Australian white paper acknowledges China's rise, uncertainty over US role in region

SYDNEY - Australia's foreign policy white paper was prepared by diplomats but it adopts a surprisingly frank - and stark - assessment of the challenges facing the region.

After years of Australian leaders tending to downplay - at least publicly - the threat that China's rise poses to regional stability, the white paper acknowledges the looming uncertainty and admits that Canberra will quickly need to respond.

The first page of the 136-page document makes it clear that the regional dominance of the United States can no longer be taken for granted and may not turn out to be an enduring certainty.

"The United States has been the dominant power in our region throughout Australia's post-World War II history," it says. "Today, China is challenging America's position."

This development has been glaringly obvious to analysts for years, but it has been something that governments in Australia - and other close allies of the US - have typically tried to avoid facing up to.

The paper makes it clear that Canberra wants the US, its closest security ally, to continue its regional leadership and will do all it can to support this.

But it notes that it is the US - under Donald Trump, though the President is not mentioned - which is questioning its own commitment to global leadership.

  • Aussie blueprint: Key takeaways

  • On China:

    The Australian government is committed to strong and constructive ties with China. But China is challenging America's position, and "navigating the decade ahead will be hard because, as China's power grows, our region is changing in ways without precedent".

    On US:
    The alliance with the United States is central to Australia's approach to the Indo-Pacific. The US is increasingly questioning its own commitment to preserving its global leadership, and its dominance can no longer be taken for granted.

    On South-east Asia:
    Australia places high priority on its bilateral ties in South-east Asia and support for Asean. The government is enhancing its trade and defence ties .

    On Trade:
    Bringing China and the US together in a regionwide free trade agreement will reduce economic tension and help maximise regional economic growth prospects. The government's goal is to resist protectionism and the long-term vision is for a region-wide free trade area that includes all major economies.

Given this admission, the paper adopts a surprisingly upbeat outlook for the region.

Despite warning of the threat of rising economic nationalism and protectionism, it says the region's growing dynamism - and the growth of China and India - will provide enormous opportunities for Australia.

Experts were quick to point out that the paper does not provide a clear solution for how Australia can try to address this growing uncertainty caused by China's rise and the US's "uncertainty… about the costs and the benefits of its leadership".

But the paper does marks several significant changes in direction for Australia.

In particular, it flags an attempt to shore up alliances across the region to try to balance the ongoing tilt of influence towards China.

This attempt is evident in the paper's emphasis on the describing the region as the "Indo-Pacific" rather than "Asia-Pacific". The term denotes a region encompassing the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean and seems to envisage a broad area including India, the US and China, rather than an area with China at its centre.

Finally, the paper flags a push to shore up alliances and partnerships across the region. It highlights efforts to bolster ties with democracies, particularly Japan, Indonesia, India and South Korea.

Australia has made it clear that the regional spread of power is changing - not necessarily to its advantage - and that it plans to become more ambitious and assertive to try to ensure a soft landing.

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