by Wei Yuan Min
July 10, 2012 (TSR) – Australia, the world’s biggest island, is located on the southern edge of East Asia and thus, is in the middle of the region most directly affected by China’s changes. This geographic location is both a blessing and a curse. Sound judgments and quick thinking from Australian politicians is needed in balancing and handling the geopolitical situation of the powers between two great countries in the world: United States of America and People’s Republic of China.
For much of the past century, the world had rested on bricks of Western unilateralism, which meant that Australia’s choice in forming close cooperation and alliances with United Kingdom and United States of America was not a difficult choice. Yet, with the world becoming more of a place where multilateral cooperation amongst countries is inevitable, the long-held Western primacy ought to recede. It is already happening due to the rising influence and presence of China. It is inevitable that for the first time, a non-Western, non-English speaking country with a different social and political structure will be a serious player on the world stage. With this change, Australia is thrust into the middle of a political tug-of-war; one which requires Australia to judge their national interest and employ strategic policies that will ensure positive balance and interest for all those involved.
Regional transformation mainly due to China’s growth and her potential threat is changing internal diplomatic and foreign policies in Australia. The mainstream view on Australia’s own interest, in choosing between a close ally (America) and an economical partner (China) is at most, reasonably clear. “ We want Asia to keep on growing… Australia to be a part of this growth and America to engage in Asia so to prevent a China dominance” (White 2005, p.470).
The problem behind the power shift could be easily solved if politicians from all parties could exercise common sense and understand that the beauty behind all three countries far outweighs their differences. American politicians are not coming to grips with the new geo-political geometry that comes with a shift of power. They need to see China as an opportunity and not as a threat since such thinking actually ‘make’ China the enemy. For the Chinese, they certainly do not wish for foreign interferences and are unlikely to accept another country as the dominant power due to their own rising influences. For Australia, the nation is caught between two giants and such urgent times require wisdom, accurate strategies and profound judgment of which are lacking in the current leaders.
Fullilove (2012, p.6) noted that due to the current power shift, dealing with China and her rise would no longer be easy or purely a dual approach. Australia know that they cannot be so blatantly obvious in being closer to America or show signs of clear objection and intervention in China’s interest. Confronting China through force is counterproductive and thus remains last on Australia’s list. As early as 2004, Australia’s ambassador to China said that China would overtake US and become Australia’s largest trading partner in the next 5 to 10 years; however, China achieved this in 3 years (Thomas, 2004, p.5). Relative gains have also shown that Australia has benefited from China’s rise. Such growth and close economical ties between Australia and China has boosted greatly resulting in huge export of Australia’s natural resources and tempered the impact of international financial difficulties on Australia’s economy. China’s hunger for resources and their willingness to buy from Australia was the main reason why Australia’s economy remained strong during global crisis. Callick (2009, p.4) revealed that since 1990, Australia’s engagement with Asia has multiplied four times and an astonishing sixteen times with China alone. This increasing relationship has benefited Australia greatly and agreed by leading China observers and Sinologists; Australia’s healthy economy is due to the ever-strengthening relationship, needs and demands from China.
China has benefited from trade with Australia as well but no doubt, Australia has benefited more. Becoming Australia’s largest trading partner, China took in 25.3 percent of Australian exports in 2010 with natural resources making the dominant part (ADFAT, 2011). This ‘appetite and interest’ in doing business with Australia in iron ores and other minerals and resources significantly boosts Australia’s internal economy and such trade, which inflicted growing confidence, cooperation and willingness in establishing business relations between the two prompted Dupont to state that “Australia’s prosperity is due to being able to ride on the back of the dragon’ (2011, p.1).
However, despite such strong trade between Australia and China, could always source minerals from other countries. Australia does control the price but it is China who can shift their reliance away from Australia to other countries when there is economic disagreement or relationship downfall caused by political differences. If this happens, Callick (2009, p.5) predicted that Australia will lose 25 percent of export to China resulting in a 0.6 percent of GDP lost if their annual growth is at 19 percent. China might well use cutbacks and decrease economic exchanges with Australia if US-AUS alliance is adding forceful pushes and pressure on China. If Australia is being too tough then China can really push back these days and cause unwanted negative consequences. Thus, Fullilove (2012, p.8) suggested that Australia need to do no harm, seek to influence events and power structures in Asia and be realistic about changing a rising country-China.
The US and Australian alliance has always been on the top list of bi-lateral collaboration and partnership for both countries. Confirmation of such alliance took a drastic step with Gillard fulfilling Obama’s Pacific dream in allowing Darwin to be the military base for some 2500 American soldiers. This decision tells China that America has no intention to abandon its hegemonic status and presence in the Asia-pacific. White (November 2011) believes that practically and operationally speaking the Darwin base means little however in terms of symbolic and strategic means, it is a great deal. This shows that despite close alliance with the US for the past four decades, Australia is now willing to join America’s military coalition against China.
Australia lacks a political outlook plan and approach to its relationship and strategy towards China and America. While some believe that distancing from US might be beneficial in maintaining Sino-Australian relationship, many feel that ‘it is possible that some divergences between allies can occur without the underlying basis of the relationship being severely damaged’ (McDougall 2011, p.20). Regardless of the dilemma, dual emphasis on accommodation and soft balancing, which according to Ayson (2008) are ‘crucial and critical factors in mapping out the future of the activities and dynamism between the three countries’, is needed. This combination as a ‘hedging strategy’ (Cheng-Chwee, 2008) will help Australia to respond to various contingencies and despite the mix of strategies varying overtime, the constant feature through such combination is that there are room and options to respond to trilateral relationship whilst protecting Australia’s national interest will be maximized. Australia must place their attention on ensuring greater pluralism within the Asia-Pacific region and facilitate China’s integration in a non-threatening way.
One country’s rise should not be seen as a threat and countries can, must and should learn to respect one another and realize that a strong nation is one that learn from the good of others. For Australia, being China-literate is importance and it is hoped that by having more young Australians who understand China, any tension in this Bermuda Triangle could be better handled. However, despite Rudd’s emphasis on being able to understand the mind of Asia (Flitton, 2012), Australia is not producing those who are linguistically and culturally competent nor suitable to be called the bridge between these three nations.
Garrett (2010) believes that it is hard for Australia to remain on the sidelines since in case of any military conflict, Australia would have little choice but to back the US due to the depth of their historical ties, shared values and interests (p.3). Perhaps this is true but this orthodox view that Australia must take on the US side and pray that China will not notice or mind any close alliance needs serious modification. All parties need to adopt a respectful and positive relationship that could function properly in the long-run. The world is already in a rather sick state and there is no need and room for more useless arguments. There is no need for any distrust, talks of threat, hidden plans to overtake the other, external pressures and containment. There will definitely exist differences and disagreements since all three nations are different. However, such disagreements must remain peaceful and respectful.
Some suggestions for Australia
A personal view is that Australia can easily avoid any direct confrontation with China through diverting this attention onto other Asian countries. Strongly supported by Wesley (2011), Australia can find flexibility in protecting their own interests by also engaging with other regional powers within Asia (ASEAN). This will encourage multilaterialism which helps to minimize conflict as well as to divert the focus on finding a balance between China and America.
Australia cannot fall into the trap of thinking that American primacy would remain forever uncontested and unchallengeable. Australia can no longer afford to be naïve in that it looks for other powers for this self-envisioned protection against a fake, self-conceived ‘threat’. Australia’s historical subordination must be avoided and instead of fighting against another country, they must learn to manage this change through the dual emphasis or hedging strategy.
In order to achieve a good bilateral relationship based on mutual respect and equality and growing at a sustainable pace, Australia need to act as the mediator. ‘Australia is already seen by China as an influential middle power with active foreign policy’ (p.12) and by encouraging China, US and other regional countries to actively pursue joint exploration and working climate, not only will the political relationship be stable but also Australia’s position with China.
Australia’s interest and the boundary of its alliance are blurring. Obama’s Australian visit along with the establishment of an American military base in Darwin forced Australia into an urgent decision making phase which requires thinkers to come up with an alternate version of diplomatic relations, cooperation and a more favourable security order. Alan Dupont (2011) in his paper ‘Living with the Dragon’ stated that the current Australian approach towards China is fragmented, superficial, conflicted, ambivalent, under-resources and focusing too much on raw-material exports. Such wrong understanding will one day contribute to detrimental results for Australia’s security and growth.
For many decades, Australia has been struggling with finding out a right and acceptable view towards its relationship, partnership and collaboration with China. As the US’s closest friend, Australia is experiencing a truly momentous shift in terms of finding its position between America and China since the strategic rivalry between them is growing more than ever. As a good ally, Australia need to question America’s actions and intentions.
However, Australia will remain in limbo for sometime as a way to avoid and delay the challenging complication. A balance must be realized and the nation must not see the need for such shift between two powerful nations as a nuisance but welcome this as an inevitable historical and social phenomenon. By finding their own vision for the future of Asia-Pacific as well as truly understanding their national interest, identity, reasoning and weighing out the benefits of such trilateral relationships, Australia will better share, facilitate and maintain relationship with Washington and Beijing. With its new gained political and diplomatic direction, Australia will see true advancement of which it needs and is capable of.
I am positive that such tension will only be temporary since respect and positivity will always outweigh the negatives.
AUTHOR: Wei Yuan Min
Wei Yuan Min is an Australian college student majoring in Global Business Journalism Program at School of Journalism and Communication, Tsinghua University, Beijing, China
ADFAT. (2011). China Fact Sheet. Australia department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Retrieved on May 24, from
Ayson, R. (2008). Asia’s China Strategy. A perspective from Australia. Canberra, Australia national University, Strategic and Defence Studies Centre.
Callick, R. (2009). China: never mind the panic! Australia-China links and the Global Crisis.Asialinks.
Cheng-Chwee, K. (2008). The essence of Hedging: Malaysia and Singapore’s Response to a Rising China. Contemporary Southeast China, vol. 30, no. 2.
Dupont, A. (2011). Living with the dragon: Why Australia needs a China Strategy. University of Sydney, Lowy Institute for International Policy.
Flitton, D. (2012, April 17). Rudd breaks his silence with Asian overture. Sydney Morning Herald.Retrieved on May 24, from
Fullilove, M (February 6, 2012). Obama’s Australian visit and the Australia-United States-China strategic triangle. Remarks to the American Australian Association. USA: New York City.
Garrett, G. (2010). Strategic choices, Australia, China and the US in Asia. Asia Link, University of Melbourne Parkville, vol.2, no.5.
McDowall, R.C. (2006). The strategic depiction of China in Howard government policy from 1996-2006. Canberra: Strategic and Defence Studies Centre.
Thomas, A. (2004, July 27). The Peaceful Rise of China: What does it mean for Australia and the Region? Asia-Link Centre.
Wesley, M. (2011). There goes the neighbourhood: Australia and the Rise of Asia. Sydney, New South Books.
White, H. (2005). The limits to optimism: Australia and the rise of China. Australian Journal of International Affairs, 59, 470-480.
White, H. (2011, October 25). Australia future hostage to rivalry between China and US. The Age,11.
White, H. (2011, November 16). Dear Mr President: We beg to differ over the future of Asia. The Age, 21.