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The Big Guy in the Room

US President Barack Obama, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and Australian premier Tony Abbott held talks on defence during the G20 summit in Brisbane in November. Abe and Abbott are pillars of the US security system in the western Pacific, which also includes Taiwan and South Korea; Japan and Australia share US concerns over China’s territorial pressuring of its neighbours.

Japan is deeply suspicious of China, despite growing economic ties, and the dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands has not improved things. Australia’s attitude to China — less discussed in Europe — reflects its unwavering support for the United States, with which it has had a defence pact for 63 years. One of the US’s biggest satellite tracking bases overseas is at Pine Gap, near Alice Springs. Australia is part of the worldwide listening and interception network led by the Pentagon, and followed the US unhesitatingly into Afghanistan and Iraq. It has increased its defence budget by 6% for 2015 (1), is planning to build up its navy, and in August signed a new treaty under which 2,500 US marines will be stationed at its military base in Darwin. And it was during an address to the Australian parliament in November 2011 that Obama announced the US’s new “pivot” strategy — the rebalancing of US interests from Europe and the Middle East towards Asia — in an address to the Australian parliament in November 2011 (2).

But relations between Abbott, a conservative who denies global warming, and Obama, who has made it a key element of his policies, are chilly. After the G20 summit, Abbott used President Xi Jinping’s state visit to initiate an unprecedented rapprochement with China, disregarding Obama’s warnings.

Before leaving Brisbane, Obama summed up the situation: “The question we face is which of these futures will define the Asia Pacific in the century to come. Will we move towards further integration, more justice, more peace, or do we move towards disorder, disintegration? These are our choices, Conflict or cooperation? Oppression or liberty?” (3). This is very like the choice presented in the Truman doctrine (4) at the start of the cold war. The similarity struck the Australian press, while Abbott appeared to ignore it, enthusing over the Chinese-Australian partnership. Xi Jinping’s visit strengthened bilateral relations, a wide-ranging free trade agreement was signed (5) and a forum of heads of regional governments from both countries was inaugurated.

China’s two goals

Xi knows Australia well, having visited almost all of its states before becoming president in 2013. He made a very positive impression on the Australian press, which picked up on the two “goals” in his much applauded address to parliament: “The first is to double … 2010 GDP and per capita income … by 2020. The second is to turn China into a modern socialist country that is prosperous, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious by the middle of the century” (6). Only Senator Christine Milne, leader of the Australian Greens, dared to question Xi on Hong Kong and China’s treatment of political prisoners. Abbott preferred to focus on the excellence of Chinese-Australian relations.

There are a few critics. Hugh White of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University sees Abbott’s policy as a dangerous break with the balance that Australia has always managed to preserve between relations with its Asian neighbours and solidarity with the West: Abbott “is swinging helplessly between the two poles of regional power, siding with the US one day and China the next, without any clear conception of where we want to end up. In the end we cannot afford to side with either of them. Obama’s speech showed that he has no answer to China’s ambitions except the uncompromising but underpowered resistance embodied in the Pivot — and we know that isn’t working … Xi showed that China’s aim is clearly to exclude the US from Asia entirely, and that would not work for us either” (7). White overlooks the serious implications of rapprochement between China and Australia, which in the long term — and independently of Abbott — can only grow stronger.

Australia’s most recent defence white paper, in 2013, declared that it does not see China as an adversary, reversing the position of the 2010 paper, which took an aggressive position on China. The 2015 paper is unlikely to go back to the 2010 stance. It may contain references to the “Indo-Pacific”, which stands for Australia’s attempt to expand and stabilise its geopolitical influence by including India as a partner. Abbott visited India last September and its premier, Narendra Modi, visited Australia in November, addressing both chambers of the parliament — a historic first. Yet despite this reserve and Australia’s opposition to China’s aggressive maritime policy (8), many analysts detect a change in diplomatic relations between Australia and China, which they claim is significant because it has come under an Australian government that seemed unlikely to adopt such a realist policy.

A few weeks before the G20 summit, Australian politicians saluted the memory of former Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam, who had died at 98. Forgotten outside Australia, Whitlam was the first Australian leader to recognise Communist China (in 1972), a decision harshly criticised at the time. Today he is celebrated as a visionary. China is currently Australia’s biggest trading partner by far and its exports, from farmed fish to iron ore, are heavily dependent on Chinese consumption and investment. In 2013 the value of Australian exports to China topped 100bn Australian dollars (US $84bn), compared with only 16bn of exports to the US; imports from China were worth 50bn Australian dollars (US $42bn) (9).

‘We are only beginning to understand China’s power’

Australia has a million citizens of Chinese origin. Conscious of the changing regional situation and growing mutual dependence, some members of the Australian elite are advocating a new approach to China. Former Australian premier Bob Hawke recently said: “The international politics of Asia are being transformed before our very eyes. … We are only beginning to understand China’s wealth and power, its ambitions, and to reach a sensible judgment about what sort of country China is” (10).

Last May, an Australia-China Relations Institute was founded, headed by former foreign minister, Bob Carr. Its deputy director, James Laurenceson, summarised the issues: “What are the opportunities and challenges created by the 500 million plus Chinese set to join the middle class by 2021? This momentous historical development will have implications for Australia across the board, from mining to agriculture, to services” (11). The tourist industry is already pressing Abbott for a substantial increase in the number of visas issued to Chinese nationals, to allow businesses to take advantage of the opportunities of the new free trade agreement. It is not at all certain that the US’s pivot strategy will be enough to counteract the mutual attraction between China and Australia, regardless of unspoken (but real) concerns over security.

Xi, in his address to the Australian parliament, three years to the day after Obama’s pivot speech, said: “[China] is like a big guy in the crowd. Others will naturally wonder how the big guy will move and act” (12). Australia is well aware of what worries its neighbours, but its attitude to the big guy seems to be changing from wariness to fascination.

Olivier Zajec is a lecturer in political science and international relations at Jean-Moulin University Lyon-III.

Notes.

(1) Zachary Keck, “Australia Boosts Defense Spending 6.1%”, thediplomat.com, 16 May 2014.

(2) See “Remarks by President Obama to the Australian Parliament”, The White House, 17 November 2011.

(3) Lenore Taylor, “G20: Barack Obama uses visit to reassert US influence in Asia Pacific”, The Guardian,London, 15 November 2014.

(4) In an address to the US Congress in 1947, President Harry Truman presented himself as the champion of the free world, setting out a bipolar vision of international relations.

(5) In the Australian press, this event eclipsed the state visit of France’s president François Hollande on the same day.

(6) Address to the Australian parliament, quoted in “Tony Abbott lauds Xi Jinping’s ‘commitment to fully democratic China’”, The Guardian, London, 17 November 2014.

(7) Hugh White, “Abbott clueless on how to handle US and China”, The Sydney Morning Herald,25 November 2014.

(8) See Kirk Spitzer, “Australia Chooses Sides — And it’s Not with China”, Time, New York, 6 May 2013.

(9) Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade communiqué, 21 May 2014.

(10) Address to the Asia Pacific Forum hosted by the University of Queensland, 17 November 2014.

(11) Maggie Wang, “China economy specialist to set research agenda for new think tank”, UTS Newsroom, 1 August 2014; newsroom.uts.edu.au

(12) Address to the Australian parliament quoted in Daniel Hurst, “Xi Jinping says China will always seek to resolve disputes peacefully”, The Guardian,17 November 2014.

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.

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