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.