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What Washington expects of Australia

It is imperative that Canberra thinks clearly and coldly about what the national interest requires with respect to China

By Dennis Blair

The American relationship with Australia is unique. Although the “special relationship” with the United Kingdom is widely regarded as America’s closest partnership, friction has dogged the alliance. From tensions over strategy and empire and World War II to the Suez crisis in 1956 and the recent return of Winston Churchill’s bust from the Oval Office, British–American relations have been far from smooth.

In contrast, the post–World War II history of the US–Australian relationship has been strong and mutually beneficial. Beginning with the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942, it was followed by an agreed strategy throughout that war, then side-by-side combat in Korea in the 1950s, Vietnam in the 1960s, and the Middle East since the early 1990s. When New Zealand’s narrow nationalistic view of nuclear weapons and nuclear propulsion on US naval ships took it out of the ANZUS alliance in 1985, Australia’s wider and more responsible view stood in strong contrast.

So what of the future? Australia is currently undertaking Alliance 21, a project led by the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. The project is a careful and comprehensive consideration of the relationship between Australia and the United States. It is worth describing the value and security contribution of the alliance for the future from the US point of view.

American expectations of its alliance with Australia are both global and regional and it is important not to neglect the global aspect. Only a few nations feel a responsibility to support the formal and informal agreements, understandings, and practices that underlie the global economic and security order from which all nations benefit. Fewer still are willing to spend diplomatic capital and effort, economic resources, and military deployments to support them.

The international order is not a Pax Americana nor is it the orderly and lawful world envisioned in the United Nations charter. It is a much more modest, but vital, construct in which there are limits on aggressive international and brutal domestic behaviour, and in which dictators are contained, and on occasion removed, from power. It is an order in which massive suffering is relieved. On the economic side, it is a general commitment to freer trade and to making compromises in economic disputes in the interest of greater common prosperity. It is an order in which international cooperation is expected to deal with crosscutting common dangers from global warming and environmental pollution to drug dealing and international crime.

The US counts on Australia, as one of the handful of countries that feels a responsibility for supporting these arrangements, and for contributing real resources, commensurate with its size, to address challenges to the order when they break out.

Australia plays this role in concert with the US and similarly committed countries in many different ways. US and Australian ambassadors and their country teams work closely together in the world’s trouble spots and in the headquarters of international organisations; Australian military commanders and their staffs and units continually plan and exercise with American regional commands; Australian intelligence agencies and their American counterparts continually compare views of developments in the world.

The Australian embassy in Washington DC coordinates actions continually with US departments and agencies across the full range of issues, as does the American embassy in Australia, and Australian officials in Canberra are in constant direct communication with counterparts in Washington. Only a few countries have this dense network of relationships with the US government. They have developed and can continue to exist only because of a common view of the world’s challenges and a commitment to work on them together.

The alliance’s regional aspect has elements of the global relationship but separate characteristics. Australia is not America’s deputy for its part of the world. Rather, Washington counts on Canberra to keep close watch on South-East Asia and Oceania, to develop policy responses to crises that arise, confident that they will be policies and responses that the US will share and support. This sequence played out in the important developments in Indonesia from 1998 to 2002. At the time, profound changes in Indonesia were afoot as that country lost confidence and patience in the increasingly corrupt and out-of-touch regime of President Suharto.

US policy saw Jakarta through the distorted lenses of the Asian financial crisis and human rights abuses that had curtailed military relations. Australia’s view was more complete, seeing opportunities for profound and positive change in Indonesia. As early as March 1999, while the US ban on military interchanges was still in effect, Australian officers held a major conference with Indonesian military officers on the subject of the role of the armed forces in a democracy. Australian prime minister John Howard’s government convinced President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie to call a referendum on the future of East Timor and then led an international peacekeeping force to give that new country a chance to become an independent nation state. Washington eventually came to share the Australian assessment of the situation and its possibilities. The US joined the peacekeeping forces, albeit formally separate from the UN command structure, and became a strong supporter of the new democratic Indonesia.

The Indonesian example was the most important of recent years, but it is not unique. On issues from the 2006 coup in Fiji to dealing with the South-East Asian aspects of the threat from al Qaeda and its affiliates, it is Australia that has both the granular and general understanding of the countries and relationships in the region and policy instincts that are common with those of the US. Without Australia’s influence, American policy in the region would be more influenced by habits of thinking and precedents from other regions in which its central policymakers spend more of their time. Transpositions like that never lead to good policy.

The most controversial issue in the US–Australia relationship is how to deal with a rapidly rising China. From a global perspective, few Australians would prefer the Beijing order to the Washington order. However, from a regional perspective, Beijing’s growing power and influence are simply a reality. In addition, the bilateral trade between Australia and China is coming to dominate Canberra’s economic considerations. Serious Australians publicly worry about Canberra being forced to choose between the US and China, between their traditional security ally and their dominant new export market.

From the US point of view, there is less to this dilemma than meets the eye. After all, America also has strong economic ties with China. America strongly favours China’s integration into the world economy and believes it will lead to mutual benefit. Neither the US nor Australia believes that China’s view of economic relations is the same as its own. Despite its membership in the World Trade Organization, China does not hesitate to wield its economic muscle to support its security and development objectives. China’s theft of intellectual property from American and other international companies is rampant. Australian citizens have been arrested and jailed for business practices that only China considers crimes. To pressure Japan and the Philippines, China has restricted the export of rare earth metals, permitted, if not encouraged, nationalistic boycotts of Japanese automobiles and other goods, and cut off imports from the Philippines.

Despite these challenges, American and Australian companies are increasingly making profits in China. However, it would be foolhardy from a security viewpoint for either country to allow the Chinese market to dominate its economic future. China will not hesitate to use what influence it has for all it security objectives. It would also be unwise from a purely economic viewpoint to become dependent on the Chinese market, since the economic future of China is increasingly uncertain.

The Chinese economic formula of the past — export of manufactured goods with cheap labour, heavy government infrastructure investment, foreign direct investment and scant consideration of environmental impacts — cannot be sustained in the future. Chinese wages are rising rapidly, its workforce is beginning to shrink, there are fewer opportunities for productive infrastructure investment, international companies are looking elsewhere to invest and build and Chinese popular opinion is demanding a cleaner environment. Chinese economists and some of its leaders know that it must shift to an economy based more on private companies, domestic consumption, and best environmental practices, but entrenched interests — state owned enterprises, local governments — and a consensus-style of leadership will make change difficult. Therefore purely from an economic point of view, heavy dependence on the Chinese market does not make sense. In order to avoid dangerous dependence on a single national economy, Australia should seek diversity in its export markets.

From a regional perspective, Americans would find it difficult to understand economic relations with China causing Australia to draw closer to China’s view of the future of the Asia-Pacific region. That Chinese view is based entirely on a narrow nationalist concept of the region, rather than the concept of promotion of common goods that the United States favoured during the period when its ability to dominate the region was unchallenged. The Chinese view includes territorial claims that all its neighbours consider excessive, exclusive economic zones that maritime nations consider too restrictive, tolerance of brutal regimes such as North Korea and Myanmar, and a preference for bilateral relations based on relative power balances over international approaches that are based on common standards and common goods.

The US is not advocating a strategy of containing China, to check all increases in Chinese power and influence. Rather Washington, with the support of most of China’s neighbours, is supporting policies of solving disputes by peaceful means, without military and economic coercion, based on compromise and common principles, but supported by a common resolve to oppose unilateral attempts by China to gain advantage. This also is the most prudent and consistent approach for Australia to take.

As it looks to the 21st century, Australia can take comfort from the successes of the past. In the 20th century, Australia and the US resisted unilateral military attempts to gain national advantage in East Asia, while sharing peaceful economic and diplomatic power and influence. They halted and defeated Japanese military aggression and then welcomed peaceful Japanese development and increased authority and influence. They opposed Soviet aggression and have been ready to cooperate with Russia on many issues. China’s rise brings a new set of challenges, but there are many grounds for optimism. China is nationalistic, and smarts from the consequences of its historical weakness, but it does not have the internationally aggressive communist ideology of the Soviet Union, or the sense of racial superiority and entitlement of imperialist Japan. China has bet its future on economic growth based on economic engagement with the world, and knows it needs a peaceful international environment to support that engagement. China’s rhetorical commitment to democracy in the long term, however belied by its current practices, may in fact be realized by a more prosperous and assertive citizenry. The single-party majority Chinese Taiwan transitioned peacefully to democracy, and one-party majority Chinese Singapore is changing. Australia and the US should remain true to their historical commitment to open governments and open international systems.

Americans welcome the Australian review of our relationship under the Alliance 21 process. I recall a conversation not long ago at an event commemorating the Battle of the Coral Sea. My young Australian interlocutor had no idea of the significance of that battle, nor did he know much about the more recent wars in Korea and Vietnam. Nonetheless, he felt that the US and Australia had a future together based on a common outlook and a common set of objectives. The US–Australian alliance need not rely on a dimming past for its justifications. It has a shared, vibrant, and bright future.