Tue, Aug 02, 2005 - Page 8 News List

Australia dithers between US, China

By Sushil Seth

An important indication that the US is worried about China's incursions into the Asia-Pacific region is the inroads it has made into Australia. Australia is probably the US' most trusted ally and has been for a long time. During his recent US visit, Australian Prime Minister John Howard sought to reaffirm the two countries' close relationship. The US appears satisfied.

But of late Canberra has been seeking to recover some political flexibility in its relations with China. Australia's Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, for instance, said in Beijing a while ago that its security alliance with the US (the ANZUS Treaty) didn't apply to Taiwan. In other words, Canberra wouldn't necessarily follow the US in any military conflict with China.

Howard has been more diplomatic, though. When asked, he dismisses as hypothetical the prospect of a conflict over Taiwan and hence not worthy of a response. He reportedly said in Washington that he didn't feel "the least bit squeezed" between the US and China over their rising military and economic rivalry. Indeed, he is optimistic on Sino-US relations.

He was, however, duly critical of Major General Zhu Chenghu's(朱成虎) comments about raining nuclear weapons on US cities if Washington got involved in any military conflict over Taiwan. But Howard also said (and it would be appreciated in Beijing) that, "... I am sure they don't represent the views of the Chinese government."

It doesn't mean Howard had some privileged information from Beijing in this regard. As might be recalled, Zhu had said, when making his nuclear threat, that it was his personal opinion. He was thus leaving the door open for his government to dissociate itself from his "personal" remarks.

Which they did when China's Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing(李肇星) said that his country would not be the first to use nuclear weapons "at any time and under any condition." But it took them a while to do that and that too after widespread international criticism. The point, though, is that nobody, much less a serving army general, has the luxury of a personal opinion for public consumption in a country like China. Apparently, he cleared it with the top authorities before airing his "personal" opinion in front of the media.

Was he testing the waters for US reaction? Did he think that that this would further frighten the world into putting pressure on the US to stay out of the Taiwan situation? It could even send an apocalyptic message to Taiwan to surrender before it was too late. My guess is it is a little bit of all of the above and possibly more. But the most worrying thing is that the nuclear threat is being openly canvassed as a possible choice.

Returning to Australia as a barometer of US concern, the subtle differences between the two countries in their approaches on China are all too apparent. Howard, for instance, was confident that China would remain a benign power and cautioned against being "obsessed" with its strategic threat. He said, "I have a more optimistic view about the relationship between China and the US and I know that the leadership of both countries understand the importance of common sense in relation to Taiwan."

US President George W. Bush, on the other hand, has described the relationship with China as "complicated," with problems looming over a range of issues. Australia would rather focus on expanding trade with China, without bothering about human rights and political freedom.

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