Does China plan to make Australia an offer it can’t refuse?Barack Obama’s historic nine-day tour of America’s Asia-Pacific allies last November inaugurated a renewed US commitment to the region. Along the way, the president made his first visit to Australia, where he left quite an impression. Addressing the Australian parliament, Obama announced an agreement to send an additional 2,500 US marines to the northern port city of Darwin.Strategically, the troop basing agreement is of little practical value. But the symbolism was potent and its import not lost on anyone, least of all the Chinese; the United States, Obama was saying, is here to stay. China’s growing economic and military clout had begun making many countries in the region nervous, but Obama’s tour, and the series of subsequent follow-ups, has helped assuage those doubts.But American grand strategy does not operate in a vacuum. China has recently begun pushing back, and its resistance reached a new level last week when a retired Chinese general made a series of provocative comments to an Australian journalist. Investor’s Business Daily (h/t Instapundit) explains:
If there were ever any doubts about China’s aggressive military intentions in the Pacific, its warning to Australia last week to choose itself a U.S. or Chinese “godfather” ought to remove all of them.In what can only be construed as a direct threat to a top U.S. ally, Song Xiaojun, a “retired” Chinese general, told the Sydney Morning Herald that “Australia has to find a godfather sooner or later.”“Australia always has to depend on somebody else, whether it is to be the ‘son’ of the U.S. or ‘son’ of China,” Song said, adding that Australia had best choose China because it all “depends on who is more powerful and based on the strategic environment.”
Nor was the timing of the remarks likely a coincidence. Australia’s new foreign minister, Bob Carr, had just arrived in Beijing to begin discussions with his Chinese counterpart. And while General Song’s comments were full of bravado, they simultaneously betrayed China’s heightened unease with the expansion of America’s military and diplomatic commitment to Asia-Pacific.They also confirmed the greatest fear among Australia’s foreign policy community – that increasing hostility between the US and China will eventually force Canberra to choose between the two great powers. In a recent speech by Gareth Evans, a former Australian foreign minister and later head of the International Crisis Group, he enumerated the central geopolitical challenges confronting Australia in the 21st century. Number one, he said, was “to avoid having to make a zero-sum game choice in our relations with China and the US.”China is Australia’s largest trading partner, both as a destination for exports and a source of imports. Two-way trade is worth $100 billion. And while the US and Australia share strong cultural ties, there is a prominent – but very much a minority – viewpoint among Australian analysts that believes China’s economic muscle will loosen the bonds between Washington and Canberra. Hugh White, considered one of the country’s eminent strategic thinkers, said two years ago that, ”the very thing which is keeping us afloat economically [China] is undermining the structure which keeps us safe strategically [America].”White’s argument hinges on the belief that economics trumps all. Yet he ignores the fact that the US is the number one source of investment in Australia. When trade and investment figures are taken together, American economic activity in Australia actually surpasses that of China.Despite the braggadocio exhibited by General Song, the notion that Australia must decide between China and America is a false choice. As Bob Carr pointed out, Australia is just one of two countries that have a strategic defense dialogue with China; it was the first Western country to assist China’s humanitarian relief mission in Chengdu last year; and Australia was also the first country to hold a joint live fire exercise with the Chinese navy.Meanwhile, Australia and the US remain the closest of friends. Australian troops have fought alongside their American counterparts in every war since Australian federation. The countries have shared a defense pact for nearly sixty years, one which Australia invoked after the horrors of 9/11, not because Australia feared for its safety but as a show of support for the US at a time of crisis. Australian elites continue to respect and admire America – the Australian/US alliance is one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement between the two major political parties. The alliance also enjoys overwhelming public support, as demonstrated by a recent poll from the respected Lowy Institute, which found that around 85 per cent of respondents support the alliance to some extent.As the new century unfolds and wealth, power and influence shift from the Atlantic to the Pacific, Australian diplomats and policymakers will have to navigate some treacherous strategic waters. But regardless of the close economic ties between China and Australia, Washington can be confident of the continued, steadfast support of our friends Down Under.