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Australia Turning Toward China?

The Obama Administration’s “pivot” to Asia has so far met with a warm welcome from China’s neighbors, who have been unnerved by Beijing’s more assertive posture in recent years. Still, Washington should be mindful of shifting public opinion among its allies in the Asia-Pacific region.

In Australia, for instance, former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser made waves last week when he voiced concern that Australia was becoming too close to an America that he sees (erroneously) as responding to the rise of China with a Cold War, containment-first mentality. And Fraser is not the only Australian to think his country is singing just a little too loudly from the American hymn book. Eminent defense analyst Hugh White, while adopting a much more nuanced approach than Fraser to the nature of Canberra’s position within the Sino-US dynamic, is nevertheless convinced that America must cede at least some power in the region in order to maintain stability and avoid a devastating strategic rivalry:

Above all, the [government’s] white paper needs to acknowledge that the rise of China does not mean that American power in Asia is finished, or that we should swap allegiance from Washington to Beijing. But it does mean that America will no longer be able to dominate Asia and must instead find a way to accommodate China and work with it.

That means we have to try to persuade Washington not to confront China, as it is doing now, but to work with it. We should also try to persuade China that it, too, must accept a continuing role for America in Asia. Both will have to do a lot of compromising.

White also argues that Australia needs to have a spirited public debate on not just the economic but also the political and strategic ramifications of what the government has called the “Asian century.” It is a debate that appears to have already begun, judging by the comments of Benjamin Herscovitch, a former diplomat:

Far from collectively conspiring to stunt China’s rise, Asian nations simply want to continue to enjoy the great benefits that flow from a US security presence.

For Australia to do the same is just good foreign and defence policy.

The dawn of the Asian century represents a seismic geo-strategic shift in world politics. In navigating these monumental changes, Australia needs to remember that American security will remain a crucial ingredient in a peaceful Asian century.

As Herscovitch’s comments illustrate, this is a debate Washington should welcome. The bond between the two countries is a close one, both on an individual and a political level. Opinion polls regularly show high public support for the United States. At the elite level, too, support for America is one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement. Australia’s current foreign minister has traveled extensively around America and is a noted Civil War buff. And the rock star reception Obama received in Canberra and Darwin last November was a testament not only to his personal appeal in Oz but the prestige of the presidency itself.

But that doesn’t mean the United States should take Australian support for granted. America must continue to deepen its diplomatic ties with Canberra; increasing the number of political visits, as well student and academic exchanges, is a logical place to start.

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  • Kenny

    Relax. Australia is not going anywhere.

  • Luke Lea

    Remember the definition of power: making people do things against their will.

    I doubt Australians will wish more power to China beyond the China seas.

  • Luke Lea

    This is interesting:

    The Macroeconomics of Chinese kleptocracy

    You can see how it works. This won’t end well but like I’ve said the ruling Party doesn’t give a sh*t about the Chinese people.

  • Luke Lea

    “Nothing that happens disappears lightly, but rather it conditions our life in this world. A massive secret becomes a vast void. Long silences emerge as new histories and responsibilities. Aren’t certain things, when avoided, the avoidance of certain important things? How far exactly have our morals slid? How deep is our spiritual fall?”

  • Luke Lea

    “We must have farsightedness to earn money,”


  • Luke Lea

    In China there are two classes: the gun class and the gunless class. Guess who the outlaws are?

  • Sturt

    In his sensescence Fraser has been reliably anti-American, for reasons known only to himself as his public writings on the subject don’t evidence any sensible cost-benefit calculation of the relative merits of the US alliance versus going it alone.

    Australia is prone to occasional spasms of existential self-examination about the US alliance. They’re never pretty to watch but we do tend to end up on the right side.

    This one’s been the outcome of

    a)a long military commitment in Iraq and Afghanistan that’s arguably run over time and worn down some of the ADF’s core capabilities, and inhibited investment in areas where we actually NEED military superiority in our own region (particularly naval platforms)
    b) the slow-building acknowledgment of exactly how tied Australia is to China’s resource demands, and questioning the consequences if that trend extends indefinitely.
    c) the sense that America is “back on its heels” as a global economic power and seeing its preponderant power in Asian affairs dissipate.

    To my way of thinking what the debate lacks is anyone posing the question “what do we do if Chinese growth reverses course”? (ie, if the macroeconomic consequences of Chinese kleptocracy actually do bring the miracle to an end.) In that case Australia will need America more than ever.

  • Bruce

    Paul Keating tried to tell people this back in the 90’s and they were soon laughting at him and he was chucked out of office. Fraser seems to want to be liked by the chardonay-sipping set in Balmain so he rabbits on about thigs like this. ASIO, Defence and those in the know are keeping a close on the PRC and the stockpile of US weapons grows every year after the “Joint Exercises” with the USA. At the same time, the PRC pays a lot for Aussie dirt (iron ore) so why be rude to them??

  • AJ

    Walter Russell, long-time reader, first time commenter. As an Australian educated there and at grad school in America, and currently working in New York, I have a perspective. There is actually considerable antipathy to the US among the self-proclaimed “elites”, in the Labor Party (with many honourable exceptions, including in particular Ambassador Beazley, a former Labor leader and Civil War buff),amongst trade unions (who are far more dominant in Australia than in the US) and in the state-run (ABC) and left-leaning (Fairfax) media. Although most ordinary Australians are pro-US as they know Americans personally, have travelled there and the countries share many values, traditions and characteristics, this anti-US climate does influence ordinary opinion and diminish the pro-US feeling, even though when one digs into it much of the ordinary person’s views of the US are often not all that well based in facts. The average Australian recognises the value of China as a trading partner and the reality that they are in the neighbourhood, but does not trust China’s intentions and has no desire to pivot towards them and away from the US – e.g. the deployment of Marines in Darwin is looked upon very favourably by Australians, myself included, even though I have strong reservations as a US taxpayer! Whether or not our politicians take us towards China contrary to this public opinion is another question. A Coalition (Liberal / National) government, which is looking almost certain based on Labor party pol ratings and PM Gillard’s approval rating, would likely be in the better interests of America. Thanks for all your interesting output.

  • John Stephens

    Does “accommodate” mean what I think it does, and just which nation or nations is Mr. White proposing we sacrifice to the Dragon in order to do so?

  • fred17

    Australia recognizes who will be the Number 1 economic power in the near future. The Aussies have always been pragmatic.

  • Matt

    China’s total fertility rate is something like 1.5 per woman and falling. I don’t know what this century will be like, but it won’t be the Chinese century.

  • Blue

    The serious debate about Australia becoming an “Asian” country happened back in the early to mid 1990s. Fraser is just a doddering old fool with zero relevance at this stage of the game.

  • cbinflux

    It’s nice to be good neighbors when possible, but China will NOT protect/serve Oz (and UK, Canada, …) like the USA has for many decades.

    Note to Oz: IT’S A COOKBOOK!!!

  • tim maguire

    If they want more cooperation from the United States, it would be good to start by not talking about an “Asian Century.” That’s just asking for trouble.

  • Rebel Yell

    It’s always good to remember that nations do not have friends, they have interests. And, from time to time, and for a time, a nation’s interests will align with another nation’s interests. It won’t be forever.

    Nations with a common language and religion tend to be more likely to have common interests.

  • marko

    The last horse that Fraser backed was Robert Mugabe as the saviour of Zimbabwe. Disastrously stupid and wrong then, as now.

  • PacRim Jim

    Americans died to keep Australia out of the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere.
    Apparently Australians want in, whatever the ultimate price.

  • Armando

    [i]Australia recognizes who will be the Number 1 economic power in the near future.[/i]

    That remains to be seen.

  • deepelemblues

    The view of China as the wave of the future suffers the same (but worse) problems that brought down Japan as the wave of the future, the USSR as the wave of the future, the EU as the wave of the future.

    First problem: Too much of these views are driven by the preference of those holding them for the US to decline. They want the US to go down so there has to be someone causing it or taking up our slack. Japan will do it. The EU will do it. The Soviets will do it. Now, China will do it. Someone HAS to, whoever is fashionable at the moment depends on circumstances.

    Second problem: thanks to the first problem, any shortcomings of our alleged replacement are minimized, America’s are exaggerated. Their strengths exaggerated, ours minimized. This leads to myopia and complacency in thinking. China’s problems? Whatever, it’s carved in stone, man. They’re gonna beat us.

    America doesn’t have to necessarily remain in better shape today and better in the future than China, but thinking that China is inevitably going to eclipse America is as wrong as thinking Japan or Russia would do so.

  • richard40

    Australia has always been a good friend to the US. They often stood with us when nobody else would. We owe them some respect.

  • herbie

    Lots of Aussies died right alongside them too.
    Almost alone in the world, Aussies still recongnise what true freedom is.
    America has never had a better friend

  • vinny vidivici

    Fraser sounds a lot like those old Kremlin-ologists during the Cold War who assured us the Soviet system was the world’s mosr dynamic economies and was here to stay. Best to reach accommodation and not provoke. These demands, always made by the West’s political class, were never reciprocated (except perhaps from the Gulag).

  • vinny vidivici

    Sorry — “one of the world’s most dynamic economies”

  • Tony Harrison

    1. Frazer is an idiot who should stick to pruning his roses.
    2. There will always be a small percentage of people in Australia who are anti British, anti Monarchy, anti profits, anti corporations blah blah blah. Every country has em – Occupy Wall St anyone? The reality is they do not represent the mainstream of thinking.
    3. PacRim Jim. Plenty of Aussies died the same way for the same reasons, mate.
    4. It is resonable and sensible for Australia to step up and build strong ties with all countries in our local neighbourhood, surely? This has often been neglected in the past, and rarely to Australia’s advantage.
    5. Rightly or wrongly, China is a major trading partner of both Aus & US. I still don’t see long lines of people from either country queueing to move to China

  • Brendan Doran

    Military Alliances – usually lead to war. That’s their point.

    We had very skilled leadership at the critical moment, luck, American leadership with European buy in leading to bloodless success in the Cold War. It’s a dangerous fallacy to think that is the norm.

    If China thinks we’re challenging them, and even Australians think so…perhaps what some of us think isn’t relevant.

    What do we think the Philippines and Vietnam want us around for anyway?

  • Chris M

    Relax folks, Fraser is our version of Jimmy Carter and in his dotage to boot. The weight of credibility is always going to lie with the opposing view to his – and that is on any topic.

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