Under the Rudd-Gillard Labor governments (from November 2007 to September 2013), Australia succeeded in anchoring its relations with China on mutually beneficial grounds. While reaping the economic benefits from the peaceful rise of China, Australia also hedged against a situation where an emergent China might mean political domination in the region that could be perceived as detrimental to Australia’s national interests. This strategy could be termed “accommodation with soft balancing” (Derek McDougall, Asia Pacific in World Politics (London, Lynne Rienner Publishers)).
But Sino-Australian relations have undergone an unfortunate metamorphosis in recent years. In 2021, the formation of the AUKUS pact, which is a trilateral security partnership between Australia, the US and the UK, means Canberra is leaning to the US side. Having fallen into lockstep with US geopolitical priorities, Australia will no longer be able to maximize its national interests by balancing Beijing’s and Washington’s strategic concerns in the region. The following discussion will show Australian policyholders that a hard containment policy against China does not serve the interests of Australia in the long term.
Thorniest of the geopolitical issues arising from the formation of the AUKUS pact is the strong message that Australia will see the world through Anglo-American strategic eyes. Under American leadership, the alliance is aimed at sustaining and enhancing deterrence against a perceived “Chinese threat” in the region. In addition to the nuclear submarine agreement, the pact also features broader security cooperation measures, including an agreement for Australia to explore hosting US bombers on its territory, the acquisition by Australia of long-range precision strike missiles, and joint cooperation on cyber capabilities, AI, quantum technology and additional undersea capabilities (Kevin Rudd, The Avoidable War (NY, Public Affairs, 2022)).
Last year, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong emphasized the importance of maintaining a regional order based on strategic equilibrium. Contrary to the above principle, the present generation of Labor leadership still retains faith in the idea of a US-led global order. Paul Keating, the former prime minister of Australia from 1991-1996, has been critical of the nuclear submarine program. Under Keating, there were attempts to integrate Australia more strongly with Asia-Pacific (Derek McDougall, op.cit.).
Having no room for retreat from the challenges posed by the provocative nuclear submarine agreement, China criticized the agreement for fueling an arms race and hurting peace and stability in the region (Ben Doherty, War of Words: Australia Can Expect a Hostile Response from China to Strategic Defence Review, in The Guardian, April 22, 2023). Like China, Indonesia is highly suspicious of the above program. In fact, no serious analysis supports Canberra’s assertion that conventionally powered subs will not be effective in the decades ahead (Hugh White, Can US Alliance and AUKUS Help Australia Secure its Future in Asia?, in This Week in Asia, April 23, 2023).
There is no merit for Australia in sacrificing its own economic development by subordinating its national interests to those of the US
According to White, there are also serious concerns about the wider implications of AUKUS for the global regime which has done so much to help prevent the spread of nuclear weapons for 50 years. It’s worth noting that the uranium in the reactors of the subs will not be subject to the normal international standards used to enforce the Non-Proliferation Treaty, because a special provision allows them to be waived for non-weapons related military applications like nuclear propulsion (ibid.).
Meanwhile, the US, Japan, Australia and India have transformed the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) from an informal framework of cooperation to a formal regional organization. If the QUAD is further institutionalized, militarized and expanded, an Asian NATO with China as its targeted adversary might be on the horizon in the prospective security architecture of the Indo-Pacific (K. He and H. Feng, International Order Transition and US-China Strategic Competition in the Indo-Pacific, in Pacific Review, March 2023). It will further destabilize the region.
What is clear is that Australia’s membership in the QUAD and the AUKUS pact has strengthened the contention that Australia is not only committed to but also effectively operating a US-led “collective deterrence” mechanism against a perceived “Chinese threat” in the region. But a cost-benefit analysis argues in favor of a less active role played by Australia in the “collective deterrence” mechanism. Besides, question marks still surround Canberra’s willingness and determination to become a military stronghold in a future potential war between China and the US in the region. Will Australia be willing to pay the unaffordable price of fighting an unnecessary war for the US?
It bears mentioning that other disputes are endemic to Sino-Australian relations. These disputes are: the new security agreement between Japan and Australia, the blocking of Australian exports to China after Canberra sought a “formal investigation” into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, Australia’s unwillingness to support China’s bid to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, etc. In spite of these disputes, bilateral relations are improving.
In fact, both countries have started to resolve the previous puzzles through negotiation, rather than in a politicized manner (Global Times, March 3, 2023). Recently, Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan led a business delegation to China to take part in a strategic dialog with Chinese business delegates. It is hoped that further steps will be taken by both countries to rebuild their mutually beneficial relationship.
Seen from the perspective of ordinary Australians, the most important thing is economic development. Instead of adopting a hard containment policy toward China, Australia should forge closer economic ties with China. As a defender of key global institutions like the WTO and WHO, as well as norms like sovereignty and nonintervention on which the current liberal order has been built (K. He and H. Feng, op.cit.), China is definitely not a threat to the global order. Nor does China intend to be a threat to Australia.
There is no merit for Australia in sacrificing its own economic development by subordinating its national interests to those of the US. ASEAN’s pragmatic approach to manage geopolitical competition between China and the US offers a lesson for Australia. Similarly, Jacinda Ardern, the former prime minister of New Zealand, has set an excellent example for its like-minded neighbor to follow. Under Ardern, New Zealand succeeded in building constructive and important relations with both superpowers.
The author is a solicitor, director of Sino-Australia Relations of Chinese Dream Think Tank.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
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