The Politics of Cooperation: Analyzing the Relationship Between China, Australia, and the U.S.

By Michael J. Norris
2010, Vol. 2 No. 12 | pg. 1/2 |

John Howard, then-Prime Minister of Australia, claimed that, ‘I count it as one of the great successes of this country’s foreign relations that we have simultaneously been able to strengthen our long-standing ties with the United States of America, yet at the same time continue to build a very close relationship with China’ (Howard 2004). This statement embodies the ideal vision of Australian foreign policy: a healthy security relationship with the United States complemented by burgeoning economic ties with (White 2005: 470). However, relations between Australia’s two most important partners are characterised by varying degrees of cooperation and discord. As China’s economic and political weight in the Asia-Pacific region expands, the potential for with the United States over respective strategic and economic interests escalates. How Australia manages these emerging contours for conflict comprises the central challenge to its (Kelton 2006: 230).

To elucidate the difficult choices Australia would encounter following the intensification of Sino-American strategic competition, this article considers (1) the present state of Canberra’s relations with Washington and Beijing; (2) the possibility for, and categories of, conflict which may lead Canberra toward explicitly “choosing” either Washington or Beijing over the other; (3) the factors which would inform Canberra’s decision-making calculus; and (4) who, on a balance of probabilities, Canberra would support in the event of serious Sino-American conflict.

The chief argument advanced is that Australia, if forced to “choose” between the United States and China following the outbreak of a “hot war” or similarly adversarial conflict, would opt for the former. Although Canberra is presently accommodating some of Beijing’s foreign policy preferences in order to solidify the commercial gains it receives from China’s roaring economy, this is unlikely to translate into alignment.

I. The Present State of Australia's Relations with the US and China

A. Australia’s relationship with the United States

Following the conclusion of the Second World War, the United States has enjoyed a central position in the construction of Australian security and economic policy (Beeson 2003: 387). This position has been largely underwritten by a number of key factors, including the ANZUS alliance, common institutions and values, economic linkages and recently, Australian participation in the “global war on terror”. Without delving into discussions which have been entertained by numerous authors elsewhere, it is worth revisiting some salient points.

Firstly, Australia’s security partnership with the United States is generally viewed as indispensable, although it is not without its critics (Ex.: Beeson 2003). This notion of the US’ centrality to Australian foreign policy stems from the longstanding belief that Australia’s security is dependent upon sustaining partnerships with great maritime powers (Lyon 2008: 57). Further, given Australia’s presence as an outpost for Anglo-Saxon in Asia, a sense of strategic isolation has been cited as a key driver of close security ties between the two nations (McLean 2006: 38; Manicom and O’Neil 2010: 34). The shortcomings of Asian regionalism, as demonstrated by the Asian Financial Crisis (1997), have reinforced this strategic isolation; prompting Australia to shy away from a security policy within Asia’s multilateral institutions (Tow 2004: 276).

Secondly, following the events of 9/11 and Australia’s subsequent participation in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the partnership between Australia and the United States has strengthened dramatically. Australia’s decision to invoke the ANZUS treaty after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 displayed a renewed solidarity with the United States (Malik 2006: 587). Australian Defence Forces (ADF) were deployed to both Afghanistan and Iraq to support US efforts in those countries. Specifically, the exercise of American military power in two theatres emphatically highlighted the defence benefits Australia derives from the partnership. In terms of tangible gains from Australia’s close security alignment with the US, benefits include access to high-tech military materiel, extended deterrence guarantees (including nuclear deterrence), and the increased regional profile it receives (Tow 2005: 461; Dibb 2007: 33).

Thirdly, the United States is not only an isolated actor: it has an extensive network of partners and allies within Asia and continues to contribute to Australia’s economic prosperity. Manicom and O’Neil note that the economic fortunes of the United States, and its Asiatic strategic partners, Japan and , will be just as influential on Australia’s economic prosperity as its relationship with China (Manicom and O’Neil 2010: 31). Although two-way trade between Australia and China exceeded the value of Australia-US trade in 2004-2005 (Malik 2006: 589), the United States still remains Australia’s second-largest source of imports (Manicom and O’Neil 2010: 31) and one of the few states it has a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with.

B. Australia’s relationship with China

It is well-accepted that China’s rise has created both opportunities and pressures for the Asian regional order. Australia has certainly capitalised on China’s economic momentum: China is Australia’s largest trading partner and largest export partner, with two-way trade valued at AUD$85 billion in 2009 (Crean 2010). However, Hugh White notes that a notion implicit in China’s economic relationships is that beneficiary states must ‘take careful account if China’s political and strategic interests’ (2005: 470). In accordance with these underlying “rules”, Australia’s accommodation with Chinese interests is being evinced. Two instances are particularly notable. Firstly, in 2004, then-Foreign Minister Alexander Downer discussed the limitations of Australia’s ANZUS obligations in relation to the support of US forces during a potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait. The former Foreign Minister stated, ‘[t]he ANZUS Treaty is invoked in the event of one of our two countries, Australia or the United States, being attacked. So some other military activity elsewhere in the world […] does not automatically invoke the ANZUS Treaty’ (Downer 2004). Downer’s comments are readily contrasted with the Howard government’s position during the 1996 Taiwan Crisis, which strongly supported President Clinton’s dispatch of an aircraft battle group to the Taiwan Strait.

Downer’s comments suggest that Australia’s strategic calculus, between 1996 and 2004, has altered. It can be inferred that increasing economic interdependence between Australia and China is at the forefront of this change (Pan 2006: 433; Manicom and O’Neil 2010: 35). In terms of economic interdependence, it is critical to note that (1) Australia’s trade with China constitutes 17 per cent of its total trade (Crean 2010) and (2) the People’s Republic has regularly been portrayed as the ‘locomotive to keep Australia’s economy growing’ (Zhang 2008). The alteration in Australia’s strategic calculus has manifested itself in other ways. In 2008, then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd terminated Australia’s involvement in the Quadrilateral Dialogue initiative, which included America’s other security partners, Japan and India. Such regional alignments are construed by Beijing as an attempt to contain it and prolong Cold War security architectures (Tow 2004: 53). Clearly, Canberra is looking to dispel such connotations, reinforcing the impression that in light of Australia’s increasing economic ties with China; some of the latter’s foreign policy interests are being accommodated through an adaption of Australian foreign policy.

II. Analyzing the Nature and Extent of the 'Difficult Choices' Australian Policy Makers Face

The pertinent question thus becomes whether the aforementioned accommodation with China’s political and strategic interests will lead Australia to a new strategic direction upon the advent of US-China strategic competition. The answer involves four considerations: (1) the possibility of US-China strategic competition intensifying; (2) the theoretical basis for Australia’s alliance decisions; (3) assessing what category of conflict would “force” Australia to choose and (4) evaluating which policy option is most plausible for Canberra to implement.

A. The potential for increased Sino-American strategic competition

The potential for future Sino-American strategic competition is very much an open-ended question. The United States’ contemporary China policy possesses both cooperative and competitive elements; including an eclectic mix of ‘engagement, binding and balancing mechanisms’ (Mederios 2005: 147). On the other hand, according to Rex Li, China’s foreign policy toward the United States is driven by the defence of what it considers as its ‘vital economic and security interests’ (Li 2004: 25). The central consideration is whether the US’ “congagement” posture vis-à-vis China will significantly intrude on Beijing’s economic and security imperatives (or vice-versa) so as to engender bilateral discord. The probability of such an occurrence depends on systemic considerations, such as international institutions and balance of power mechanics in addition to the respective foreign and domestic policies of Washington and Beijing (Shambaugh 2000: 211).

David Scott states that such uncertainty is compounded by ‘the constraints of theory’ (2007: 144). The use of (IR) theory to hypothesise potential conflict has constituted an enduring feature of Sino-American international relations literature. The vast range of IR theories and sub-schools foster a debate which primarily focuses upon divergent elements of Sino-American ties. For instance, IR liberalism emphasises the role of economic interdependence and international institutions in dampening the potential for Sino-American conflict whereas IR offensive realists attach higher importance to China’s defence spending and expanding territorial claims (Ibid). Rather than review the totality of the present literature here, it is necessary to examine the core theoretical standpoint which has informed the debate over future Sino-American competition: power-transition theory.

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