Australia’s choice: U.S. or China?

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Australia’s choice: U.S. or China?

The only international issue to raise a ripple in Australia’s election campaigns has been Syria, which Prime Minister Kevin Rudd tried to exploit to highlight opponent Tony Abbott’s inexperience in world affairs. That’s unfortunate because the most critical choice facing Australians on Sept. 7 isn’t between Rudd and Abbott. It’s between the United States and China.

Nothing matters more to Australia’s long-term future than managing this increasingly difficult balancing act between the world’s two strongest states. If Abbott wins - and the polls are unanimous that he will - how he navigates between Australia’s strongest ally and its biggest trading partner will determine the fate of his government and his country.

This is a new kind of challenge for Canberra. For decades, Australian leaders have relied on the U.S. to keep Asia stable and their country safe, and in return they’ve given Washington unconditional support in the region and beyond. This worked fine as long as U.S. leadership was welcomed throughout Asia, including by the biggest customers for Australia’s goods and natural resources. That’s now changing.

For the first time in centuries, China will soon boast the world’s biggest economy. Ultimately, wealth is power, which means that China now poses the most serious challenge to Western power in Asia since Europeans settled in Australia.

At the same time, China has become the essential locomotive for Australia’s economy. In the second quarter of this year, China bought more than 35 percent of Australia’s exports - double the proportion from five years ago. More of our coal and iron ore, and more of our produce, goes to the mainland than anywhere else. “Not since the wool boom of 1950,” the Australian Financial Review noted a few weeks ago, “has Australia been so reliant on a single trade relationship.”

Any tensions remained latent until the global financial crisis, when China started overtly challenging U.S. primacy in Asia and pushing for a bigger share of regional leadership. Since then, the rivalry has escalated sharply. The U.S. responded to China’s challenge with President Barack Obama’s “pivot” to Asia, and China in turn has pushed back with increased assertiveness over territorial disputes.

Australia is caught up in this growing rivalry. On the one hand, the U.S. has been determined to reaffirm Australia’s support. Eighteen months ago, Obama delivered his major speech on the pivot in Canberra, while announcing that U.S. Marines would deploy to Darwin - the first time U.S. combat forces will have been based in Australia since World War II.

After China made its displeasure at these moves plain, Canberra tacked back the other way. Australia has retreated from any further U.S. military basing, and tiptoed around Beijing’s sensitivities in a defense policy paper released this year. As a reward China has dubbed Australia a “strategic partner.”

Australia’s leaders - from both camps - are in denial about where this is leading. They endlessly assert that Australia does not have to choose between America and China. Certainly, they don’t want to make this choice. Australia’s hopes for a secure and prosperous future absolutely depend on its ability to keep both its major alliance and its primary trading relation in good order.

But the choices Australia has to make depend, of course, not on what Canberra wants but on what the U.S. and China decide. Any direct armed clash between them - not a remote possibility over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands, for example - would bring immense pressures from both sides, with the U.S. expecting Australia to join the fight, and China insisting it keep away. Disaster would loom, whichever choice was made.

Australia’s only hope for avoiding such disasters, and for ensuring a peaceful and secure future, depends on whether the U.S. and China can settle their differences and find a new, stable basis for their relationship. The hard reality of China’s new power means that this will only happen if the U.S. is willing to accommodate some of China’s ambitions for a bigger regional role.

This need not, and should not, mean conceding primacy in Asia to China. But it does mean the U.S. should be willing to share leadership in Asia with China, if China is willing to do the same. And it means that Australia should be urging the U.S. to do precisely this kind of deal with China.

This is not an idea that anyone in Australia is comfortable with, but it is much better than the only credible alternative: To be drawn, as an American ally, into a bitter and dangerous rivalry with China that the U.S. ultimately cannot win.

This is the choice that will confront Abbott if he wins. As a committed conservative, Abbott has the instincts to support the U.S. through thick and thin. But he also has a strong streak of pragmatism, as his cautious and skeptical approach to the crisis in Syria has shown. And, as a conservative, Abbott has less to prove, and less to fear politically, from an approach that puts some distance between Canberra and Washington.

Abbott might surprise everyone, including himself, by taking on the challenge of navigating Australia through the shifting strategic tides of the Asian Century. If so, his first step has to be to start talking frankly to Washington about how Australia sees the American role in Asia.

The message is simple enough. Australia wants the U.S. to remain a major power in Asia, but not on the basis of escalating rivalry with China. So the U.S. should try to define its future role in terms China is willing to accept, if that is at all possible. This won’t be a welcome message in Washington, but leaders there will see Abbott as a close friend. And what are close friends for?

*The author is a professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University.

by Hugh White
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