Saturday, February 7, 2009

Will Australia Have to Choose Between the US and China?

I mentioned in an earlier blog the Australian concern that the balance of power in Asia might be shifting away from Australia’s ally, the United States, and toward China, a country that many Australians still mistrust. I noted that this was one of the two issues that I was most frequently asked about during my visit to Australia at the end of last year. The second, which I have not yet had time to write about, was closely related to it: will Australia ever be forced to choose between China and the United States?

Here, the question is just as interesting as the answer, because it says much about Australian history, and the ways in which the present situation Australia faces are both familiar and unprecedented.

The familiar aspect of Australia’s present international situation is the Australian perception that is a relatively small country, whose larger neighbors cannot entirely be trusted, and which therefore needs a stronger ally, necessarily at a distance. Until World War II, that ally was Britain; since World War II, that ally has been the United States.

These alliances have been in some ways comfortable to Australia. Britain was the previous colonial power, and then British monarch remained Australia’s head of state after Australia achieved independence. The United States shares many common values with Australia, and common historical links to Great Britain.

However, no matter whether it was Britain or America that served as Australia’s ally, Australia has always appeared to fear abandonment – that is, that the stronger ally would desert it in a time of need. Perhaps this has been a result of the geographical distances between Australia and its ally, or because of Australia’s peripheral strategic location, which might make the ally less inclined to defend it.

One way that Australia tried to cope with this risk was to demonstrate its fidelity to its ally, repeatedly and at considerable cost.

One only has to visit the Australian War Memorial in Canberra – one of the world’s most remarkable military museums – to have that point brought home. From the Sudan in the 1850s and the Boer War at the end of the 19th century, through two world wars, through Korea and Vietnam, and now down to Iraq and Afghanistan, Australians fought, with great heroism and sacrifice, alongside their stronger allies, even though Australia itself had not been attacked. (To be sure, Australia was attacked by the Japanese during World War II, but only several years after it had already declared war on Germany in 1939.)

To some degree, when the stronger ally was Great Britain, the ties to a common monarchy appeared to require this. In Australia’s declaration of war in 1939, following the German invasion of Poland, the prime minister of the time, Robert Menzies, explained his decision extraordinarily concisely: “Great Britain has declared war on [Germany], and as a result Australia is also at war.” But legalities aside, the main motivation was to show faithfulness to Australia’s principal security guarantor, in the expectation that such fealty would be rewarded in the event of a threat to Australia.

When applied to the present situation, Australia’s concern is therefore that, if the United States got into a conflict with China over Taiwan, American would expect Australia to come to its aid, and that Australia would feel obliged to do so. Faced with a conflict between the two great powers of the region, Australia would be faced with an awkward choice: remain loyal to its ally, or avoid any commitments to that ally in order to avoid hostilities with a very powerful neighbor.

And that leads to the second historical comparison: the one that is unprecedented for Australia. In the past, Australia’s two major allies – the United Kingdom and the United States – were simultaneously Australia’s biggest trading partners. That is no longer true. China is now Australia’s largest trading partner, because of its large and growing imports of raw materials from Australia. To choose between China and the United States is not just a choice between war and peace, or between accommodating a potential enemy and remaining loyal to an ally, but also a choice between one’s most important strategic partner and one’s most important commercial partner.

Of course Americans can reassure Australians that China and the United States share a powerful common interest in avoiding conflict or confrontation, certainly on a scale that would involve allies like Australia. Thus, the apparent necessity to choose is most likely a false dilemma.

Still, this question does raise yet again a difference between the ways in which Americans and Asians think about the region. To Americans, the biggest question concerns the strategic implications of the rise of China. To most Asians, the most important question is the likely American response to that development.

To Americans, in other words, the issue of greatest concern is the future of China; to Asians, in contrast, the issue of greatest concern is the future of the U.S.-China relationship. And given Australia's long-standing tradition of loyalty to its allies, that issue is of particularly great interest.

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