Sat, May 25, 2019 - Page 8 News List

Australia’s Chinese balancing act

By Sushil Seth

In Australia’s federal election last week, foreign policy was hardly an issue, at least in the hurly burly of campaigning, but now that the election is over, Canberra needs to seriously tackle some foreign policy issues, particularly how to strike a balance between its relationships with the US and China.

The US is a long-standing security ally in a region in which Australia has not always been comfortable, with its European heritage and background in the midst of its Asian geography.

It was a steadfast US ally during the Korean War, Vietnam War, the entire Cold War, and more recently in Afghanistan and Iraq. In return for such loyalty, it has come to expect that the US would underwrite its security, if it ever came to that.

Yet times are changing. In the past few decades, China has sprung up on the world stage as a major power and, in the few years since Xi Jinping (習近平) became China’s president, it is seriously challenging the regional power balance by asserting control over the South China Sea, virtually turning it into a Chinese lake.

The US has been the dominant naval power in the Pacific and it is challenging China’s control by sending patrols through these waters, with Beijing’s warnings against such intrusions creating fears of a potential naval clash.

Australia has stood by its US ally, although it is not enthusiastic about wading into China’s 12 nautical mile (22.2km) zone.

Not surprisingly, China is not amused. Australia believes that China is not playing by international rules and is destabilizing the region.

However, while the US-Australia security alliance remains the prime instrument of Australian foreign and security policy, China has emerged as its biggest trading partner.

China has now and then shown its displeasure when Australia has been a bit too critical, by enforcing a temporary diplomatic freeze on ministerial visits from Australia and/or by delaying the clearance of some export items.

This has not so far seriously affected the relationship, but is a clear signal to Canberra that it better be cognizant of China’s sensitivities. During the run-up to the election, the opposition Labor Party indicated that it would do something about the situation if elected.

Opposition leader and Australian Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong had something to say about it in a speech at the Lowy Institute, a foreign-policy think tank.

She said that Australia’s engagement with China “needs to be redefined.”

Criticizing Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who was the interim prime minister at the time, she said: “He is supporting [political] figures whose views hark back to the White Australia policy, harming the perception of our nation in the region.”

Had the Labor Party won, having an Asian-Australian as the country’s foreign minister would have sent a positive signal to the region and the world.

To quote Wong: “What would be significant about an Asian-Australian being our foreign minister is what it says about us, what it says about who we are.”

As for relations with China, she said that she would “reject the binaries” that characterize China as a security threat or an economic opportunity; emphasizing that “we need to deal with the relationship in all of its complexity.”

However, she did not specify how this new definition of Australia-China relations would proceed and, indeed, what it might involve.

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