April 23, 2012

Two-timing China

On the politics of two-timing: China, the U.S. and Australia. Hear the clinking of glasses? Hardly. It’s a celebration that must be muted for fear of raising the ire of the Chinese government. Even so, there must have been many a quiet toast to the profound intensification of the Australia-US alliance marked by the arrival this week of US Marines in the Northern Territory, whose rotating ranks will swell to several thousand in coming years.

With a little bit of the Pentagon now firmly on Australia’s northern shores, the impulse is further expansion. Last week reports re-surfaced of possibly extending US presence in Australia to ports in Western Australia and even Queensland, and of locating drones and surveillance facilities on Cocos Islands, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean (unknown to most). This comes on top of the United States’ increased engagement with states such as the Philippines and Singapore in what is a thinly disguised balancing of a rising China’s power.

Hear the thud of protesting feet? Hardly. No Eureka nationalists have taken to the streets against these militarist developments. Even for some anti-war veterans, Midnight Oil’s anti-militarist anthem “US Forces” looks lamely juvenile, penned for a less complicated era. Where have all the flowers gone, indeed. Still there will be those who bemoan these developments as yet more evidence that Australia might as well apply for status as an American state. Some will shudder at the utterly banal reality of Australia’s two-timing between Chinese markets and American warships and wonder how a better future was lost. It is small comfort to observe that sooner or later two-timers get caught out.

These developments come at a significant moment in debates about Australia’s role in international politics. Several years ago in his 2010 Quarterly Essay Power-Shift ANU Professor Hugh White was honest enough to let his simplistic realism lead him to a terrifying conclusion: Australia should advise the United States that its top-of-the-pops post-Cold War run was soon to be over and that it needed to accept China as a Great Power. That meant, among other things, respecting China’s legitimate regional interests and non-interference in its internal affairs. White is no star-striper ingrate. He values the US’s military presence in the region, especially in Japan and South Korea, as allowing relative peace to endure. That time is now over.

Some Japanese are itching to be “normal” and transform the Japanese Self Defense Forces into a proper military. The Chinese for their part are eyeing a world of enlarged military and security possibilities on the back of massive economic growth. In this context, White and others advance a position that with US unipolarity in decline it is necessary for countries in the region to avoid war by planning a careful power transition. That transition must allow a Concert of Powers, in which China sits as an equal, to replace US unipolarity. A Concert of Powers, functioning to prevent any Great Power from predominating, presumably will ensure balance and restraint. At its table will be the predictables: China, the U.S., South Korea, Japan, Russia, India, and other states. They will respect each other’s legitimate interests, which is to say they can play around in their own backyards as long as they don’t seek primacy against others.

This message was not the kind of thing Australian diplomats want to deliver to their great and powerful American friends over cocktails. White earned rebuke and insult for his efforts, with The Australian’s Greg Sheridan calling White’s paper “the single, stupidest strategic document ever prepared in Australian history by someone who once held a position of some responsibility in our system.”

Well, now it seems that the Australian government has chosen a smart path. In expanding the presence of the U.S. military Australia appears to support and defend the U.S. position in the Asia Pacific into the future. It signals, some would argue, a shared strategic conception of the world that aims at maintenance of U.S. unipolarity. Maybe not.

Many analysts will read the expansion of the US presence here as vindication of the insurance doctrine that underlines Australia’s relationship with the U.S. That doctrine holds that Australia must do whatever it can to keep the US engaged and present in the region. This can involve exaggerating threats, offering incentives, being a hyper loyal ally by fighting wars of no conceivable national or international interest, and pleading common values. There is no greater insurance than a deepened presence by the US, one which potentially involves massive infrastructure of great strategic significance. Counter-intuitively, having the US more firmly anchored here, will give Australia a vantage point from which to disagree and counter US direction when this is judged to be contrary to national, regional or international interest.

The day may come when the diplomatic cocktail party is upset and Australia advises the U.S. government that its position at the top of the pops is no longer tenable. U.S. reliance on a deepened Australian security role will give weight to the unwelcome argument that security in the region will be best managed by a Concert of Powers. Two-timers celebrate, it seems you may have your China and be with the U.S., as well.

Michael Connors teaches politics at La Trobe University. He is the co-author of New Global Politics of the Asia Pacific, Routledge, Second Edition (2012). A shorter version of this article appeared at

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