Given its historical beginnings as a British colony, Australia did not need to make hard choices on the international stage — it simply followed the lead of Britain, the mother country.
During World War II when Japan was over-running one Asian country after the other and forcing Britain out of the region, Australia feared for its security and drew to the US as a result. After World War II, it joined the US-led ANZUS alliance.
Now, however, with the rise of China and the resultant strategic competition between it and the US, Australia is in a serious predicament. China is now its biggest trading partner, with much of its export income coming from trade with China.
The predicament is, therefore, centered on how best to balance its relationship with both the US and China to Australia’s maximum advantage.
This is where it becomes tricky, because Australia not only wants to keep its strategic alliance with the US, but is also seeking to further strengthen it amid China’s rise and the perceived security threat that accompanies that rise.
To this end, it is providing new bases for the US military as part of an energized Asia-Pacific policy, as announced by US President Barack Obama in an address to the Australian parliament when he last visited the country.
Predictably, China is not happy, as it fears that this new development is directed against it and Beijing has let this be known in no uncertain terms. Australia, of course, denies this. It regards its ties with the US as part of its long-standing strategic relationship with the US with no anti-China connotations.
The problem though is that even within Australia, there are some important voices that counsel against aligning too much with the US in the US-China strategic rivalry.
These voices are not politically important enough to make any difference so far because Australia’s political establishment, by and large, favors a US strategic connection.
This is for two reasons. First is that Canberra’s US alliance is perceived to be insurance against any security threat to Australia and China is seen as a potential threat as outlined in its 2009 defense white paper.
Second, by welcoming the US presence and engagement in the Asia-Pacific region, Canberra hopes that the US will not one day simply walk away from the region, leaving Australia to its own devices, and defenses.
However, those in Australia who seek a more nuanced relationship with the US argue that Canberra should play a role in persuading the US to share power with a rising China.
In this way, the US-China relationship would be managed peacefully, thus avoiding a potential military conflict sometime in the future as happened in the past between a nascent Germany and the established European powers in World War I, and then to Adolf Hitler’s rise and World War II.
A key proponent of this broad argument is Hugh White at the Australian National University, formerly a senior defense department official. He has argued his line in his book The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power.
It is believed that China will become the world’s biggest economy in a decade or so, thus leaving the US in its wake. Its military power is also growing, though the US is set to remain the world’s strongest military power for many years to come.
Even at this stage China has amassed a strong military deterrent with a capability to make the US cautious about exercising or using its superior military power against China.