Australia to go its own way regarding China and the US?

by Chris Zappone

That’s at least what one Australian is urging. He suggests Australia should pursue a path of strategic ambiguity between the US and China, to avoid being drawn up in a quasi-inevitable confrontation between the two. Hugh White points to comments from the government’s secretary of the department of foreign affairs Peter Varghese who has said that Australia “doesn’t want to be put in a position where it has to choose between the US and China.”
But isn’t that the feeling around most Asia (outside of Japan) as China grows more powerful and flexes its economic, military and diplomatic muscle? The view towards the US is summed up as: “Don’t leave our region. But don’t make us choose.”
White also cites Kevin Rudd’s series of speeches on Pax Pacifica, which have been covered by this blog.
The other interesting language he quotes of Varghese is that Australia recognises China’s growing strategic influence with the caveat: “The extent to which this can be peacefully accommodated will turn ultimately on both the pattern of China’s international behaviour and the extent to which the existing international order intelligently finds more space for China.”
White must have composed this piece on a type-writer, imagined from an earlier time.The region, for White, consists of landmasses and military assets and trade. It’s as if the internet never came in to being. I guess White hasn’t noticed this whole PLA hacking thing, and given too much thought to what the global digital landscape will look like for Australia, in relation to the rest of the world.
So let’s flash forward to a strategically ambivalent Australia, that becomes a diplomatic middle ground between the US and China. An economy like Australia’s, if it can succeed in diversifying from its dependence on commodities exports, will eventually have to rely on knowledge and service-based exports. US companies will want to do business in Australia, but the corporate security environment is considered too porous for the security of US technology. As many an Australian knows, China’s businesses favour the Chinese. So while it looks like a big market for Australian businesses, the jury remains out on whether Australia will profit from entering it. (Which is not the same as selling commodities.)
Acknowledging the new strategic power of China, and its matching cultural expectations, will Australia do what is expected and help facilitate the technology transfers back to China? After all, part of a Chinese century demands an embrace of the Chinese way and that means a different order, not based on Western law or contract as much as insider-status (think of those princelings) and reciprocity. The big question is how will Australia juggle these vastly different and competing cultural expectations, while keeping both sides happy and not alienating either the US or China? I don’t know. But neither does White.