B-1 ‘Misspeak’ Highlights Australia’s China-US Balancing Problem

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B-1 ‘Misspeak’ Highlights Australia’s China-US Balancing Problem

The U.S. walks back a bomber basing announcement, but it still underscores Australia’s tricky diplomatic position.

B-1 ‘Misspeak’ Highlights Australia’s China-US Balancing Problem
Credit: B-1 bomber via Shutterstock.com

Australia Prime Minister Tony Abbott has confirmed the U.S. will not be stationing some of its B-1 aircraft in Darwin, where U.S. troops are based. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Shear told a Congressional hearing Wednesday that the nation would be sending its B-1s to Australia to counter China’s effect in the region. The Pentagon has since said he misspoke. China’s reaction has been predictably swift.

Chinese Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a conference in Beijing, “We demand the relevant side talk and act cautiously and not take any actions that are risky or provocative to maintain regional peace and stability.” China asked, she said, for a “clarification about this.”

Of course, one question is just how does one misspeak over such things? It is not as though Shear is a rookie, notching up 32 years’ service and many diplomatic postings across Asia. A senior Australian official, speaking off record to Fairfax media, said, “I’m not playing with words here. I can give you an absolute guarantee that there has simply been no discussion with the Americans formally or informally about bloody B-1s and surveillance aircraft. Basing is out of the question. I think this guy was off the reservation.”

So although the B-1 possibility has been a non-event it has highlighted an ongoing problem for Australia: Balancing its alliance with the U.S. against its friendship (and trade) with China. Balancing big powers is something all smaller nations face and half the world, or at least the region, seems to be caught in a China-U.S. hedging game. But half the world does not have an ANZUS-like alliance with the U.S. and its military on its shores.

Professor Hugh White’s 2013 Foreign Affairs piece is still worth reading. Succinctly put: “In fact, most everyone in Australia wants both relationships to flourish, so that the United States can keep Australians safe while China makes them rich.” It would be lovely if the status quo could continue, but the question is whether it can.

The Defense White Paper of a few years ago notes China’s regional ascendancy is changing the balance of power in a way that could be problematic. John Mearsheimer suggested on a trip to Australia in 2010 that China’s rise posed significant security risks for the nation as security competition between the two large powers grew and alliances changed in the Asia Pacific. So far, so standard.

The relationship with the U.S. is taken as a given across Australia, but sending bombers to the country and doubling the troop presence in Darwin to 2500 by 2017 will aggravate China, even though the sending of troops first in 2011 could hardly have been a surprise. Last year, prior to the G20, there were talks between Tony Abbott and Barack Obama of upgrading the U.S. troop presence, with the U.S. president saying at the time, “There are a handful of countries in the world that we always know we can count on. Not just because they share our values, but we know we can count on them because we know they’ve got real capacity. Australia’s one of those countries.” Abbott promised that Australia would be a “dependable partner.” And indeed Australia has been a very dependable partner, supporting America in every major military incursion since World War Two.

Not so long ago The Diplomat’s magazine wrote briefly about former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s manifesto for a new political party – Renew Australia – which he was trying to form before he died in March. The ideals were a balance of fiscal conservatism but social progression and more a tilt towards welfare than many of his former Liberal party cohorts would have espoused. However his foreign policy prescriptions were equally interesting: Australia should sever its formal alliance with the United States and build closer relationships in Southeast Asia. It builds on his 2014 book Dangerous Allies, which suggested that Australia even risked war with China thanks to such close military ties.

“Our armed forces are so closely intertwined with theirs and we really have lost the capacity to make our own strategic decisions,” he has said, also suggesting that satellite tracking base Pine Gap, jointly operated between Australia and the U.S., could become a target in any U.S.-China War. In 2014, tensions were particularly high between China and Japan over sovereignty claims in the East China Sea. Given that the U.S. has promised Japan military support in a conflict against China and Australia’s ANZUS treaty obligations suggest military support for the U.S., it was not an unreasonable worry. Meanwhile, the purchase of Soryu-class Japanese submarines to replace Australia’s Collins-class  has been suggested as part of a way to build a U.S.-Japan-Australia trilateral alliance and a move towards closer security cooperation.

A poll of 1,000 Australians commissioned by the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology in Sydney (UTS) in January found that 71 percent of respondents would wish Australia to remain neutral in any U.S.-China conflict. Former Foreign Minister Bob Carr, director of the think tank, said at the time,”The poll confirms Australians overwhelmingly want their country to stay neutral”

Someone else who has questioned the importance of the alliance with the U.S. is James Ingram AO who gave this speech on the occasion of becoming an Australian Institute of International Affairs Fellow in 2011. What Ingram noted was that despite the odd kind word the U.S. does not value Australia the way Australia values its much larger partner. In fact, on page two of his speech he states: “Interestingly, the U.S. media, when referring to U.S. allies usually lists NATO, Japan and Israel, the latter often described as ‘our closest ally’. Australia is not mentioned.” And on page four, “However history shows that Great Powers, no matter how close the relationship may seem, are unreliable.”

China’s growing incursions into the South China Sea, the reason given by Shear for the sending of aircraft capable of surveillance and bombing to Australia, is likely not something anyone else in the region is overly comfortable with – and stability in the area is important for Australia for many reasons outside of its ties to the U.S. It is also worth noting here that other claimants to the Spratly and Paracels, such as the Philippines or even Vietnam, welcome a measure of U.S. interest or stronger involvement. However keeping relations amicable with Australia’s biggest trade partner, slackening of iron ore exports or no, is always going to be a major concern for Canberra. Especially since last year’s ten-years-in-the-making FTA.

“No matter how much sand you pile on a reef in the South China Sea, you can’t manufacture sovereignty,” said Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel. True, it seems. But can Australia continue to manufacture reasons against any conflict of interest as the region becomes more volatile?

Helen Clark was based in Hanoi for six years as a reporter and magazine editor. She has written for two dozen publications including The Diplomat (as Bridget O’Flaherty), TimeThe Economist, the Asia Times Online and the Australian Associated Press