Australia’s lost potential in the US-China relationship

On the international stage, there are two major relationships Australia could and should do much better at managing. The first of these relationships is the alliance with the US created in 1951, together with New Zealand, under the ANZUS Treaty. The second is Australia’s relationship with East Asian states, particularly China.

Defining Australia’s place in the world is no easy task and many prominent scholars and politicians have varying views on how powerful the nation actually is. There is a consensus among most politicians and academics that Australia is what is known as a middle power diplomacy, and that’s probably the best place to start. This means that Australia is not a large, economically powerful, nuclear-armed superpower, nor is it a small relatively powerless state. Australia is a middle power diplomacy, or as Gareth Evans likes to call it: an international activist.

The ANZUS Treaty has been in existence for over 60 years now. During this 60 year period, Australia’s contribution and influence over this alliance with the US has waxed and waned considerably, some opportunities have been taken but many have been lost. Australia as a middle power diplomacy can play a significant role in the ANZUS alliance and can have a meaningful impact on the form the alliance takes over the next 60 years. This is dependent upon Australia deciding to be a nation which is willing to exercise its middle powers in an appropriately assertive manner, and be clear about what it wants. This would be in contrast to most of the past 60 years.

During the 1870s to 1890s, Britain’s power in Asia began to be contested, and in 1870 it officially removed troops from Australia which paved the way for the Colony to raise its own self-defence army. As an ally of Britain, and being reliant upon Britain for defence in the past, Australia was now effectively abandoned in a defence vacuum. This posed a problem for the young colony and for the first time the country needed to begin carving out its own independent foreign policy, and make its own decisions. This is paralleled with the current rise of China and the perceived decline of US power in Asia – Australia is once again facing the challenges of having its major ally, upon whom it is reliant for security, go through a period of contested power in its geographical region.

Just as in the late  1800’s, Australia needs to once again analyse its position in Asia, as well as its position with its major ally, which is now the US. Australia as a middle power has the power and responsibility not only to decide its own future, but also to establish influence over both the ANZUS alliance and East Asian States. Even with the ANZUS alliance, Australia cannot rely on the US for defence, just as it could not rely on Britain for defence from the 1870s onwards. This was demonstrated succinctly through the realities of World War II.

To counter the rise of China, the US needs support in the East Asian region if it is to maintain any kind of primacy of the Pacific. Hugh White, a visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute and a prominent international relations commentator, argues that military conflict between the US and China may be inevitable. At some point, the US will require a NATO-esque alliance in Asia if it is to maintain primacy over the Pacific and avoid conflict, however the US is very unlikely to actually be able to secure this type of NATO-esque arrangement in Asia.

If what White argues is indeed the case, then the US will inevitably seek Australia’s cooperation in the forming of this new NATO-esque alliance, and it is very likely that Australia will be under incredible pressure to make a decision to choose between maintaining an economic relationship with China and maintaining a strategic military alliance with the US. It would be very beneficial to the US or China for Australia to make this decision in favour of one of them, but it would be detrimental to Australia. As discussed, the US may be losing her primacy over the Pacific, and Australia needs to question if the US can really provide it with the security it needs. At the same time, it also needs to question whether supporting China in order to maintain an economic relationship is worth the price of Australian insecurity. The Australian military is relatively lame without the ANZUS alliance, as was demonstrated by its inability to resolve the East Timorese crisis without major diplomatic assistance from the US along with a US Marine Expeditionary Unit stationed just over the horizon in case things got out of hand. Given the limitations of the Australian military and its reliance on the US as a strategic ally, as well as Australia’s reliance on China economically, Australia would suffer significantly without either one.

Many argue that a continued US primacy over the Pacific can only eventuate if China either collapses internally, or is prepared to back down, neither of which are likely. Thus, unless the US is prepared to back down regarding primacy over the Pacific, military conflict is inevitable. However at the rate of China’s military expansion and development of new technologies, the US military doctrine, much of which pivots around the effective use of their aircraft carrier fleet, is becoming ever less useful. For example, China has recently developed a “carrier killer” missile, the DF-21D, which could potentially destroy US aircraft carriers, as well as technology to destroy satellites used for US military communications.  Although there is little question that the US military could outperform China’s military in any conflict today, there may be a trend towards China becoming militarily superior, and it is important that the situation is monitored closely.

Others however argue that while military conflict is likely, it is possible to resolve these issues if the US and China can somehow be coaxed into sharing power. This would be difficult in China’s case due to increasing domestic pressure on Chinese leaders by the upcoming post 80’s generation which tend to exhibit a hyper-nationalistic xenophobia along with an underlying but extremely powerful and pervasive mistrust of the West and a revival of Maoism. These “Angry Youth”  have visions of nothing less than complete and total vindictive revenge along with total domination over much of the world, especially that of the West and Japan, for what they perceive as a century of humiliation at the hands of the Western world as well as Japan. Chinese citizens tend to look at cooperation with the West, especially the US, as a necessary chore they must complete before being able to economically and militarily dominate it, and they see any peaceful existence as being harmful to Chinese interests. However, the Chinese leadership has repeatedly demonstrated an ability to reshape their citizens’ worldview at will, and while extremely difficult, this may be possible in this situation as well, but most likely could only take place under ideal circumstances or after a complete restructure of the Chinese political system, as the Chinese government cannot allow a critical mass of Chinese citizens to be able to think critically about these issues without undermining the legitimacy of the party.

Another hurdle to China power sharing with the US has been highlighted by Professor Daokui Li. There is a debilitating lack of Chinese talent. In order to share power with the US, China would have to be more active on the international stage, and be willing to participate in global debate on current issues, especially economic issues. At present, this is not possible due to a lack of Chinese talent in the economic arena and, due to their cultural upbringing, a general inability of Mainland Chinese nationals to think critically, to debate issues, or to express their views logically and with evidence. The critical mass required to produce world-class thinkers does not exist and is unlikely to in the foreseeable future.

Australia is in the unique situation of being a long-term ally of the US situated in Asia, with George Bush acknowledging John Howard as America’s ‘Deputy Sheriff’ and Barack Obama mentioning to Julia Gillard that the US has “No stronger ally than Australia”. Although Obama did also say this exact phrase to a number of other leaders, it nevertheless carries significance. The US does rely on Australia to support their actions in Asia, not only for military operations and providing a base for US Marines, but also diplomatically in ASEAN and the East Asian Summit. It is not a stretch to imagine that if Australia were to remove support for US primacy in Asia, this would send a negative signal to other Asian states of which the US needs support. Thus, although this would be detrimental to Australia’s security, Australia does have a strong card to play by which to influence the US in Asia, and indeed the ANZUS alliance. The flipside of this is that Australia can also use this as a tactic to influence China, as Australian non-support of the US in Asia would be a priceless asset for the Chinese leadership both domestically and internationally. If Australia were to support the US in this endeavour of renewed Asian primacy, it may somewhat increase the legitimacy of the US’s plans and aid in the recruitment of other states, to the detriment of China. This situation forces Australia into a precarious balance, but also gives Australia , in relative terms, considerable power over both the US and China.

Furthermore, there are many other options available before military conflict is required to solve problems between the US and China. For example, there are a number of separatist groups in China, and a last resort tactic could be to empower these groups and create a fifth column by concurrently taking advantage of the existing corruption within the communist party at local levels to allow contact with and supply of these groups. In this way, a distraction to both the central government as well as the general population would be created, the latter of which may well decide to seize upon the opportunity to vent their own anger over growing feudalist tendencies within the communist party.

Australia can do a much better job at managing its relationships with both the US under the ANZUS Treaty, as well as with China through its economic partnership. Australia has far more power as a middle power diplomacy than its politicians are willing to exercise, and it should be far more firm with both nations in terms of asserting the country’s desires. Australia should make it clear that while it firmly supports the US alliance, it does not do so unconditionally and it does not want to see military conflict between the US and China. Furthermore, our politicians should make it clear that any conflict with China would be to the detriment of Australia. Concurrently, while Australia respects China, it will not be intimidated into sacrificing its sovereignty over national security decisions, and that as China’s military grows, Australia will not attempt to fantasise that China is not able to exert military pressure on it, should it wish to do so. Thus, in order to maintain a balanced relationship with China, Australia must seek appropriate security from its allies.  There is no reason for China to pressure Australia into sacrificing sovereignty over national security decisions unless it has ulterior motives.

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