By Invitation

Canberra's choice: Pivot or recalibrate?

Australia has managed to be friends with China and the United States for two decades. That delicate balancing act is getting tougher to perform.

China's second most powerful leader, Premier Li Keqiang, has an engaging, relaxed manner very different from the stiff formality of his boss, President Xi Jinping. This was on display during Mr Li's five-day visit to Australia last week, during which he enjoyed an Australian Rules football match and joked about the food served at the official luncheon.

But this easy-going style did nothing to soften the plain message he had come to deliver. It had two parts. The first part was a strong affirmation of the big economic opportunities that China offered, reinforcing Canberra's conviction that Beijing will remain the most important source of future economic opportunities for Australia.

The second part was a plain warning about how Australia should recognise China's growing strategic weight, and not oppose its claims to a bigger share of regional leadership. In particular, it should not align itself with America in trying to contain China's ambitions.

"We do not want to see taking sides, as happened during the Cold War," he said, in Beijing's bluntest warning on Canberra's positioning between the US and China for many years.

It was impossible to miss the unspoken but crystal clear connection between the two parts of Mr Li's message. But Australia's Prime Minster Malcolm Turnbull tried to pretend that he did. "The idea that Australia has to choose between the United States and China is not correct," he said last Friday, repeating what has now become a mantra among Australian political leaders.

That mantra used to be true.


Twenty years ago, Australia's then Prime Minister John Howard reached an understanding with Beijing that assuaged Chinese concerns about Canberra's alliance with Washington, and provided a vital foundation of the remarkable economic partnership which has developed since then.

Mr Howard made plain to China's leaders that Australia would remain a close ally of the US. He told them that was not negotiable. But he also made plain that nothing Australia would do as a US ally would be directed against China, and that satisfied Beijing.

Washington was happy too, because back then it did not see Beijing as a serious strategic rival, and did not seek Canberra's support against it. Instead it looked to Australia's support in the Middle East, which Canberra was happy to provide.

That's why it was true for so long that Australia did not have to choose between America and China, with the happy result that relations with China and the alliance with America both flourished at the same time.

Leaders like Ms Bishop might hanker for the old days when America was the only power in Asia that really mattered to Australia. But that is no longer true, so Australia has to make some choices about how to position itself between rival powers in Asia.

But things are different now. Today, China is quite plainly challenging US strategic leadership in Asia, and America is just as plainly trying to resist that challenge - and it wants Australia's help.

Back in 2011, then US President Barack Obama came to Canberra to deliver the big speech launching his "Pivot to Asia", precisely to make it unambiguously clear that he expected Australia, as a close US ally, to provide strong and unquestioning support.

Since then, Mr Howard's understanding with Beijing has been stretched to breaking point. It has become harder and harder for his successors to avoid violating that understanding by siding with the US against China, because that is so clearly what Washington expects of its close ally. As a result, and despite what Mr Turnbull and others say, Australia has had a lot of difficult choices to make.

In recent years, almost every foreign policy decision has been carefully scrutinised for its implications for the delicate balancing act Australia has been performing between the US and China. On the one hand, Canberra seeks to reassure Washington of its loyal support in resisting Beijing's leadership challenge. On the other hand, it seeks to reassure China of the precise opposite - that nothing Australia does as a US ally is directed against China.

So, for example, Australia has hosted US military deployments in Darwin, but has denied that these are directed against China. And it has supported America's concerns about freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, but has resisted strong US pressure to conduct provocative freedom of navigation operations in Chinese-claimed waters.

But this careful balancing act seemed to come unstuck just a few days before Premier Li's visit to Australia, when Foreign Minister Julie Bishop gave a major speech in Singapore. In a Fullerton Lecture for the the International Institute for Strategic Studies, she directly challenged China's ambition to take a larger leadership role in Asia.

She argued that China could not be accepted as a leader in Asia because it was not a democracy, and foreshadowed that it would be American leadership, not Chinese, that would grow over coming years.

There is little doubt that Premier Li's stern warning to Australia about "choosing sides" was a direct response to Ms Bishop's speech. He reinforced it with a pointed remark about political systems, saying countries should refrain from criticising the political systems of others because different countries had different systems suited to their different circumstances and traditions.

As Premier Li flew on to New Zealand over the weekend, Australians were left reflecting on the new realities of their position. Leaders like Ms Bishop might hanker for the old days when America was the only power in Asia that really mattered to Australia. But that is no longer true, so Australia has to make some choices about how to position itself between rival powers in Asia.

It would be wise to follow Singapore Prime Minster Lee Hsien Loong's example by frankly discussing this uncomfortable reality rather than trying to hide from it.

Singapore has faced pressure from China itself recently. Speaking to the BBC last month, Mr Lee gave a nuanced account of Singapore's positioning between America and China, and acknowledged the risks.

He warned that if relations between the two big powers deteriorate, Singapore might be "coerced to choose between being friends with America, and friends with China", adding: "That is the real worry."

Instead of Singapore's considered candour, Australia has one leader refusing to acknowledge the dilemma of choice, and another suggesting the need to hold onto the status quo.

• The writer is professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University in Canberra.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2017, with the headline 'Canberra's choice: Pivot or recalibrate?'. Print Edition | Subscribe