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

Julia Gillard's China Play


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

Anthony Alfidi
May 9, 2013 at 00:11

There's nothing wrong with Australia reaching out to China given the importance of their trade realtionship.  Australia may be a useful back channel in bilateral military relations.  http://thirdeyeosint.blogspot.com/2013/04/naval-war-college-foundation-seminar-in.html

[...] Julia Gillard’s China Play (thediplomat.com) [...]

Moira G Gallaga
April 30, 2013 at 18:06

Considering the amount of trade Australia has with China, who's got the leverage in this relationship?

April 30, 2013 at 17:16

Tdog wrote:

Australia holds an enviable position in the realm of Pacific politics.  It lacks the colonial overlord past of countries like the UK and France and does not possess the sort of bullying reputation both the US and China currently have.

Fact check alert: Australia does have an equally dark and twisted of 'colonial overlord' history in the Pacific which was documented in the case of Bougainville. Australia's hegemonic interests in the Pacific, may be not overt but present nevertheless.


April 30, 2013 at 13:51

Juila was under the table for Chinese leaders, thats how she managed the deal ;)))

Tom F
April 30, 2013 at 11:49

@TDog – "Australia can serve as the common ground between China and the West"

I like your optimism, and wish it was true. However, the real meat of that optimism does not exist. IMO, what's common between China and Australia is the fact China needs alot of the stuff that Australia digs out of the ground and ship to China, which current it pays for. But the threat is always there, China might not want to pay for it one day. Hence Australia will always maintain ties with the US.

Sure there is ALOT of Chinese people in Australia, and some may even fall into the pro China or Chinese pride category, but one need only catch a bus (google it) to see Australia's sometime not so diplomatic underbelly.

Probably the best example of a clear bias between US and China is what triggers the foreign investment act, for China $100mil, for US $871mil. China is not shy in forcing Australia to take sides either, and I would imagine, at some point in time, it's crunch time. For now it's limited to economic (eg the banning of Huawei from the NBN), but I wouldn't be surprised in the future for it to be defense.

IMO, what Julia Gillard is doing is unnecessarily showing cards, cards that should be saved to play later. 

Chris Lockhart
April 30, 2013 at 04:20

"the golden rule and principle of all social, and international, life."  < One of the many rules China merely pays lip service to in order to gain what it wants from naive western nations. 

April 30, 2013 at 00:40

Why was Gillard's trip to China considered such a "success"?  

It seems that China was the one who gained.

Why do Western leaders fill excited when China allows them to come a begging?

China is truly very clever.  When was the last time anyone saw China come beggint to the West?


April 29, 2013 at 20:17

Saying this is a one-sided deal save for the “Golden Rule” pretty much means it’s a one-sided deal…

Julia Gillard=Bloviator-in-chief
Australia= future Chinese colony

April 29, 2013 at 17:00

It has the capability, but I think it's mainly due to our large chinese-australian population. Historically it was only 1971 when Australia got rid of it's 'White Australia Policy' which was primarily used to stop chinese immigration through family reunion. And Australian's have always felt uneasy about our asian neighbours who are backward in every modern sense but dwarf us in population.

Also Australias military support of Britain and America in every major war they have fought since 1890 does not make us a 'neutral' partner in any sense whatsoever.

The real question is whether the basis of an alliance with Australia is more than just similiar cultural beliefs and security fears. (as has been the basis of our alliance with Britain and then the U.S) 

Malaysia is instructive here, Australia even though culturally completely different, enjoys a good relationship with them primarily through military experience.

This likely makes Australia's military the primary partner here. If it's one thing our asian neighbours respect about Australia, it's military competence and strength. Gillard is probably too foolish to realize this which is why she's gutted our military budget to 1.5%. 

April 28, 2013 at 10:48

Very well said!

Tom F
April 28, 2013 at 09:54

For me this event raises just another issue for the Australian people to be concerned about. Not because of what has happended, but because Julia Gillard has a 100% record of buggering up everything she is involved with or is the lead for, it started before she became prime minister just kept going since.

School hall – enormous rort and a complete waster of money, and is the contributing factor to Australia's inability to achieve a budget surplus despite record revenue from mining royalty.

NBN – a huge waste of money, way behind scheduled, and way over budget (already), financed not dissimilar to the Greek off balance sheet (buy now pay later) deal and currently sitting at around $10k/working person;

Carbon tax – what a shambolic mess that is, Australian are paying $23/ton whilst european are paying $4/ton;

A mining tax that raises a fraction of the revenue it projected it would raise;

Border protection – say no more, what border protection;

Education – Gonski is just about dead, and in fact Labor can't even explain what it even mean;

Forgetting that she has thrashed Labor's brand, and isolateed even the trade unions (Labor diehards), in her quest to remain PM, she managed to thrashed the reputation of just about every 'eligible' potential leader within the party. Not only that, she manage to back the only two disgraced politicians in the recent (Peter Slipper and Craig Thompson). She should write a book "how to loose votes and isolate the community".

No one is looking forward to this impending mess that JG has started to brew with China. 

April 27, 2013 at 14:14

Australia holds an enviable position in the realm of Pacific politics.  It lacks the colonial overlord past of countries like the UK and France and does not possess the sort of bullying reputation both the US and China currently have.  Combine that with the fact that Australia has a developed economy, stable government, and first class military and you have the makings of an ideal peacemaker/peacekeeping partner for the region.

Best of all, lacking any perceptible bias in their policies, Australia can serve as the common ground between China and the West.  The major question is whether or not Australia wants that sort of responsibility because as far as I can tell they certainly have the capabilitiy. 

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