Australia still might face the China choice
5 Apr 2013|

Time to make a choice?Peter Jennings’ recent op-ed in The Australian (PDF) recognises some of the pressing issues confronting Australian strategists, but fails to identify an underlying cause. Two of the issues­­­­­­ he addresses discretely—divergent Australian and American views of Asia and a current lack of Australian Government enthusiasm for the alliance—are actually underpinned by an issue he dismisses.

Peter dismisses the prospect that Australia might have to choose between the US and China, but it’s this possibility which is driving, in part, our determination to see developments in Asia with a ‘relentlessly glass half full perspective’. It’s also probably responsible for a ‘perceived cooling of Australian support for enhanced co-operation’ with the US.

Peter writes that the idea Australia might need to choose between China and the US ‘does not, and will not, have traction in policy circles’. If true, this is a real shame, for it’s a valid and immensely thought-provoking­­ concept, and one that has significant traction in public debate. Indeed, a reluctance to address this idea—precisely because of the challenges it poses—might go some way to explaining the current state of Australian defence policy.

Firstly, the idea can’t simply be dismissed out of hand. Australia might indeed, someday, have to choose between China and the US. This could occur in a number of ways. First, we could make the choice proactively, though this is very unlikely. We’ll almost certainly, for as long as we can, cultivate closer relations with both. But we’d be foolish to insist that this happy state of affairs will persist indefinitely.

A second, and less pleasant, future is one where China or the US—or both—forces a choice onto us. Perhaps some of the easiest scenarios to imagine concern Taiwan or the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. If the proverbial hits the fan, the US might expect active Australian support, while China might expect us to sit on the sidelines. In this scenario, whatever we choose will displease someone. A third option, whereby we displease both powers, is also possible. It would be great if a fourth option existed—whereby we please both China and the US—but this doesn’t seem particularly feasible. Complicating matters further, this future decision might need to be made in a short period of time—perhaps mere hours.

That would be a most unpleasant scenario. But reality isn’t required to be pleasant and we’d be naïve in the extreme to believe this ‘forced choice’ scenario to be impossible.

But instead of thoughtfully considering this concept, Australian leaders seem determined to deny the possibility. The Asian Century White Paper optimistically states ‘We [Australia] come to the relationship with China as a dependable economic partner, a constructive participant in regional affairs, one of the world’s oldest democracies, a good international citizen, and a close ally of the United States. None of these dimensions will change’.

When it comes to China, the Government’s approach is not simply ‘relentlessly glass half full’. It might better be characterised as a deep reluctance to discuss the security challenges that China could create for Australia.

Although Hugh White’s recent book, The China Choice, primarily concerns America’s future decisions about China, it sparked a tremendous domestic debate about Australia’s own choices. Accordingly, it seems odd that the idea of Australia choosing between the US and China would have ‘no traction in policy circles’. The only people not discussing this issue, it seems, are our political leaders (and perhaps, if Peter is right, those advising them).

As this discussion has demonstrated, there’s significant public interest in—and knowledge of—this worrying possibility. Many Australians, not just those in Canberra’s policy circles, realise the importance of these relationships. But in the current financial and strategic environment, the Government cannot simply­—absent a credible explanation to the electorate—‘speed up’ Defence cooperation with the US. While the Government remains quiet on the risk associated with China’s rise—the primary reason for intensified cooperation with the US—there’s unlikely to be much public support for further defence spending or increasingly closer ties with the US. If there is no increased threat or risk, why do we need to spend more on Defence, or cooperate more with the US?

A public discussion of these issues will not become self-fulfilling prophecy, nor should it grievously upset China. Instead, it could better prepare Australia for the challenging future we might face in the Asian Century. It would also mean that if we ever are forced to choose—perhaps at short notice—then at least our leaders might have given it some prior thought! In the meantime, it might focus our thoughts on the very real, long-term consequences of our Defence policy and capability decisions.

Iain Henry is a Fulbright Scholar and a PhD candidate at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU. These are his personal views. Image courtesy of Flickr user furiousgeorge81.