Australians and Americans are much alike — not exactly the same — but they have more in common than not. Both are nations of immigrants, have robust and sometimes brawling democracies and hold similar values on human rights.
The countries also rely on each other for national security. Australia, a nation of only 23 million people situated next door to a potentially troubled Southeast Asia, has long looked to the US as its main ally. In turn, the US, situated far across the Pacific Ocean from Asia, looks to Australia as its main ally and well-informed partner in Southeast Asia.
At a gathering in Honolulu last week, Australian and US security specialists discussed a range of topics, including political, economic and military issues in Asia, with the rise of China hovering in the background or as the focal point of discussion. Under the rules of the conference, speakers could not be identified.
Differences of opinion, some stark, others subtle, cropped up in the Leadership Dialogue — an Australian initiative — at the East-West Center, a congressionally funded research and educational center in Honolulu. However, the differences appeared as much within the Australian and US ranks as between them.
Early on, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s views on China came under scrutiny because he studied Chinese at Australia National University, then in Taiwan, and later, as a diplomat, in Beijing. The Chinese were audibly pleased when he became prime minister in December 2007, with some saying Rudd speaks their language without an accent.
One Australian at the conference contended that, despite his affinity for the country, Rudd “has a realistic view of China.”
“Rudd and his government can say ‘no’ to China,” another said.
After China detained four executives from an Australian mining company in Beijing on charges of espionage, Rudd was quoted as saying: “We share enormous common interests with our friends in China, but we have continuous differences.”
An American who has dealt with China agreed:
“You can’t be afraid to stand up to them,” he said, but “not with silly stunts.”
He referred to some members of Congress who had made vague accusations about the Chinese government not based on fact.
An Australian said about Rudd: “I think the PM is personally too much involved.”
In contrast, an American, asked to sketch out US President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, including that on China, grumbled: “What foreign policy?”
He said that the administration, which has been in office for eight months, has gotten so wrapped up in the war in Afghanistan, the struggle over healthcare and the debate over the economy that Obama has not focused on foreign policy.
An Australian chimed in to say he worried about what he saw as “the lack of a constant approach” on China by the US. An American sought to ease the Australian’s fears, saying that US presidents for years had come to office staking out a hard right or hard left position on China “but then they all oscillate back to the middle.”
Another Australian said he was taken aback by the focus on China that he said he had seen in US military thinking in Asia. Even with that attention to China, however, he suggested that a shift in the balance of power had begun, given China’s military modernization. He wondered what the US would do to retain its preponderance of power in the Pacific.