Asia Program

Events

Australia: Re-Calibrating Relations With the Major Powers

October 28, 2009 // 4:00pm5:15pm

James Cotton, Wilson Center Australian Scholar; professor of politics, University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra

The United States has few allies more loyal than Australia. Australian troops have fought alongside their American counterparts in every major conflict of the twentieth century. While other allies wavered, moreover, the Liberal government in Canberra, under the leadership of John Howard, viewed support for the United States in Iraq as a sine qua non of maintaining relations with its larger ally. Another sign of the Howard government's support for the policies of the George W. Bush administration was its refusal to ratify the Kyoto protocol on climate change, a stance that made both nations global outliers on environmental policy.

At an event hosted by the Asia Program on November 28, Wilson Center Australian Scholar James Cotton noted that a constant foreign policy priority for Australia has been to ensure that its concerns are noted in the capitals of its security guarantors. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this meant maintaining Australia's profile in London. With the waning of British power in the twentieth century, however, Australian officials have attempted to have their voices heard in Washington. The Howard government's alignment with the United States on Iraq and Kyoto was an attempt to gain the attention of the Bush administration, and thus falls well in line with Australia's historical foreign policy objectives.

However, domestic politics and regional dynamics mean that Australia's traditional strategic approach may be changing. In 2007, the nation elected a Labor government, under Prime Minster Kevin Rudd, which withdrew Australian troops from Iraq and ratified the Kyoto protocol. Moreover, while Australia's financial system has largely weathered the global economic storm, the recession in the United States from the end of 2008 has cast doubt on the future of American power in the Asia Pacific region. It is not altogether clear to Australians that the United States will be as willing in the future to commit scare resources to Asia Pacific regional security.

The most striking regional development, however, is the rise of China, a phenomenon that presents to Australians both opportunities and concerns. While a wealthier Chinese middle class offers the promise of expanded markets, Australian strategic thinkers have always viewed the emergence of Asian powers with suspicion typical of the realist approach to international affairs. Japan's rise in the 1930s alarmed Australians precisely because, like that of China today, it occurred where there was no established regional security architecture, and at a time when the power of Australia's security guarantor was in decline. Australia's response to the Vietnam War, meanwhile, was to incorrectly assume that China played a major role in Vietnamese communist agitation, and that there was thus a need to send Beijing a strong message by supporting American efforts.

Given these historical trends, how does Australia view China's current rise? Canberra's economic and security objectives remain difficult to harmonize. With its emphasis on creating an Asia-Pacific community, the Rudd government is currently attempting to draw China into a rules-based international system. However, Cotton believes that Australia's support for the Iraq War, which was seen by many as a snub to principles of multilateralism, has damaged Canberra's moral authority in this area. Moreover it is unclear that China sees a rules-based international community as corresponding to its own interests. Meanwhile, incidents such as attempts by Beijing to halt the showing of a film in Australia about Chinese dissidents, the high profile case of a Chinese telecommunications giant accused of espionage in Australia, and China's apparently arbitrary arrest of Australian oil executive Stern Hu, only serve to increase Australian doubt about the notion of China as a good international citizen.

It is no wonder then that Australia continues to see the United States as an important part of the security architecture in the region. However, sensing waning U.S. power, Canberra may find it increasingly difficult to direct American attention to Australian problems. While the common "values, institutions and sentiment" linking the United States and Australia "will undoubtedly count for something, and economic links will remain considerable," Australia's military contributions to American operations "will be a sharply diminishing asset." Cotton ended his presentation by quoting former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong of Singapore, who once stated that Australia would become an Asian country within the next half-century, and noting that a decade has already passed since Goh's remarks.

Drafted by Bryce Wakefield, Asia Program Associate
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program, Ph: (202) 691-4020

 

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