Australia cannot wish its way back to a simplistic Cold War framework when its vital national interests depend on both China and America.
FINANCIAL REVIEW – Sep 5, 2021 – 7.48pm
The 70th anniversary of the ANZUS treaty, the hasty withdrawal of American and allied forces from Afghanistan and the looming 20th anniversary of the Islamic terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, provide a heady cocktail for considering the security challenges of today. Australia’s ambassador to the US Arthur Sinodinos told The Australian Financial Review last week that the Washington security consensus views China’s coercion in the Indo-Pacific region as a bigger threat than Islamic terrorism.
Yet the comparison made by Australia’s powerful and valued security ally is of limited usefulness. Islamic terrorism, born out of 20th-century oil geopolitics of the Middle East, is so much different to the rise of a genuine 21st-century superpower in a world headed for decarbonisation. For all of the wolf-warrior assertiveness under President Xi Jinping, China is not a particularly expansionist power. It has a mercantilist preoccupation with securing supply chains in some raw materials critical to its domestic prosperity. Beijing’s flexing of its new-found muscle over both the South China Sea and over Taiwan is also deeply connected to the nationalist symbolism of reversing China’s 100 years of humiliating 19th-century colonial domination, rather than the tip of an aggressive 21st-century territorial expansion into Asia.
Hence there is no real comparison between China and the evil intent of the terrorists who launched the attacks on New York and Washington to wage war on America and the West. And, importantly from Australia’s perspective, China is home to one-quarter of the world’s population and more than one-third of our exports.
Yet from the American perspective, as the US confronts the first challenge to its global dominance since its Cold War victory over the Soviet Union, the strategic comparison is understandable. Paul Keating suggests that America’s real problem with rising and increasingly powerful China is that the US wants to remain the world’s sole hegemon. Australia needs to defend its sovereignty, call out China’s bad behaviour, and work with regional allies, especially through the Quad with the US, India, and Japan, to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific. But Australia also needs to maintain a tricky balance to avoid falling into a new superpower conflict in Asia when the challenge is to manage both our US and China ties.
Efforts to engage our major security partner, the US, in the region are in Australia’s national interest, and will be generally welcomed by most of Asia. Former foreign minister Alexander Downer says the close relationship with the US helps, not hinders, Australia’s engagement with the region. Yet countries such as Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Vietnam will also want to maintain good relations with Beijing. For reasons of history and culture, they will also be less invested in Washington remaining the region’s dominant power. Australia could end up isolated in its neighbourhood, especially when there are legitimate concerns about America’s domestic political will to remain the world’s undisputed global hegemon.
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