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Rudd's Australia and the Asian jigsaw

By Parama Sinha Palit - posted Friday, 12 September 2008

The regional architecture of the Asia Pacific is undergoing considerable transformation. Along with a decisive shift in global power and influence, the region is also facing several new challenges. India’s steady rise as an economic powerhouse has made it an important player in the region. China continues to pursue the vision of a China-centric unipolar Asia.

While the contradiction is perceptible, both India and China are slowly learning the art of living together. As this strategic reality gradually unfolds in the Asian theatre, Australia, ensconced as another major power in the region, is also laying out an indigenous regional vision. The vision aims to establish the Asia-Pacific Community (APC) by 2020 to suit the region’s changing geo-political reality in the 21st century. The APC is envisaged as a regional institution spanning the “entire Asia-Pacific region, including the United States, Japan, China, India, Indonesia and other states of the region”.

The APC framework encompasses many elements, among which, one of the most significant is the inclusion of India as a key variable. The perspective clearly indicates an upward shift in the trajectory of Indo-Australia relations notwithstanding irritants to a closer engagement between the two democracies in recent times.


The “China” factor, which has always loomed large on the Australian psyche, has been the biggest impediment to the partnership. Following the Rudd Government’s decision to engage China unconditionally - despite the Tibet issue and the Olympic torch relay - the Oz-India relations had come under some stress. However, Australia appears keen to re-energise the engagement between Canberra and New Delhi.

India’s role in the global arena makes it difficult for Australia to ignore its presence altogether. Hence, the recent friendly rhetoric to “revisit” sale of uranium to India, after ruling out such a possibility earlier, till New Delhi signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The refusal was a tacit reminder to India that it was yet to gain access to the privileged nuclear club of the Cold War years.

The Asian jigsaw puzzle

The present international system is witnessing the rise of several large powers. The Asian region probably reflects this better than any other part of the world. The rise of Asia is being driven by the emergence of several centres of power. This is an influential geopolitical trend shaping contemporary international relations. While Asia is vital to Australia, its power trajectory with both India and China has many critical components that will shape its larger engagement with Asia in the years to come.

Australia’s engagement with Asia has been extensive and has been gathering pace for several decades now. Historically, “China has always loomed in the Australian consciousness” and the changing dynamics are pushing Australia even closer to China so much so that it seems ready to alter the old Australian perception of China as a “bellicose”.

Australia is committed to deeper engagement with China, given the latter’s ravenous resource and material imports (minerals, base metals, chemical products, textile materials, plant products and machinery and other electronic products) which has been instrumental in sustaining Australia’s economic boom. It cannot afford to disturb China. By calling China a “responsible global stakeholder” and submitting to be a zhengyou, (i.e. a partner who sees beyond immediate benefits the broader and firm basis for continuing, profound and sincere friendship), Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is all set to rewrite the new rules of engagement with China.

Beijing, on the other hand, is closely following the region for spotting any new development that challenges its ascent. One such example is the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue - Quad - that was taking shape in late 2006 as an axis of democracies. The Dialogue resulted in a disturbed China sending demarche and seeking explanations from all the members of the initiative.


The Quad: triumph for China

The Quad included four leading democracies: the United States, Australia, India and Japan. The initiative crumbled in early 2008, much to Beijing’s relief. This was a triumph of the Chinese demonstration of its presence in the region. China was apprehensive that this initial loose arrangement between the democracies contained enough ammunition for blowing up into an alliance to “contain” a rising China. However, the failure of the Quad to take-off signals that Chinese blessing is a necessary condition for any arrangement to fructify in the region.

In February 2008, Australia, in a bid to repair misunderstandings with its long-time partner China assured it that Canberra had “corrected the feng shui of a disturbing piece of the region’s diplomatic architecture”. The Chinese also became wiser courtesy of the Quad. It realised that its rise in the region is unlikely to remain unchallenged. It will remain a threat and continue to unsettle countries - both big and small - in the region, thus disconcerting its efforts to rise to a “great” power status.

The rise of China in the region has another significant dimension. Smaller powers in the region are weary of an all-powerful China and prefer India as a stable counterbalance. Australia needs to realise that its engagement with China may not go down well with these countries who are watching China’s rise with trepidation.

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About the Author

Dr Parama Sinha Palit is an academic visitor to the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore.

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All articles by Parama Sinha Palit

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