Thu, Oct 06, 2005 - Page 8 News List

Australia is China's new spokesman

Sushil Seth

Of late, Australia has been seeking to create some political space for its diplomacy between the US and China. Australia is one of the US' closest political and military allies. Not long ago, Australian Prime Minister John Howard prided himself and Australia on being the US' deputy sheriff, as reported in the Australian press at the time.

It is now part of the "coalition of the willing" in the US-led military operations in Iraq. It has steadfastly supported the US in its political and military missions across the globe, including vis-a-vis China. For instance, during the Taiwan crisis of 1996 at the time of its presidential elections, Australia was united with the US to deter China from any use of military force.

Lately, though, there has been some change of emphasis. Without question, Australia's alliance with the US is still the cornerstone of its foreign and security policy. But its perception of China as an inevitable security threat has undergone important changes. For instance, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer reportedly said, while in Beijing a while ago, that Australia and New Zealand's ANZUS security treaty with the US didn't necessarily mean Australia would become involved in a military conflict over Taiwan.

Howard, though, has been more diplomatic by brushing aside such questions as hypothetical. He even refused to buy into US President George W. Bush's invitation, during a July visit to the US, to "work together to reinforce the need for China to accept certain values as universal -- the value of minority rights, the value of freedom of people to speak..."

Howard had earlier spelled out the rationale of his government's new China policy during a speech in Beijing in April. He said at the time, "If you want to build an enduring association with a nation, you should do it within a realistic framework. You should not allow it to be dominated by differences and dominated by history." He went on, "Rather, it should be dominated by those areas of agreement and positive endeavor ... that can take the two countries forward. And that has been the reason why, at a political level, our relationship has been productive."

In other words, Australia prefers to concentrate on a growing economic relationship between the two countries. China has contracted to buy billions of dollars worth of gas from Australia over two decades or more. Australia is also supplying other raw materials for China's surging economy. Indeed the current slack from a slowing housing sector is being made up by growing demand from China for Australia's mining and other resource materials. And it is getting much higher prices for its commodities because of the robust global demand.

China is also keen to invest in Australia's resources sector, and the two countries are working on a free trade agreement. One can, therefore, see how important China is becoming to Australia's economic prosperity. China is also very important in terms of Australia's engagement with Asia. With Beijing's imprimatur, Australia's Asian credentials will become more credible.

But Beijing feels uncomfortable about Canberra's US connection. Australia's alliance with the US has been seen as directed to contain China, at least until very recently.

That would make dependence on Australia for essential resources for China's economic growth a dicey thing. As its ambassador told an Australian journalist, "Depending on Australia for key materials means becoming dependent on you to some extent."

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