Under the government of Prime Minister John Howard, Australia has been closer to the US than at any other time since the end of the Vietnam War. In Afghanistan and Iraq, Australia has committed troops and diplomatic muscle to support the American-led interventions. But the looming strategic and economic importance of China to its outlook is forcing Australia to choose between its long-time ally and its near neighbour.
Recently, The Australian newspaper revealed that Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, “fresh from meetings with his European counterparts”, will not oppose the European Union lifting its 15-year arms embargo on China, imposed after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. The paper described the decision as “the most serious strategic disagreement between Washington and Canberra in recent years”.
But Mr Downer told ABC Radio that he had not been asked by the US to back its opposition to any lifting of the embargo. “It’s not been raised with me by the American ambassador, the secretary of state, or the secretary of defence,” he said. However, as Japan is also standing with the US in opposition, Australia’s decision could not have pleased Washington.
The Bush administration feels strongly about continuing the embargo - last week US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that Washington was “concerned about the transfer of technology that might endanger” the military balance in North Asia. But the Australian government has revealed a preparedness to balance its recognition of the growing importance of China, on the one hand, with its traditional security - and now economic - ties to the US on the other. (Australia and America signed a free-trade deal last year.)
This is not the first time in the past year that Australia has been prepared to loosen its alliance with the US by going “its own way” over China.
Last August, Mr Downer told an audience in Beijing that Australia would not automatically join America if it chose to defend Taiwan from an attack by Beijing. His comments brought criticism from Washington, and Mr Downer was forced to retreat, arguing he was only speaking hypothetically.
For Australia, smooth relations with China are particularly important at this time. Australian and Chinese officials are working on a study, due to be completed in April, to determine if negotiations for a free-trade agreement should commence.
Mr Howard is scheduled to visit Beijing in April to meet President Hu Jintao. The Australian prime minister wants to be able to use that opportunity to announce the commencement of talks on the free-trade deal. While such an agreement with China is not universally applauded in Australia, it would provide a link to the world’s fastest growing economy.
One of Australia’s leading strategic analysts, Hugh White, told the Sydney Morning Herald that the US continued to regard China as a strategic competitor and potential adversary, while Australia saw it as “our future economic saviour”.
“This is a kind of dilemma that we face and are going to increasingly face as issues like this come up, and the US and China will both be seeking to make Australia choose,” he added.
There is no suggestion that the 60-year formal alliance between Australia and the US will fall apart over China. But the Australian Government’s capacity to keep both nations happy will surely stretch the friendship on occasions - and the EU arms embargo seems to be a case in point.
First published in the South China Morning Post on February 18, 2005.
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