Last week, distinguished former diplomat and first Australian Ambassador to Beijing Dr. Stephen Fitzgerald overtly stated that Australia should drift away from the United States and seek an ever-increasing rapprochement with China. ‘We are living in a Chinese world’, he said. This controversial statement revives a cultural, political and strategic debate in Australia: where does this country belong? What should its role be?
Australia is not an Asian country, and should not become part of the Asian regional order. Rather, it should seek to play the role of a balancer between Washington and Beijing while asserting its influence and interests in Asia.
Dr. Fitzgerald’s argument does have certain legitimacy. In fact Australia’s current relationship with the United States is dangerously undermined. Australia has recently been tough on border issues, passing restricting laws for illegal migrants coming from neighbouring countries. In the last months of his presidency, Mr. Obama committed America to taking more than 12.000 migrants to relief Australian detention areas. This agreement has been questioned by President Trump, whose endeavour to protect American border from potential terrorists led to diplomatic tensions with PM Malcom Turnbull in late January. Likewise President Trump’s decision to void the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has been a great source of friction. Now looking to Asia, Australia finds in Beijing its most reliable commercial partner. Exports to China are a high source of revenue that represents five times the income of trading with the United States. Furthermore, access to the Chinese market is essential to the maximisation of Australian goods and culture. Besides, Chinese tourists come to Australia en masse and grandly contribute to the economy. This, nonetheless, is far from being enough to engage in a diplomatic rapprochement.
Australia’s Anglo-Saxon identity has pushed it towards the Western world, fighting in two world wars alongside the ‘free world’ and contributing to keeping the Soviet Union at bay through the Five Eyes program during the Cold War. Today it remains one of the key NATO partners. Australia has, nonetheless, remained committed to regional issues in South Asia, but only under security imperatives. In fact the attack on Darwin by the Japanese Empire in 1942 – whose cultural impact equals that of Pearl Harbour – has framed Australia’s strategic principles in the long term and created a historical inertia whereby the stability of Asia remain paramount to Australia’s security. The recent emergence of China is not without reminding policy makers of the existing threat from the North, as highlighted in Australia’s 2013 White Paper on Defence. China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea and disregard for international law clearly undermine Australian national interests and core beliefs. The expansion of China’s sphere of influence threatens Australia’s power in the region and ultimately its territory. The current defence policies and the purchase of $40bn submarines show Canberra’s commitment to countering China and asserting its dominance over South Asia through the deployment of a power-projecting Navy. Australia cannot side with a threat to its security.
Dr. Fitzgerald’s argument is too engrained in a ‘rise-and-fall’ reading of history and assumes Australia’s passiveness at a time where great powers scramble for control in Asia. Australia does not have to be a second-hand buffer power stuck between China and the United States, facing the dilemma of who to side with. In fact, the picture should neither be black nor white but a shade of grey whereby Australia should stand as an equal third party in the struggle for power in Asia.
On the one hand, Australia should seek a strategic partnership with China that would ensure access to the Chinese market, and freedom of navigation for Australian ships in the South China Sea. This claim should be backed by a mighty Navy as to impose Australia’s monopoly and polarization of the most Southern part of South Asia and set the tone of regional interactions in the face of China’s expansionist doctrine. On the other hand, Australia should champion human rights and Western liberal values alongside the United States, condemning China’s rejection of the ICC rule on the South China Sea’s islands and opposing China’s order in Asia. Sustaining friendly relations with the United States is vital to Australia’s security, America being a nuclear power and militarily the most powerful country in the world by far. However, Australia should not completely fall into the realm of the United States and should, rather, prevent America from intervening in Australia’s potential sphere of influence. Canberra should instead encourage a regionalisation of the dispute in lieu of interference from Western great powers. Australia should distance itself from isolationist policies and start shaping the South Asian order according to its own principles as to maximise its interests.
Australia does have a unique cultural, political and strategic identity, halfway between Asia and the West. It should continue to play on that pivotal role in Asia-West relations with the grand strategic objective of controlling regional issues in mind. China might be gaining extensive power, however, one can doubt Australia will ever stand by a power with which it shares no ideological ground.
Picture Copyright: Alan Moir, Sydney Morning Herald.