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Australia must line-up with the US rather than China

By Walter Lohman - posted Monday, 8 November 2010

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton caps off a seven-nation swing through Asia this weekend with a stop in Australia, where she joins Defense Secretary Robert Gates for annual ministerial consultations. The AUSMIN meetings, as they are known, come amid anxious discussions in Australia over the rise of China and the implications for the US - Australia alliance. Clinton and Gates would do well to reassure them.

There is no better friend of the US in the Pacific than Australia - they have fought by America’s side in every major conflict of the last 100 years, including Iraq and Afghanistan. The Australians have brushed off any suspense (or offense for that matter) surrounding American presidential visits. The truth is that contacts between the US and Australia are so routine and so deep that heads-of-state protocol does not hold as much water as it must elsewhere.

But the natural familiarity and trust between these two countries can be deceptive. Sentiment does not buy much in this world - even in Australia. Australia is so pro-American in large part because the alliance is so fundamental to its security.


Pacific “Power Shift”

For this reason, the Australians have their fingers on the pulse of America’s position in the western Pacific. In 2009, their defense white paper aired serious doubts about balance of power shifting against it. Those doubts are only accentuated by economic realities. Australia’s prosperity, particularly in the wake of the global financial crisis, increasingly depends on markets in China. China is Australia’s biggest trading partner. And unlike in the US, where the public is often oblivious to the connection between everyday low prices and trade with China, in Australia the benefits of trade with China are lost on no one. It is widely credited there with keeping Australia out of recession.

Hugh White, a well-respected Australian defense official turned academic, has offered a way of squaring the changing power balance with Australia’s continued interest in the US alliance. His piece in the September issue of Australia’s Quarterly Essay entitled “Power Shift: Australia’s Future between Washington and Beijing,” has become the talk of the Australian foreign and defense policy establishments. It argues that China’s rise will be the determining feature of Australia’s 21st century and that the sooner its principle security partner understands this, the better.

White believes Australia’s needs to “persuade America that it would be in everyone’s best interest for it to relinquish primacy in Asia, but remain engaged as a member of collective leadership - staying in Asia to balance, not to dominate.” He acknowledges that American engagement in Asia is good for Australia - but only, he maintains, if it is accepted by the other major powers, by which he means China. White’s solution is establishment of a “concert of Asia” modeled on the bargain that Europe’s great powers struck in the 19th century.

There is much to disagree with in White’s assessment - from what is an overly optimistic projection of China’s economic rise and its translation into political influence to his appeal to great power condominium. But there is no margin in an American taking on White. His interest is - as it should be - Australia’s national interests. And as the man most responsible for Australia’s 2000 defense white paper, he is a serious voice in this debate.

It is not so much White’s argument as the debate itself that presents a problem for American leadership.

The 2009 white paper struck a compromise on Australia’s response to what it sees as the emerging power dynamic. It asserted that American primacy would last for another 20 years. Beyond that, research and development and procurement timelines being as long as they are, the Australian Department of Defence hedged on America’s staying power. For their trouble, the Australian defense and foreign policy establishment got hit from both sides: Chinese officials accused them of anti-China bias, and American commentators fretted that they were losing faith. Eighteen months later, the Australians are still conflicted - their uncertainty only exacerbated by China’s strong economic performance amid global crisis as well as Beijing’s muscle flexing.


Making the Case for American Leadership

Despite the best efforts of the last two Administrations, America has still not made the sale: The Asia-Pacific region is not convinced about the long-term viability of American predominance. Many in the region, including America’s closest allies, see great value in the role the US is playing to confront China’s current aggressive posture. But policymakers should not pin America’s relevance to this state of affairs continuing. It is entirely conceivable that, in a couple of years, after probably getting much worse, the tensions will abate. And China - with all its long-term projections of influence - will remain.

How does the US change this calculation and convince the region it is American predominance - not Chinese power - that will serve as the most prominent feature of Asia’s power dynamic long into the future?

First, the US should continue to cultivate its diplomatic presence. The Obama Administration is right to dig deeper into the diplomatic life of the region: Joining the East Asian Summit last month, attending the ASEAN+8 Defense Ministers meeting, holding back-to-back (albeit still a bit too driven by travel convenience) US–ASEAN summits.

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This article was first published by The Heritage Foundation on November 3, 2010 as "Give Australia Reason to Believe in American Leadersh"

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About the Author

Walter Lohman is Director of The Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center.

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