The Age: Politicians can no longer bury their head in the sand about our foreign policy direction
There is something obsessive about the way our leaders keep saying that Australia does not have to choose between America and China. Julia Gillard says it almost every time she talks about foreign policy. Bob Carr and Stephen Smith cling to it. It’s woven into the government’s Asian Century white paper and National Security Statement.
And it’s there again in the Defence white paper: ”The government does not believe that Australia must choose between its longstanding alliance with the United States and its expanding relationship with China.”
Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop say the same thing, and John Howard said recently it was ”infantile” even to discuss the idea that we might have to choose.
But is it true? It depends what precisely we think our leaders are saying. If they are talking about the past and even the present, then the mantra is true. For many years now we have not had to choose between the US and China, and this has been absolutely vital to us. America has kept us safe and China has kept us solvent.
The whole question, however, is whether this will still be so in future. Our leaders shamelessly evade this question, because although grammatically ”we don’t have to choose” is about the present, they present it as a prediction about the future. They therefore assume that what’s been true must stay true.
One can see why they are so edgy about it. If they turn out to be wrong, and we do have to choose, all our ideas about Australia’s future will be overturned. How can we be secure without America? How can we be prosperous without China? These are questions they want to evade, because they have no answers to them.
But this is precisely why they are so wrong to avoid the whole issue. This is why our highest foreign policy priority must be to keep both relationships strong, and why it is so important to understand what might threaten our ability to do that.
Whether in future we will face a choice between America and China depends absolutely on how their relationship with one another develops. The decision will not be ours, but theirs. If either of them decide that we have to make a choice, then we do. The better they get along, the less we will be forced to choose. The more they see themselves as rivals, the starker our choices will be.
We have faced such choices before, of course. Between 1949, when the Communists took power, and 1972, when Nixon went to Beijing, America and China were bitter rivals, and we wholeheartedly backed America against China in Korea, Malaya and Vietnam. It was the deal between Nixon and Mao, and the US-China relationship that flowed from it, that changed all that, and has saved us from making choices for the past 40 years.
Now there is a real risk that their rivalry will revive, because China no longer accepts the deal Mao did in 1972. It claims a bigger role in Asia to match its growing power, and that can only come at America’s expense. The great question of our age, and the most important question for Australian foreign policy in decades, is whether Washington and Beijing can negotiate a new power-sharing arrangement that satisfies both of them and provides a basis for future co-operation.
If they can reach this kind of new mutual understanding about their roles in Asia, Australia will not have to choose between them. If they can’t, rivalry between them will escalate, and we will be forced to choose. The government assumes that a deal will be done, because that would be in both sides’ best interests.
But this ignores the very real signs that rivalry between America and China is growing fast. This can be seen in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, where disputed islands are merely tokens in a contest in which it wants to show that it can challenge America at sea, and America wants to prove that it cannot. Underlying this is China’s strategic build-up in Asia, and America’s own build-up in response.
As this rivalry grows, ”we do not have to choose” turns out to mean trying to play both sides at the same time. We welcome the US military build-up in Asia, and we welcome China’s military build-up too. We urge America and China to reach new understanding about their roles in Asia, but we also urge America to keep playing exactly the same role as hitherto.
This can’t last. Eventually both Washington and Beijing will grow sick of it, but before then things could easily be brought to a head by a US-China clash somewhere like the East China Sea. If that happens, America will ask for direct Australian military support against China. How will ”we do not have to choose” sound then?
So Australia does face a choice today. It is not a choice between the US and China. It is a choice about whether we do anything to avoid being forced to make that choice in future. It is not clear exactly what we could do. But by just repeating ”we don’t have to choose”, our leaders are choosing not to even explore the issue. They are choosing to do nothing about the most important foreign policy challenge we face.
Hugh White is professor of strategic studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU.