Australia is a curious player on the international stage. It is a largely white European settler society geographically located at the foot of East Asia. For much of its history, this caused a strong sense of dislocation as it felt politically, culturally and economically disconnected from its European origins. Its population is small, around 24 million, yet it inhabits a vast territory equivalent to the size of the continental United States. It has an abundance of natural resources that have underpinned its prosperity and although, since European settlement in 1788 it has never been invaded, its foreign policy is marked by a strong sense of anxiety.
Almost all of these facets remain central to Australia’s contemporary international engagement, but there has been one significant change. Australians had long felt that their physical remove from the North Atlantic centre of the economic and political world imposed what was memorably described by historian Geoffrey Blainey as a ‘tyranny of distance’. With the revival of Asia’s economies over the past three decades this has been replaced with what some call the possibilities of proximity .
But it is precisely this, the changing nature of Australia’s economic interests that is at the heart of the country’s primary strategic dilemma. For the first time in its history, Australia's top economic partner is neither an ally nor a democracy, indeed it is involved in an open rivalry with Canberra's security guarantor, the United States.
Since its creation in the early 1950s, Australia’s alliance with the United States has been the centre of Canberra’s foreign and defence policy. In return for a robust security guarantee and access to Australian territory for military installations Australia has been a steadfast strategic partner. It has participated in every conflict in which the US has sought its support from the Korean War (Australia’s participation in that conflict convinced a somewhat skeptical Washington of the country’s strategic bona fides) to Vietnam and on to Afghanistan and Iraq. And since 2001, Australia has actively sought to tighten its ties to the US, strengthen its relationship and expand the geographic and operational scope of the alliance.
This was motivated by the sense that the changing global and regional security setting required closer ties to Washington. Both the rise of transnational security challenges, particularly terrorism, as well as the geopolitical uncertainties prompted by China’s rise, led Australia to expand cooperation into areas like cyber security, to make commitments to strengthen defence force capability to carry a greater burden and to host US troops on regular training rotations in Northern Australia. Indeed Australia’s longer-run strategic planning is dependent on the US continuing to be Asia’s top military power and for the regional order on which this depends to remain in place.
And it is this which is fueling perhaps the greatest dilemma in Australian foreign policy, how to reconcile the economic links Australia has with China and the ties it has to Washington. Successive governments have sought to deal with this, in public at least, by saying that Australia does not have to choose between Beijing and Washington, that Australia can do business with both. Yet the policy reality, particularly over the long term, is rather more complex than this facile bromide.
From time to time this complexity can be seem behind what is normally a pleasant official façade. Wikileaks cables showed then PM Kevin Rudd being brutally frank about the risks to the region of a ‘paranoid China’ while more recently current PM Tony Abbott told German Chancellor Angela Merkel that Australian policy toward China was driven by ‘greed and fear’ . These occasional slips reveal the concerns Australia has given that it has invested so heavily in the American vision for regional order, a vision with which China is plainly uncomfortable over the longer run.
The current conservative government came to office in September 2013 and has sought to navigate these challenges in a number of ways. First, in contrast to the previous government whose messaging on Australia’s policy toward China and the US was often unclear, it has sought to clarify plainly where it stands in the region. Australia is firmly behind the US, its allies and its broader conception of the regional order and has made clear that it views some of China’s actions like the declaration of the East China Sea ADIZ or the reclamation on the Spratly Islands as destabilising.
Second, the government has energetically pursued improved bilateral relationships with Asia’s five key powers, China, Japan, the US, India and Indonesia. Rather than invest in the potential of multilateral structures to advance its interests, the government is focusing on the major powers bilaterally and in particular in the role of high level diplomacy by the PM to drive Australia’s regional policy. Perhaps the most important of these is the now extremely close security relationship with Japan, one that has been described as a 'quasi-alliance' by some Japanese officials. Third, although the government is keen to stress the importance of economic interests to Australian policy, there has nonetheless been a clear prioritisation of the strategic over the economic in its policy choices. For example, the conclusion of three bilateral preferential trade agreements in 2014, with China, South Korea and Japan was only possible because the government believed the agreements served a larger strategic purpose in managing its broader regional agenda.
At the global level Australia remains strongly committed to the broadly liberal conception of the international order organized around the UN system. It has recently completed a two-year term on the UNSC which was broadly successful, with the orchestration of a UNSC resolution in relation to the MH17 disaster a notable achievement. But notwithstanding its global interests, Australian international policy will remain heavily focused on the Asian region. The successful development of a good relationship with India over the past five years and the broader incorporation of India into East Asia's strategic and economic has led some in Australia to argue for an ‘Indo-Pacific’ orientation to Australian policy. Even though this language has been fashionable in policy circles the reality is that Canberra’s interests both economic and strategic remain principally in East Asia and without question the management of the divergence between its economic and strategic interests will continue to dominate thinking in Canberra.
As China gets wealthier and more able to back its ambition, as the US regains its confidence and as Japan becomes more militarily capable, Australia is going to find its international engagement an extremely challenging one. For most of their history Australians felt that being a long way from the centre of world affairs was a disadvantage. Asia’s revival has changed all that; the future for Canberra is a life in close proximity to international relations' new centre of gravity with all the opportunities and risks that that affords.
Nick Bisley is Executive Director of La Trobe Asia and Professor of International Relations at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia. He can be contacted via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org or via twitter @NickBisley.
Cover Image:Nicolas Raymond