Australia keen to avoid no-win choice between China and US

By Hugh White Source:Global Times Published: 2012-6-14 20:15:05


When Australia's Defence Minister Stephen Smith visited China last week, he faced a tough grilling from Chinese experts over reports that Australia's 2009 Defence White Paper had a "secret chapter" about Australia's military support to the US in a war against China. Smith denied the reports, but the impression remains that Australia is siding with the US against China.

Australia does not want to make a choice between the US and China. Both its future prosperity and its future security depend on maintaining close relationships with each country.

If Australia turns its back on the US, it would lose a longstanding and very valued ally, whose support and friendship should remain central to Australia's security for decades to come.

On the other hand, if it turns its back on China, Australia would lose an equally valued economic partner which will be critical to Australia's growth prospects in the decades to come, and forgo the benefits of deeper engagement with a country that is destined to take a leading role in Asia and beyond in many fields.

Australia's future therefore depends on it being able to maintain and develop both relationships as fully as possible.

But despite its wishes, Australia may be forced to make a choice between the US and China, if strategic rivalry between the two countries continues to grow as it has over the past few years. The more intense that rivalry becomes, the greater the risk that either the US or China will press Australia to loosen its links with the other.

And in addition, escalating rivalry between the region's two strongest powers increases the risk of confrontation and war between them, which would be devastating not just for Australia but for the whole region.

It is therefore strongly in Australia's interest to encourage both Washington and Beijing to work with one another to avoid escalating the strategic rivalry between them. This can only be done if both sides are willing to make concessions to accommodate one another.

On the one hand, China must accept that the US will continue to play a key leadership role in Asia as one of the region's great powers. The more clearly China can affirm that it welcomes the US' continued strategic and political engagement in Asia, the easier it will be to avoid escalating rivalry.

On the other hand, the US must acknowledge that as China's power grows, it too must be accorded the status of a great power in Asia, with a larger role in regional leadership. That means the US must step back from the role of primacy that it has exercised in Asia for the past four decades, and deal with China as an equal.

Understandably, the US is finding this hard to accept. Some important figures, such as former national security adviser Henry Kissinger and even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have urged the US to redefine its role in Asia to accommodate China's rise.

But President Barack Obama has made it clear that he intends to resist any compromises with China, and plans instead to reassert US primacy in Asia with all the instruments of US power, including its military power.

Moreover, Obama has made it clear that he expects US allies like Australia to support the US as it tries to preserve its primacy in Asia. This poses a great dilemma for Australian leaders, as could be seen when Stephen Smith visited China last week.

Australian leaders know that Obama's policies, including his military "pivot" to Asia, run a grave risk of escalating strategic tensions with China, and are therefore contrary to Australia's interests. But they lack the political courage to say no to Washington, or to explain to the Australian public how China's rise will require major changes in Asia's order, including in the US' role.

So instead they try to pretend that increasing military cooperation with the US, such as the new deployment of US Marines to Darwin for training, has nothing to do with the US anxieties about China. Not surprisingly, Smith was met with disbelief.

But ultimately Australians are smarter than their leaders. Like everyone else in Asia, Australians want the US to stay as a key strategic power in Asia, because it will help keep the peace between Asia's other great powers and help ensure that no one, including China, tries to become a regional hegemony.

However, Australians do not want the US and China to become strategic adversaries, let alone enemies. They want the US to stay in Asia on a basis which is acceptable to China, just as they want China to accept a continuing US role. That means they want Washington and Beijing to reach a deal on their future roles and relationship.

We can only hope that leaders on both sides realize that they have no choice but to do such a deal, because it will be a disaster for everyone if they do not.

The author is a professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University in Canberra, and a visiting fellow at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute for International Policy.

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