As China’s power grows, Australia increasingly sees it as a threat to regional stability and security. With the US’ power in relative decline, the strategic balance engineered and underwritten by the US is becoming shaky.
With its growing political, economic and military power, China is creating a regional, and likely global, power center and an alternative to the sphere that has been dominated by the US.
Regional countries with competing sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, for instance, are finding themselves sidelined by China’s overriding power.
The US is still an important counterweight and not to be brushed aside lightly, but, unlike in the past, China is not a pushover.
This situation is quite disturbing for Australia, which has largely relied on its alliance with the US against potential and real security threats since its decolonization, the Cold War and now communist China’s regional push.
As a staunch US ally, it finds itself as a target, even more so because it is emerging as a strong opponent of a perceived Chinese threat.
Beijing is going ahead with limiting its trade and other contacts with Canberra, thus inflicting some serious economic punishment on Australia that has enjoyed a hefty trade surplus with China. Beijing regards Australia’s criticism and opposition to its role as annoying, as a Chinese newspaper called it, like gum sticking to a shoe.
However, for Australia, the reasoning is much more serious. This was spelled out by former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, who was in office when legislation against foreign interference — basically China — was passed, and China’s Huawei Technologies Co was barred from the 5G rollout in the country.
Putting the perceived Chinese threat in a regional context, Turnbull said of Beijing’s assertion and control of South China Sea islands: “What China is hoping is that the littoral states [with their own claims] will simply shrug their shoulders and say ... let’s accept it as reality. That would be a mistake because they would seek to expand the envelope further.”
Australia fears that China is on a self-generated momentum to dominate the region, including Australia.
According to Turnbull, China expects Australia to be “compliant.”
However, Canberra is resisting. Indeed, it is acquiring a range of missiles from the US to create deterrence against any outside threat — meaning China — spending A$270 billion (US$187.38 billion) over the next decade. The US is still the ultimate defense shield, but Australia is willing to go the extra mile to impress the administration of US President Donald Trump. For example, unlike some NATO countries, Australia is prepared to share the US burden. Indeed, it is already spending 2 percent of its GDP on defense.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison highlighted the gravity of the new regional situation with China’s assertive nationalism, saying: “We [Australia] have been a favored isle, with many natural advantages for many decades, but we have not seen the conflation of global economic and strategic uncertainty now being experienced here in Australia, in our region, since the existential threat we faced when the global and regional order collapsed in the 1930s and 1940s.”
It was a nonspecific reference to Adolf Hitler’s rise and the subsequent disaster of World War II, and it emphasized that Australia would be prepared to defend its sovereignty and values.
Again, with a veiled reference to China’s aggressive policy and Australia’s decision to purchase ballistic missiles, Morrison has been quoted as saying: “We don’t seek to entangle or intimidate or silence our neighbors [as China might be doing]. We respect their sovereignty. We champion it. And we expect others to respect ours. Sovereignty means self-respect ... we will never surrender this.”
In other words, Australia would resist domination with everything at its disposal, like bolstering its defense, investing in its alliance with the US, and creating regional balance to contain and counteract China through formal and informal ties with countries like Japan (the US is already there), India, South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam and so on, to create a common sense of purpose against China’s domination of the region.
How this will work in practice remains to be seen.
However, one thing is certain: We are entering unchartered waters, with uncertainty being the only certainty.
Sushil Seth is a commentator based in Australia.
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