Despite US President Obama drawing attention to Australia’s inaction on climate change, we should be extremely pleased with his speech, as well as that of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Obama’s speech has reinforced the US rebalance to the Asia Pacific at a time when American attention has again been hijacked by the Middle East; Xi’s has elevated the status of the Australia–China relationship at a crucial time for the region.
While a large component of Obama’s speech was a call to action on climate change (perhaps appealing to his young, student audience), a significant portion focused on the US rebalance to Asia. That should be music to Australian ears as well as to other US allies in the region. Obama conceded that events around the world had ‘demanded [US] attention’ including ISIL, Russian aggression in Ukraine and the outbreak of Ebola. However, he reassured allies and partners that those challenges weren’t distracting the US from the Asia Pacific because ‘…in each of these international efforts some of our strongest partners are our allies and friends in the region’.
While Obama may have been reaching a bit here, he grabbed the issue of greater allied support for global US pursuits with two hands: ‘Our rebalance is not only about the United States doing more in Asia, it’s also about the Asia Pacific region doing more with us around the world’. Translation: allies should step up to help in global coalitions so America will have the capacity to stay around for longer in the Asia Pacific.
Obama also had a couple of subtle jabs for China in his speech, saying:
- ‘An effective security order for Asia must be based—not on spheres of influence, or coercion, or intimidation where big nations bully the small—but on alliances of mutual security, international law and international norms…’
- ‘…by the end of this decade a majority of [US] Navy and Air Force fleets will be based out of the Pacific because the United States is and will always be a Pacific Power. And keep in mind we do this without any territorial claims…’
- ‘How well a country does is based on how well they empower their individual citizens…’
Obama was less subtle in saying ‘in this engagement we are also encouraging China to adhere to the same rules as other nations—whether in trade or on the seas’. That frank and forthright approach to China could be more effective than an approach that pulls its punches: being upfront about what America wants from China sends a stronger message and leaves less room for ambiguity.
The important parts of President Xi’s speech for Australian strategic policy were his suggestion that China and Australia become ‘strategic partners, who have shared vision and pursue common goals’ and that we increase our security cooperation in a number of areas.
Xi’s assertion that Australia and China have ‘every reason’ to go beyond a commercial partnership and become strategic partners is perfectly true, but it doesn’t mean we share the same vision of the world. Australia and China’s strategic interests don’t overlap in the key area of maintaining the US-led regional order in the Asia Pacific. In addition, our track record over the last few years has been patchy at best: Australia’s military and diplomatic support for the US rebalance to Asia has been criticised by China and China’s assertive actions in territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas and declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) have been criticised by Australia. Given those factors, it’s hard to see how Xi could reasonably expect a strategic partnership with Australia to be especially close.
However, Xi’s assertion that we should cooperate on ‘disaster relief, counter-terrorism, maritime safety and jointly meet various security challenges’ is positive. By making this statement in Australian Parliament, Xi has shown that China is open to exploring new means of security cooperation with Australia, despite our alliance with the US and ongoing support for the rebalance.
Another important takeaway from Xi’s speech was how much it stressed China’s desire for peace and cooperation. Xi uttered the word ‘peace’ no less than 22 times in his speech and ‘win-win’ also featured prominently. Even for a diplomatic address, Xi seemed generous in his assertions, saying that China ‘will never develop itself at the expense of others’; ‘sincerely hopes to work with other countries in the region to…achieve win-win progress’; and is ready to ‘enhance dialogue and cooperation with relevant countries to jointly maintain freedom of navigation’. Those are all positive signs for the region and us.
All things considered, the implications for Australia from Obama and Xi’s speeches are good: the rebalance has been reinforced and there’s more fruit to bear from the Australia-China relationship. While both Obama and Xi made veiled references to the strategic tensions between their countries, they also showed that they can cooperate on climate change and they both want to work more with Australia. That’s good for us.