Sat, Dec 02, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Australia must choose between the US and China

A professor’s perspective on the difficult diplomatic tightrope his country has chosen to walk, trying to convince Washington and Beijing that it is supporting both of their interests

By Hugh White  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Lance Liu

In early June, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull gave the keynote speech at the International Institute of Strategic Studies Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. He warned of China’s ambition to become the region’s leading power, and called on the US and its allies in Asia to block this ambition and preserve the old US-led regional order.

This was the first time an Australian prime minister had plainly acknowledged the strategic rivalry between China and the US, which was long overdue.

However, Turnbull expressed great confidence that the US would prevail over China, and that Asia would therefore continue to flourish under US leadership. So the Australian government is still a long way from acknowledging, to the rest of us or even to itself, what is really happening between the US and China, and what it will mean for Australia.

For a long time Canberra’s refusal to admit either that a great strategic contest is underway between our major ally and our major trading partner, or that the contest might not go as we would like, has been symbolized by the bold assertion that “Australia doesn’t have to choose between America and China.”

This has become something of a mantra, intoned by leaders on both sides of politics whenever the question of US-China relations comes up. Turnbull even repeated it in his Singapore speech, though he made it perfectly clear why it was wrong.

It is a perfect example of the very human tendency to confuse a wish with a fact.

It is certainly true that Australia does not want to choose between the US and China. Our whole vision of Australia’s future assumes that we can avoid such a choice, so that we can keep relying on China to make us rich, while the US keeps us safe.

However, in recent years, as the rivalry has escalated, we have more often faced important choices about when to support the US and when to stay on the sidelines. We have not so far been forced to make an all-or-nothing choice to side with one and abandon the other, but that could come if the rivalry escalates further.

However, if the US steps back from Asia, the question of Australia’s choices becomes irrelevant. We will not have a choice, because the US will no longer be there for us to choose.

Whether it is false or not, the “we don’t have to choose” mantra reveals Canberra’s assumptions about Australia’s future.

If we will not have to choose between the US and China, it can only be because they are not serious strategic rivals, and if they are not serious strategic rivals, it can only mean that China has decided not to challenge the US for regional leadership, because it lacks either the power or the resolve to do so.

Canberra, then, is making the same mistake as Washington: It is underestimating China’s strength and overestimating the US’. That is the story we are telling ourselves to avoid facing what is really happening.

The pattern is clear. Under successive governments since 2011, Canberra has offered strong rhetorical support to the US’ leadership in Asia, but has refused to do anything practical, which can unambiguously be seen as directed against China.

Our aim throughout has been to convince Washington that we are supporting it against China, and to convince Beijing that we are not. It is, in other words, a policy of systematic duplicity. Some might say that such duplicity is unavoidable and even admirable when one is walking a diplomatic tightrope, but that is only true if the duplicity works.

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