cooperation with Japan through the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue, the Security and Defense Cooperation Forum, and other fora to advance shared objectives… They agree to support Japan’s efforts to re-examine its security and defense policies to contribute to enhanced regional peace and security, and increase information sharing with Japan to bolster trilateral cooperative defense and diplomacy efforts.

As White suggests, it’s hard to imagine policymakers in China not feeling a bit concerned when Australia joins the US in this kind of rhetoric. Certainly, the Communiqué also states the two countries’ affirmation that they will ‘encourage China to play a responsible and constructive role in support of regional stability and prosperity’—but this seems much more limited than our commitment ‘to work with Japan to improve regional security and defense capacities in the region to… promote freedom of navigation and regional maritime security.’

This language seems to imply that Australia and the US expect Japan to take the lead on regional maritime security and are willing to support it in this endeavour. If China would like to join in and ‘play a responsible and constructive role’ in this task, so much the better. However, there’s no sign of any accommodation of Chinese involvement in regional leadership, which will concern Beijing.

Unlike in 2012, when Australia and the US ‘reaffirmed that [the two countries] do not take a position on competing territorial claims in the South China Sea,’ this year the United States and Australia called ‘on all claimants to refrain from coercion, intimidation, and other actions that could increase tensions’ and ‘reaffirmed their commitment to oppose any coercive or unilateral actions to change the status quo in the East China Sea.’ As others have asked, will China be in favour of maintaining a status quo which sees its regional power subordinated to Japan and the US? (also see here (PDF)).

While it’s important for the United States to continue to reiterate its support for Japan in order to maintain credibility and to avoid ‘even greater cycles of armament in the region,’ it remains unclear why Australia must also make such commitments. Aside, that is, from blindly following our key alliance partner; paying our ‘insurance premium’ as it’s often put.

However, if Australia sees no inconsistency or need to choose between our closest ally and largest trading partner, as successive governments have claimed (PDF, and here), then surely it’s worth undertaking a little more consideration before hitching our wagon to the US and Japan on these issues. It’s hard to see how softer language in the AUSMIN Communiqué would have damaged our links with the US (and Japan for that matter). However, it’ll certainly have attracted China’s attention.

Jacob Traeger is an account executive with CMAX Communications.