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Australia, the United States and China: the debates continue


Australia, the United States and China: the debates continue

The Prime Minister’s recent visit to Washington, where he urged the Americans to continue their ‘pivot to Asia’, occurred at a time when a range of other voices across Australia is expressing diverse thoughts on how Australia might further adjust its symbiotic relationships with both the US and China. 

Perhaps most prominent among these is Malcolm Fraser, whose new book Dangerous allies engages energetically with this long ongoing and increasingly intense debate. Described by the Australian National University’s (ANU) Hugh White as ‘the most radical position argued by a former Australian prime minister on a strategic question since Billy Hughes in the 1930s’, Mr Fraser holds that Australia has become too compliant with the US’s strategic interests and requirements. He therefore urges reducing our dependence on this alliance in order to avoid becoming involved in a potentially disastrous war with China.  

Hugh White also fears a US war with China, but addresses the issue differently. He notes that Australia’s future depends on both America and China and, rather than urging Australia to look after its own interests by divorcing from the US, suggested in his 2012 volume The China choice: why America should share power that the US should ‘remain in Asia on a new basis, allowing China a larger role but also maintaining a strong presence of its own’. Supporting this stand is former Prime Minister Paul Keating who launched The China choice, while averring that the future of Asian stability cannot be cast by the application of US military force. Instead, Mr Keating urged the US and Australia to recognise the legitimacy of the current Chinese Government as well as its prerogatives as a great power. Mark Thomson   of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) meanwhile represents another side of opinion when he argues that ‘the best strategy for Australia will almost always be to work with the United States in executing the strategy it chooses for itself’. Ever the diplomat, Richard Woolcott suggests that a national debate on the subject is necessary. 

These standpoints are reflected in the ongoing debate about the US ‘pivot to Asia’ and Australia’s appropriate attitude thereto.  Mr Fraser, as part of his thesis, criticises Australian support for the American pivot into the western Pacific as a strategic error that commits Australia to a growing US-led containment of China, noting that ‘military encirclement was necessary in relation to the Soviet Union but China is quite a different story’.  On the need for the US to abandon the pivot, Hugh White broadly agrees with Mr Fraser.  Other opinions on this issue, suggesting that the pivot is both long-term and sustainable, can however be found across Australia. Somewhere in the middle sits former diplomat Geoff Miller whose welcoming yet sceptical attitude concludes that ‘there may be advantages in a less than whole-hearted or fully effective US pivot to Asia’.   

Intimately threaded through these debates is the integral question of Australia’s appropriate engagement within the Anglosphere (or ‘Five-Eyes’) security community, comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US. The debate between Hugh White and ASPI head Peter Jennings encapsulates the dichotomy, with Jennings opining that the Anglosphere should remain firmly at the centre of Australia’s strategic policy, and White proposing that recalibrations are imperative. Overall, White concludes, ‘the big division in the debate, including in our Anglosphere debate is between those who take China’s challenge to the status quo seriously, and those who think it can be ignored or faced down at low cost’. 

Firmly ensconced in the latter camp is ANU strategic analyst Paul Dibb who, beyond questioning the assumed military threat which China constitutes, asks on what basis further space should be made for a power which many regional states fear. Another ANU researcher, John Blaxland, also describes the enthusiasm of the Southeast Asian states, within such an environment, for the US to continue its strong engagement with the western Pacific as a counter to China’s power, and asks why Australia should act otherwise. There are also suggestions that a larger game is in play, with China actively trying to break the Australia-US alliance in an effort to assert a regional hegemony.  

Meanwhile Australia’s corporate titans urge untrammelled relations with China, exhorting an expansion of economic relations, generally isolated from any reference to strategic issues or regional power plays. ANZ head Mike Smith’s recent comments are unusual in tying the economy with strategic issues. 

These debates will inevitably continue across Australia, but what is obvious is the superficial understanding of China and its imperatives among many commentators.  Regardless of how we perceive great power rivalry in our region, what remains clear is the need for Australia to develop a larger cadre of China specialists—persons literate not only in the Chinese language but also in the cultures and history of the Sinosphere. US diplomat Kurt Campbell has argued a similar imperative for the US. Only thereby will debate and understandings deepen and will we be better equipped to respond to the ever-changing environment to Australia’s north.