To shun or to embrace? Australia–US relations and China’s rise (part II)
3 Aug 2012|

Minister Smith and General LiangIn my first post, I argued while there are very good historical reasons Australia should stay close to the United States, there are a number of factors for Defence White Paper writers to consider. Here, I’ll tease out those factors Australia should take into account in deciding whether to further embrace or to shun additional US overtures for security engagement in an attempt to placate a rising China.

Firstly, China has some valid strategic concerns. It has resource insecurity and needs to import masses of energy and raw materials to sustain its economy. It also needs to keep open its sea lines of communication. This makes it vulnerable to competing pressures—not unlike the way Japan was vulnerable to American embargoes in the early 1940s. It isn’t unreasonable that China would want to have a greater sense of security and a confidence that it wouldn’t be subject to blackmail on the open seas.

China also has some understandable historical grudges. In considering the Opium Wars of the 19th century, we look back in horror at what the West, particularly Britain, was prepared to do to China to get its economic way there. Then, in the first half of the 20th century, what Japan did to China was also horrific. As a result of these legitimate long-held-grievances we’re looking collectively to China to not take it out on us. The concern is that, in light of its memories and longer term view, China might not have the appetite for a polite and restrained accommodation with its neighbours as its power grows and its military capabilities are enhanced. Recent events at the ASEAN meetings in Cambodia and at sea (at the Senkaku Islands, Scarborough Shoals and Paracel Islands, as well as the incident involving the USNS Impeccable in 2009), coupled with China’s aggressive cyber posture, reinforce this concern.

Recent developments seem to back up the concern that as China grows more powerful it will grow less accommodating of others who don’t or can’t stand up to Chinese intimidation. This provides a strong incentive for some states to press in even more to the United States. The United States’ bilateral relations and treaty obligations with these countries may present a challenge for the United States, but their Asian partners tend to view America’s engagement as crucial, particularly as there is no viable alternative powerful country or grouping to look to.

Secondly, ASEAN, for instance, doesn’t seem to offer much hope at the moment. This is partly because the landscape of the Southeast Asian region is one where the cultures have been quite different. People talk about the ‘Asian way’, but Asia is by no means a homogenous entity. The mix is Confucian, Buddhist, Muslim, Shinto, Christian, Animist and Syncretist, overlaid with centuries of disparate colonial influences over ethnically disparate people groups with limited linguistic ties beyond occasional threads from the ancient language of Sanskrit across Southeast Asia. Most of these countries therefore rely on the English language to communicate and, unable to agree amongst themselves on a range of security matters, look to the United States to maintain the rules-based order they have all benefitted from for over half a century.

Even countries like Myanmar are seeking to engage the United States (and others) to generate some strategic wriggle room so as to avoid being completely beholden to China. This phenomenon applies to a lot of other countries in the region, including Japan, the Republic of Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Singapore and, to a lesser extent, Thailand. It even includes former American enemies like Vietnam. The Vietnamese are seeking to engage with the United States while also engaging with China. This isn’t a zero-sum game in their minds. These countries recognise the primary trade links with China but they don’t see that their security links with the United States need to be compromised. If anything, they are looking to bolster those security links to give them some strategic breathing space. Essentially, Australia’s Asian partners see no clash between maintaining the economic links with China and bolstering their security links with the United States. They don’t see this as being as deep a conundrum as some in Australia appear to be seeing it.

Effectively, this approach of looking to the United States for security while expanding trade ties with China is the approach the Australian government has taken as well in the last few years—and it has done this on a bi-partisan basis.

Most would agree that some kind of accommodation is called for, whereby China’s needs and aspirations are allowed for in the changing global order, particularly as it affects the Asia-Pacific region. There are several questions we need to find answers to. Can Australia have more positive influence by pressing in to the United States or by pulling away? Would such a move be in Australia’s national interests, or would it compromise the nation’s security by threatening the one enduring and central pillar of Australia’s defence and security posture since World War II? Would discouraging the US pivot to Asia help China recognise the need for an accommodation and acceptance of the rules based order of the Pax Americana or not? Finally, can Australia best encourage an American accommodation by advocating from inside the tent or from outside the tent?

I would argue that Australia’s best position is to bolster the security posture from inside the tent while quietly advocating restraint to all concerned. That is a key premise which should drive the thinking of the writers of the forthcoming Defence White Paper.

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