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To shun or to embrace? Australia–US relations and China’s rise (part I)

Posted By on July 31, 2012 @ 09:40

There’s a conundrum facing the writers of the Defence White Paper 2013. On one hand, Australia’s geography places it at the southern end of East Asia and its economy places it in a strong trading relationship with the North East Asian economies, particularly China. These factors have seen Australia become increasingly linked to the region. On the other hand, Australia’s cultural predisposition and security ties are Western orientated, particularly to the United States. The question to be asked, therefore, is: are Australia’s national interests best served by pressing into the United States or by pulling away to accommodate China’s rise? This two-part post seeks to address this question.

Australia has been living for almost seventy years under the Pax Americana—that is, the rules based order that the United States sponsored after World War II. The United States sponsored the IMF, World Bank, United Nations and a global order from which many have benefitted immensely.

There is also a strong predisposition in Australia towards the United States. The very idea of ‘America’ has always been attractive to many Australians ever since the Great White Fleet visited in 1907. The idea of a liberal, democratic, free-market and rules-based order is what the United States has seemed to epitomise. America is a remarkable country and it is one that is easy to criticise, and it is often in the breach of the rules that we consider its actions. Americans themselves are very critical of their failings and readily point them out to each other and to the world. But it is hard to imagine any country, with all its failings, having a more positive influence on world order than the United States.

The United States has its faults, but it is a country that Australia looks to, particularly for its military and intelligence ties. Richelson and Ball’s book The Ties That Bind describes the significance of the bilateral intelligence links, focusing particularly on the Joint Defence Facilities at Pine Gap. The title is an evocative description of a significant reality. The ties between Australia and the United States are not to be dismissed casually—they are extensive, broad, deep and longstanding. So Australians should proceed carefully when thinking about changing the direction of the ship of state in terms of defence alliance strategy.

That’s not to say that the way ahead is unambiguously positive; some worry about the future of American power. For example, there’s undoubtedly a concern about America’s economic growth trajectory. But growth is never just a simple straight line progression. Looking back at the United States in 1932 for instance, we saw a depressed economy, with bread lines, soup kitchens and widespread unemployment. America in 1945 was a country transformed. In 1979, America was apparently beaten by the Iranians and underwent a crisis of confidence, to the point where the President gave a dramatically downbeat speech on the subject [1]. Only a few years later, the Berlin Wall came down and the United States led a dramatic liberation of Kuwait. In other words, discounting the dynamism of the United States would be foolhardy.

There are some enduring geostrategic features about the United States that are worth reflecting on. It sits astride the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans, giving it an incredible advantage in terms of trade with Europe and with Asia. It has access to the Panama Canal, the Mississippi River and the associated canal network that enables trade via the sea right into the heartland of North America and right up into the great lakes. It has a population that is dynamic and growing. It has an economy which has had a big slump but which has enacted significant banking reforms and is still growing, unlike large portions of Europe. It is remarkably vibrant. It is going through a very difficult time at the moment but it is a country that is not to be dismissed lightly.

On balance, however, most would agree that Australia should not be so close to the United States as to lead American policymakers to believe that Australia is an unquestioning follower. But the notion that Australia should distance itself from America because American power is waning should not be accepted unquestioningly, as there are significant pointers to America’s enduring significance to Asia-Pacific security concerns. This is perhaps something for Defence White Paper writers to consider.

Another might be a concern aired by some that by sticking too closely to the United States, Australia may unduly aggravate China and foster undue American bravado—an issue explored in my next piece.

John Blaxland is a senior fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.



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[1] dramatically downbeat speech on the subject: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/primary-resources/carter-crisis/

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