International relations as art, not science
29 Jul 2014|
Art, not science

The good news is that Australia is doing just fine in shaping its relations with both China and the United States. The bad news is that things could still go wrong for Australia at any time, notwithstanding how skilled it might be in orchestrating its ties between Beijing and Washington.

There’s never any guarantee that the ‘right road’ to regional stability or economic growth will be free of unexpected traps and complications. As Hedley Bull once observed, conducting international relations remains an art, not a science. The best Australia can do is to apply the most reasonable policy assessments it can. Those involve assessing what we have learned from history and then applying diplomacy as judiciously as possible without excessive fear of risk.

In that context, fundamental aspects of Australia’s relations with China, the United States and other regional security actors can be assessed without excessive drama.

First, while China is no fan of the US bilateral alliance system, there’s currently little prospect that it’ll attempt to coerce Australia into relinquishing its alliance ties with the US. Past Chinese efforts to soften ANZUS have backfired and China also learns from history. China’s preoccupation with strengthening its economy and maintaining domestic stability remains paramount and that trumps ongoing rhetoric by China’s leaders and its media about US regional alliances.

Second, a country like Australia has limited influence relative to Asia’s great powers and therefore generates little strategic concern among China’s policymakers. It remains a valued supplier of commodities that underpin China’s industrial output and economic growth. Rather than forcing Canberra into an unpalatable policy choice, it’s better—from China’s vantage point—to engage symbolically with the US and Australia in joint military exercises and to acknowledge with gratitude Australia’s good international citizenship in taking the lead on the search for a missing Malaysian Airlines aircraft with many Chinese passengers.

Third, however, for historical and geopolitical reasons, China is genuinely alarmed about Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ongoing quest to transform his country into a ‘more normal power’ and to amend Japan’s peace constitution. As this process unfolds, China will watch closely how other regional actors such as Australia directly or indirectly collaborate with Japanese security objectives.

Fourth, structural changes are occurring that require China, along with its regional neighbours, Australia and the US to work collectively to modify regional security dilemmas and to forge a regional order that will guarantee stability to the greatest extent possible. Australia and Japan are both maritime trading states keen to ensure that tranquillity and trade are preserved in Southeast Asia. They, along with most member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), have a common interest in arresting or neutralising what they view as Chinese ‘salami-slicing’ tactics in seizing gradual control of the East and South China Seas by asserting extensive territorial and maritime claims in those waters and building up its naval power to enforce them. China must find better ways than it has to date for reconciling what it views as rectifying legitimate historical grievances and securing its territorial rights in those waters with the need to avoid intensifying regional security dilemmas through a series of uncompromising nationalistic postures.

Another emerging dimension of geopolitics is complicating regional order-building. Washington, Tokyo and Canberra are only now becoming more aware of what Mohan Malik and some analysts have characterised as China’s ‘go-west’ policy. Beijing is endeavouring to transform inland Eurasia into the new economic hub of Asian development and geopolitics. It is investing heavily in pipelines and transport infrastructures that connect Central, Southwest and Southeast Asia to form a new Eurasian network in which a Chinese ‘hub’ draws in raw materials and energy resources and exports manufactured goods to sub-regional ‘spokes’. Given Japan is marginal and Australia largely inconsequential in China’s Eurasia strategy, it seems unlikely that the Chinese will waste the energy and resources needed to separate Australia from its American benefactor.

A fundamental challenge confronting Australian policymakers, therefore, is to identify and implement policies that may enable the traditional American hub-and-spokes network to co-exist alongside—and even complement—China’s Eurasian strategy. Moreover, the US must assign increased emphasis to the diplomatic aspects of its Asian pivot strategy relative to its military dimensions. And it must convince Japan that a moderate and incremental path to normalisation is essential—not least to reassure China that the US still has the will and the capacity to influence Japanese governments to embrace policy moderation.

As a respected middle power in the region interested in avoiding having to make choices between China’s version of regional geopolitics and that projected by the US alliance system, Australia’s best policy course is to support those initiatives emanating from both sides that promote regional compromise, reasonable conciliation and long-term confidence-building.

William Tow is a professor in the Department of International Relations at the Australian National University. Image courtesy of Flickr user epsos.