Julia Gillard's China Play
Image Credit: Office of the Prime Minister: Australia (Flickr)

Julia Gillard's China Play

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Well done, Julia Gillard. You won’t hear these words very often in the run up to this year’s Australian elections. But Julia Gillard deserves credit for her successful visit to China this month.

The signing of a Strategic Partnership between China and Australia was the linchpin of Gillard’s successful trip to China. This deal includes provisions for an annual leaders’ dialogue. This is welcome news, signaling a bolstered political link in what is already Australia’s largest trade relationship, worth almost US$130 billion annually.

This deal was hailed by politicians and policy commentators on both sides of the aisle in Australia, winning support from former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott.

On military-to-military dialogue, Gillard hinted that “there will also be a policy-level dialogue which will happen between our military, so this is all about building trust and confidence and transparency for the future."

This is an excellent and welcome achievement. Gillard deserves two apolitical thumbs up for this deal. Out of fairness, the idea of holding joint U.S.-China-Australia military exercises was first explored back in 2009, and was supported by then-Chief of the Australian Defense Force, Angus Houston,and Admiral Timothy Keating, at the time the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

The most visionary element of Gillard’s speech in Beijing, however, remains unfinished work.

Gillard flagged a concrete and laudable objective in Sino-Australian-American relations: "Over time we would like to see this extend to trilateral exercises including with the U.S.," she declared.

The Australian Department of Defense should continue to pursue this objective through quiet negotiations. And, more importantly, the Prime Minister, after the September elections, should make this a short-term goal. As short-term as 2014.

With former U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta having already invited an Australian warship to RIMPAC exercises in Hawaii in 2014, and China to join as an observer, Australia should also invite Chinese military officers to attend multilateral military exercises on Australian soil.

The 2014 Pitch Black exercises provide an ideal occasion to step up military-to-military cooperation, to serve the strategic goal of building confidence and decreasing regional tensions. Australia should invite a contingent of Chinese PLA-Air Force pilots to train in the multilateral exercises. More importantly, this should be backed by ample formal and informal opportunities for Chinese pilots to meet their Australian and regional colleagues.

Critics will say that this is a one-sided deal. Not if Australia insists on the principle of reciprocity – the golden rule and principle of all social, and international, life. Therefore, Australia would request a reciprocal invitation, under this agreement, to observe or participate in future Chinese or Sino-Russian military exercises in China. Eventually, and depending on its results, this confidence-building dance could be extended to building military-to-military crisis communication networks, and establishing agreed notifications of military movements in the disputed South China Sea. Thus, this would not be cooperation for the sake of cooperation, but as the means to a clearly defined end: avoiding miscalculation.

Despite the clear progress in Sino-Australian relations, and the tangible fruits which lay within reach, there is still a sense of strategic confusion and double-speak in the government’s actions.

On April 26, for example, Australia sent a missile frigate, the HMAS Sydney, to join the U.S. Seventh Fleet in Japan. The timing is very suggestive.

"Australia has made it clear we stand shoulder to shoulder with the Republic of Korea, also with Japan," Defence Minster Foreign Smith said. To which Peter Jennings, the head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, added that this frigate “would have a role to play in a conflict if that happened." He continued: "It's an important thing to do in light of the tensions in North Asia."

Of course, regional tensions are not limited to North Korea’s inflammatory rhetoric and threats of war. They also include the dangerous Sino-Japanese dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Almost by default, two weeks after signing an historic agreement with China, an Australian frigate will help to shore up the U.S. Navy in Japan, in case of a future military engagement, and an explicit token of support for Japan.

I would not hasten to say that this strategy is right or wrong, only that its logic is unclear. To avoid confusing Australia’s American allies and Chinese partners – and the broader public – the Australian government should explain its naval deployment to Japan in clear and coherent terms. And it should not lose momentum in bilateral relations to invite China to attend Pitch Black 2014.

Well done, Prime Minister. Now soldier on.

Daryl Morini is a Pacific Forum CSIS WSD-Handa Non-Resident Fellow. Follow him at: @DarylMorini

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