During his recent visit to China, Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr indicated the two countries were close to agreement on holding annual ministerial leadership talks. This is a positive development – dialogue is always welcome, especially considering the economic links China and Australia have built over the last decade or so.
However, it’s important to recognize a basic disagreement between Canberra and Beijing that no amount of talking can overcome. During Carr’s visit, the Chinese made it very clear their view that the Australian-U.S. alliance – the bedrock of Australian security since the 1950’s – is a relic of the Cold War.
This couldn’t be more wrong. The alliance is a crucial stabilizing feature in a region characterized by multiple sources of instability, of which China is an important source. The alliance needs to be strengthened, not dispensed with. Such a development is in the interests of the overwhelming majority of states in the Asia-Pacific region.
The Asia-Pacific is an increasingly rich, but far from stable region. The sources of instability are many, and China is a central actor in the story.
The most immediate concern is North Korea. The Chinese relationship with North Korea is a complex one. Analysts debate the extent of Chinese leverage over North Korea, but although Beijing has arguably restrained Pyongyang at times, former Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen was probably correct in stating in December 2010 that Beijing has played an important role in “enabling” North Korea’s “reckless behavior.”
Ultimately, notwithstanding its professed concern for regional stability, China hasn’t stopped North Korean foreign policy adventurism and most significantly, its nuclear program. The unprovoked North Korean sinking of the South Korean military vessel the Cheonan in 2010 was followed by an attack on Yeonpyeong Island in South Korea that same year. Despite the loss of life and heightening of regional tensions, the Chinese government refused to condemn either action by North Korea. Just last month, the region was treated to an apparent attempt to extend Pyongyang’s ability to deliver nuclear weapons via the test launch of a “missile.” Beijing has begun to exert pressure on Pyongyang. But a particularly tough official statement by Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai in late Aprilis too little, and much too late.
On the other major pressing security issue in the region, which relates to maritime disputes, China is effectively adopting a stalling strategy that seeks to prevent a resolution until it is powerful enough to seek a settlement on its terms. In the South China Sea, the Chinese have continued to spar with the Philippines and Vietnam. In the East China Sea, the Chinese are at loggerheads with the Japanese and the South Koreans. Significantly, the territorial disputes have defied resolution even as economic interdependence has increased.
The high hopes that the Obama administration initially invested in a productive working relationship with China haven’t been realized. China is now increasingly willing to flex its muscles toward the U.S., the state that the Asia-Pacific region has taken its cue from since 1945.
To cite one example, at the Copenhagen climate negotiations in late 2009, the Chinese came to the view that a binding and verifiable international agreement advocated by the U.S. was anathema to China’s national interests. They subsequently played a major role in scuttling an agreement. The reported Chinese diplomatic snub of Barack Obama was compounded by the failure of the U.S. to achieve the verifiable agreement that it sought, undercutting American prestige. In commenting on the failure of the talks, the Chinese Ambassador for Climate Change, Yu Qingtai, drew the ominous lesson that “the developed countries need to make up their minds whether they want to pursue confrontation or co-operation with China.”
Fast forward to March 2011, and in her testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on U.S. foreign aid policy in the Asia-Pacific, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton stated bluntly that: “We are in competition for influence with China. Let’s put aside the humanitarian, do-good side of what we believe in. Let’s just talk straight realpolitik. We are in competition with China.”
As the global financial crisis has played itself out since 2008, China’s relative power has surged. Predictably, it has flexed its muscles, asserting its regional interests. The question of how to deal with an increasingly strong but potentially revisionist China is the central foreign policy question for all regional states. Australia faces a particularly acute dilemma of balancing a strong economic relationship with China with the imperative of strengthening its security alliance with the United States. A pro-active policy that appropriately anticipates rather than reacts to China is therefore required.
Thus, even as the ministerial talks proceed, the Australian foreign policy establishment must ask itself a simple question: What will Chinese goals be as it interacts with Australia?
Almost certainly, one of the top goals will be to drive a wedge between Australia and the United States. In future talks we should expect continued and systematic Chinese critique of Australia’s security relationship with the U.S.
More generally, high-level talks with China are to be welcomed, but they aren’t a substitute for wise policy. To ensure that regional stability is maintained, the region needs Australia to continue strengthening its longstanding policy of bolstering alliance ties with the U.S. As Chinese power rises, a counterweight is required. Beijing doesn’t agree, but at least as far as the rest of the Asia-Pacific region is concerned, a strengthened Australian-U.S. alliance is indispensable.
Nicholas Khoo is lecturer in the Department of Politics, University of Otago, New Zealand. David Martin Jones is associate professor at the School of Political Science and International Studies, University of Queensland, Australia. They are the authors (with Michael Rainsborough Smith) of the forthcoming book, 'Asian Security and the Rise of China: International Relations in an Age of Volatility' (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2012).