China and the US: Australia's balancing act

The fine folks at Vibewire have picked up a piece I wrote on Australia's relationship with China and the US. First two paragraphs here, the rest in the comments, or you could head straight to the source:

In the giant game of musical chairs which is international relations, who will be sitting and who will be standing when the music stops … and who the hell chose the music anyhow?

During the Cold War, understanding global power was easy – even Ronnie Reagan got his head around it. There were two, strongly opposed sides, each fiercely convinced of its own rightness, and nations around the world aligned with one or the other. On one side the US and Western Europe represented democracy and capitalism, whilst on the other side was the Soviet Union, with its own network of supporters committed to socialist solidarity and the wearing of silly hats. Economically, each possessed the power to woo nations around the world to its cause. Militarily, after the instability of the first half of the twentieth century, stability in the second half was ensured through the two great powers balancing each other out – Mutually Assured Destruction. MAD by name, but generally it worked.



Ari Sharp said…
Since the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, things have become a little more complicated. The world has been in a state of flux as it tries to find a new power arrangement to take it through the next few decades. The issues of terrorism and militant Islam, although prominent in recent years, are ultimately unlikely to be a major shaping force in the alignment of nations. Instead, the three major competitive players are likely to be the US, China and Europe, each of which possess military and economic clout, though only two of them possess decent food. Just how the three of them relate to each other is going to be the crucial factor that shapes global politics this century.

There is good reason to believe that China and the US will be adversaries rather than allies, though it seems that the lessons of history have been learnt and a full-scale Cold War division is not on the cards. Much as it would be good to return to those days if only for the brilliant James Bond films they inspired. The optimists might hope that the two could be close allies; but, much like Eric Bana replacing Pierce Brosnan as Bond, it’s becoming harder and harder to see this happening. The two have remarkably different political systems (no, not Bana and Brosnan), with China still a one-party state showing few signs of democratisation. There are still many US hardliners who are reluctant to become allies with a non-democracy, arguing that US support would legitimise totalitarianism in China. Further tensions exist over the future of Taiwan, the one time Chinese island which has separated itself from China and prospered under democracy, and with US backing may seek complete independence from China.

So if the roles of China and US are becoming clear, what role does that leave for other nations? Europe seems to fancy itself as a bridge-builder. Sharing a common history and political culture with the US, its connection with the States seems assured. Less certain is its connection to China, although it is taking great strides to consolidate its relationship. The European Union is in discussions with China to sell weapons and military equipment, and there are already plenty of cheap Chinese manufactured goods for sale on the streets of Europe. Sensing that the US is uncomfortable becoming too close to China, the Europeans have stepped in and are happy to take full advantage of the emerging opportunity.

What role will Australia play in this new global dynamic? So far Australia seems to be behaving rather cautiously, trying to remain on good terms with both major players. There was plenty of symbolism in the couple of days in November 2003 which saw US President George W. Bush addressing the national parliament on one day, and China’s President Hu Jintao doing the honours the next. Similarly, note Australia’s bilateral trade agreement. A free trade agreement between Australia and the US is nearing completion, whilst talks for an FTA between Australia and China have just commenced. On the sensitive issue of Taiwan, Australia has tried to distance itself from the American position of militarily defending Taiwan. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has suggested that Australia may not rush to Taiwan’s defence – a position that was very well received by the government in Beijing.

If the idea of China and the US as the dominant powers is proven correct, then there are three basic positions that Australia could take. It could either align itself with the US, align itself with China, or aim to win favour with both sides, and perhaps be a bridge between two adversaries. The status quo position is for Australia to remain close to the US, perhaps as its Deputy Sheriff in the South Pacific – a title that plenty cringe at but ultimately describes Australia’s role. (We even have the cork hats.) Already, Australia’s defence is closely linked to the US, and has been since the Second World War. The ANZUS treaty – binding Australia, the US and New Zealand to defend each other – is the foundation for Australia’s defence, with the promise of US aid in the case of attack staving off potential challengers from the north. (It’s unclear whether the Americans feel the same relief knowing that New Zealand will rush to its aid should World War Three arise). The closeness of Australia and the US goes behind just the chumminess that The Man of Steel has with the President – the relationship is a historic and cultural one, and is increasingly becoming an economic one with the signing of the FTA.

Another policy option for Australia is to become closer to China. With a large population and a rapidly growing economy, China – along with India – is likely to be the economic engine-room of the next thirty years, and Australia would have plenty to gain by having a close trading relationship. There is an emerging Chinese middle class: a market that Australian businesses could very profitably tap into, particularly in the areas of tourism and education –in which Australia has traditionally targeted other parts of Asia. Australia has plenty to gain out of a close relationship with China, but it may find that the Chinese are reluctant to get too close if Australia in turn wants to be an ally of the US, particularly on the politically raw issue of Taiwan.

Ultimately, the best path for Australia to take is a ‘middle ground’, maintaining good relations with both major powers. Putting this into practice would be tricky in many ways. As issues arise which put China and the US on opposite sides, Australia will need to tread carefully. One such issue that has already emerged is Taiwan, which sees the US and China implacably opposed to each other, with few options in the middle ground. Australia would need to be the Fred Astaire of the diplomats, using fancy footwork to delicately tip-toe through the delicate issues. Taiwan is likely to be the first of many issues that will place the US and China in opposition to each other. Another is North Korea, with Beijing favouring appeasement in contrast with Washington’s hard line stance. The benefits to Australia of strong engagement with both are worth these risks – bilateral free trade agreements will help Australian exporters and reduce the cost of goods in Australia, while firm alliances will improve security.

Though it might sound like a cop-out to opt for the middle ground, it’s a strategy that will work well for Australia’s interests. If there was to be an ideological battle between the US and China for the hearts and minds of undecided nations, Australia would be well placed to enjoy the benefits of these acts of persuasion (that’s ‘bribes’, but after the spin-doctors have played around with it). Australia needs to be wary, though, of becoming too close to China, a nation without a democratic tradition, free media or good human rights record. In all of these areas, China needs to lift its game, but it is unlikely to change due to sanctimonious condemnation by other nations. Instead, engagement is the best friend of those who seek a better China, since with the flow of ideas and capital into China will come internal pressure for change.

Now is the time for Australia to seriously discuss its place in the world, and where it wants to be positioned when the new global balance of power takes shape. The middle ground will be plenty of work, but it will bring with it plenty of benefits. If we can get there.

Ari Sharp is a student from Melbourne, and has travelled extensively through Australia, the US, China and Taiwan. He spends far too much time writing, talking, thinking and blogging, and not nearly enough getting a good night’s sleep. His ego can be massaged at

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