Australia has cake. Can it eat it too?

by Chris Zappone

264112_10150180399017537_531807536_5904617_5617601_nSo it begins. Foreign Policy blogger and trade expert Clyde Prestowitz takes Australia to task for what he calls “double-talk.” The issue is the middle path Australia is seeking between the US, its longtime security and investment partner, and China, its largest two-way trade partner. Prestowitz, one of the more prescient observers of global trade, points to an Australian article claiming the US Marine deployment has been delayed in Darwin because the Australian government has cold feet over the deeper engagement for fear of upsetting China. He argues that the Marines in Darwin are most definitely about containing China.

Australia, like all of America’s other allies, quasi-allies, and friends in the Asia-Pacific region is benefiting enormously from doing business with China and understandably wants to continue doing that business and even expand it. At the same time, however, it doesn’t want to be pulled into too close an orbit by the Chinese tractor beam, nor does it want to have to defend itself against terrorist threats and those lusting for its vast mineral resources all by itself. So it turns to the United States to be the balancer and co-defender.

This, of course, is a way for Australia to have its cake and eat it as well. It is a brilliant strategy if it can be made to work. But there is a vulnerability highlighted by Bob Carr’s urgent interjection that there is nothing about containing China in any of the U.S.-Australia agreements and by Hillary Clinton’s comment that “the Pacific is big enough for all of us.”

What really spooks Australians about China’s rise? I’d argue that what scares Australians reflects in part the Australian view of the world. Australia has a macho culture. In that culture, in any contest there is a winner and there is a loser. If China is growing economically more powerful, the US must by definition be growing strategically less important. Or so the thinking goes.

In this environment, if one power is rising the other is by definition falling, and confrontation – like watching Liberal opposition leader Tony Abbott and prime minister Julia Gillard weekly cat fight in parliament – is inevitable.

It would be foreign indeed to imagine a future in which China’s economic might is stronger than ever, but the US’s strategic influence is also strengthened, in part, in response to China. That Asian-Pacific countries must find common cause with each other to respond to an erratic China whose daring foreign policy in the region seems to thrive on surprise and strategic vagueness, will force the region to think differently. By no means would it necessarily be the Doomsday Confrontation some discuss.

This transformed world, with much more diplomatic pressure from all sides, will make for ever more strident debates in the region. When another former Australian prime minister laments the nation’s links to the US, or regrets the nation’s past close ties with the US, expect more words back and forth on all sides of the debate- in countries that debate these things.

Australia will continue to follow the path in between the two powers, with the hope there is never a fork in the road. But the new reality will be that the tension is constant. Australia would be well served to adjust now, not in security arrangements as much as in acknowledging that the great post-World War II peace that has underwritten Asia’s rise, and Australia’s prosperity, is not a given.