Why strategic competition between the US and China is good for Australia
3 Jul 2019|

US strategic competition with China has triggered considerable debate about the implications for Australia. Thus far, commentators have judged US President Donald Trump’s approach towards China and the Indo-Pacific mostly negatively. Some analysts have feared a general decline of US leadership and willingness to defend its allies against potentially hostile Asian powers like China. They have called for a ‘radical rethink’ of Australia’s defence policy and the need to prepare for a ‘post-US’ regional order.

For some, Australia should adopt a strategy of ‘armed neutrality’ to deal with an emerging China-dominated region and a US unwilling to defend its allies. Since Australia will soon be ‘without America’, it must develop a truly self-reliant defence policy.

For others, Trump’s ‘pushback’ against China is seen as economically damaging for Australia or, worse, risks dragging Canberra into unwanted US-led wars in Asia. They have also criticised Trump’s China policy as a move towards ‘containment’ and a ‘new Cold War’, and thus incompatible with Australian interests. Some have even proposed getting closer to Beijing because uncertain US strategy towards China ‘will invite hostility from our most important trading partner’.

In contrast, I argue in the Australian Journal of International Affairs that the new era of US–China strategic competition is positive for Australia, and that calls for a major shift in Australia’s security alignment and defence posture are unwarranted. Claims that the Trump presidency means America will cut strategic engagement in the Indo-Pacific and abandon its Australian ally stand on very shaky ground.

The evidence strongly suggests that the US under Trump has not abandoned its long-standing tradition of resisting any major challenger to its Pacific interests. Using a hybrid strategy mix of ‘collective balancing’ and ‘comprehensive pressure’, the Trump administration has pushed back against China in the normative, economic, technological and military domains.

The implementation of the pushback has not been without flaws. For instance, while the US government has emphasised the ideological component of US–China competition, the messaging has been far from persuasive. In particular, recent suggestions by a senior US State Department official about a ‘clash of civilisations’ were unhelpful and rightly rejected by the Australian government.

Moreover, as Hal Brands points out, Trump’s unilateral tendencies risk leading the US onto a path towards becoming an ‘unexceptional superpower’. As well, Trump’s trade war against China and its potential negative fallout for the Australian economy are of concern in Canberra. Finally, effective US competition with China depends on closer cooperation with allies. But Trump’s personal treatment of close allies such as Japan and South Korea often complicates such efforts.

Still, these risks are outweighed by the benefits. For Australia, the prevention of a Sino-centric regional order and continued US leadership in the Indo-Pacific remain key strategic interests. Before Trump took office, many in the Australian strategic community criticised his predecessor Barack Obama for failing to employ a tougher response against China’s assertiveness. Washington has now shifted gears towards comprehensive strategic competition with China, so some degree of disruption is inevitable. Still, there is no evidence of US containment policies against China and concerns about a ‘new Cold War’ in Asia are unwarranted. Likewise, there is no evidence that the administration is accommodating China or looking for a ‘great bargain’ with Beijing.

Instead, I agree with Peter Jennings that the administration’s recent ‘Indo-Pacific strategy’ and other policy documents provide a good framework for the US and like-minded allies such as Australia to increase cooperation in working towards maintaining key elements of a stable, rules-based Indo-Pacific order. In fact, there are no indicators that the ANZUS alliance is in trouble as a result of Trump.

On the contrary, the November 2018 announcement of US cooperation with Australia and Papua New Guinea in the modernisation of the Lombrum naval base on Manus Island can be seen as a mutual pushback against China’s ambitions in the South Pacific. Similarly, the continued build-up of US Marine rotational deployments through Darwin and the first-ever written US nuclear extended guarantee to Australia demonstrate a strengthening of America’s defence commitment, rather than a weakening. So do reports about the prospect of a new port outside Darwin to facilitate greater Australia–US military cooperation.

Moreover, the bipartisan consensus in Washington about a stronger line against China provides a level of consistency and predictability of US strategic engagement in the region beyond Trump. Indeed, the obsession with the president himself overlooks the key roles of the Congress, as well as the foreign and security bureaucracies in underwriting a sustained pushback against China. They also form an important brake on some of Trump’s counterproductive impulses in dealing with allies and partners.

The shift in US China strategy broadly aligns with Australia’s own re-evaluation of its relationship with Beijing. Australia’s ‘reset’ or ‘reality check’ in its relations with China was well underway before Trump took office. The government shares assessments that China has become more authoritarian and won’t liberalise, that it aims to undermine the regional security order and that its influence operations in Australia pose a significant challenge.

A bipartisan consensus has also emerged in Canberra about the need to push back against some elements of Chinese behaviour. This is evident, for instance, in Australia’s leadership on new foreign influence and interference laws, and in persuading its US ally to follow its example in banning Huawei from its 5G network over security concerns.

While the Trump administration’s new course on China creates some uncertainty, Australia should welcome a long-overdue correction of US policy. Consequently, a major realignment of Australia’s security and defence policy isn’t required. Indeed, those frequently claiming US abandonment of the Indo-Pacific region and its allies fail to provide substantial evidence for those claims. And greater strategic competition between the US and China makes such a scenario even less likely.