China’s rise has created anxiousness among most of its Asian neighbors, and that includes long-time U.S. ally Australia. And, as Beijing becomes more powerful and spreads its influence more widely across the region, the relationship between Canberra and Washington is coming under strain.
As long as China is not too aggressive, there is a general feeling throughout Australia to allow Beijing to play a larger role. In fact, there are even rumblings that Australia should change its long-held grand security strategy of remaining a steadfast U.S. ally, a change that would similarly upend U.S. grand strategy in the Asia-Pacific region.
Economically, China is Australia’s largest trading partner, absorbing more than one-quarter of all Australian exports, an arrangement that has led to years of uninterrupted and steadily increasing growth for the Land Down Under — meaning the economic symbiosis will likely continue to grow.
But at the same time, China’s rise is becoming Australia’s biggest security concern since Japan dominated the region in the 1930s and through much of World War II. As Defense One notes:
Yet China also represents the most profound threat to the Asia-Pacific order that has so greatly benefited Australia. Beijing’s challenge to U.S. primacy in the region, its pressure on U.S.alliances, and its unilateral challenge to liberal order rules deeply challenge the sense of security of this mid-sized, liberal democratic trading state. Revelations of Chinese meddling in Australia’s domestic politics and a regular drumbeat of Australians falling afoul of China’s arbitrary legal system have attitudes towards China shifting in Australia.
Canberra’s policy for the past two decades has been to invest in its alliance with the United States, in the belief that the American alliance network is the best way to face down China’s challenge to regional order. More recently, Australia has been investing in other security partnerships — for example, with Japan and Singapore — to strengthen this network and bolster regional resolve. Canberra’s intent has been to help anchor the U.S. presence in the Western Pacific, bolster Washington’s own resolve against China’s challenge, and preserve for itself a significant voice in regional security affairs.
The problem is that these policies have failed to stem China’s bid for regional primacy.
Why it’s on our radar: Australia is a member of the “Five Eyes” intelligence network that includes the U.S., New Zealand, Canada and Great Britain, giving Canberra access to a wealth of data and intelligence-gathering technology. And it’s close to New Zealand. Plus, Australia is in China’s “neighborhood,” so its strategic importance cannot be overstated.
What should the U.S. do in order to allay Australian concerns Washington would not honor its security commitments in the face of legitimate Chinese aggression? There are a number of things the Trump administration can — and should — do, in order strengthen America’s historical alliance with Australia. Canberra can, and should, contribute to that strengthening.
We will have a much more comprehensive analysis of the U.S.-Australia alliance in the next issue of the Executive Intelligence Summary. To subscribe, click here.