Will Turnbull’s visit realign US-Australia ties?

By Sun Chenghao Source:Global Times Published: 2018/2/25 19:53:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's recent visit to the US included a mega-delegation of government and business leaders to celebrate 100 years of "mateship" and enhance bilateral relations.

Undoubtedly, the main goal of Turnbull's visit was to find a new approach to engage the US, an old ally with new features, and to shore up relations to a new level. People haven't forgotten the strains that showed up in bilateral ties at the very beginning of last year when it was believed Trump berated Turnbull and cut a phone call originally scheduled for an hour to 25 minutes.

But Australia has tried to keep pace with the US, sending many senior officials later to the country to stabilize and improve relations, with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop leading the charge.

Diplomatic strains are not likely to fundamentally affect the deep-rooted common interests shared by the US and Australia. Trump's slogan of "America First" would translate more into economic policies than those dealing with security. On the security front, the US still attaches great importance to its allies, upgrading its "rebalance" strategy to "Indo-Pacific" strategy that will rely significantly on regional allies and partners including Australia, Japan and India. Australia, anxious about being abandoned by the US in its regional strategic scheme at first, would be more than pleased to grasp the opportunity offered by the "Indo-Pacific" strategy.

The economic ties between the US and Australia are stronger, and add to improving relations between Trump and Turnbull, who were businessmen before entering politics. Australian officials like Julie Bishop have repeatedly called the US Australia's most important economic partner. Canberra has enjoyed benefits from the two-way investment relations with the US. Cumulatively, two-way investment is valued at more than $1.1 trillion and the US is the single largest destination for Australian investment overseas.

Besides trade and North Korean issues, China is another important but complicated factor in US-Australia relations. On the one hand, it seems that Australia and the US speak a common language on China, taking synchronous steps to create an unfavorable environment for China and formulate tougher policies toward China. Australia released its first Foreign Policy White Paper in 14 years in November 2017, echoing the "Indo-Pacific" concept announced by the US, showing wariness about China's increasing influence in the region. Washington also unveiled its official perspective on China through the National Security Strategy (NSS) and National Defense Strategy (NDS) reports, labeling Beijing a "revisionist power" and "strategic competitor."

In economic and cultural fields, uneasiness among the two countries on China is growing. Both Australia and the US are increasingly more cautious about and even block Chinese investments using the excuse of "national interest" or "security concerns." For instance, the US government has toughened its stance on the sale of companies to Chinese enterprises, blocking MoneyGram sale to Alibaba last January.

It is also said that Australia, together with the US, Japan and India, is mulling an alternative to China's Belt and Road initiative.

Furthermore, both countries are accusing China of trying to influence their cultural and educational systems and undermining their independence through so-called "sharp power," a concept coined by the US National Endowment for Democracy last year.

A new wave of the "China threat theory" caused unnecessary panic in Australia and the US and forced Sam Dastyari, an Australian Labor senator, to resign due to "connection with China."

On the other hand, there are still many differences between the US and Australia on how to perceive and deal with China strategically. According to recent official strategic reports released by the Trump administration, the US clearly sees relations with China at an inflection point, which means bilateral ties have slipped into an era defined by the keyword "competition." There is a consensus in the US that the premise of the grand strategy toward China in the past decades, namely changing China by engagement, was almost over even though the Trump administration still has no clue about what the new one will be.

But Australia's China policy would not be so simple and clear. Unlike the NSS and NDS reports, Australian Foreign Policy White Paper still emphasizes the significance of China-Australia cooperation. Australia has not fundamentally changed its foreign policy for China and would not use "cold-war prism" to look at China-US competition in the region.

Based on that and as a country enjoying close economic ties with both China and the US, Australia should be wise enough to help mitigate friction between the two countries rather than following the footsteps of the US and making the environment in the region more competitive.

The author is an assistant research fellow with Institute of American Studies at China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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