The economic development of the Asia-Pacific region and the rise of China as a growing rival to United States’ supremacy have presented successive governments of Australia with a dilemma. Policy makers are all too aware that the future of Australian economic prosperity lies with a fruitful relationship with its Asian neighbours. Yet, Canberra has continued to rely upon the West to guarantee its security since hostilities began during the Second World War. As the United Kingdom’s power began to wane, Australia shamelessly turned to the United States in pursuit of a new best friend to keep it safe in a region dominated by different cultures; not all of which can be labelled as friendly. This new found friendship was of course enshrined in the ANZUS agreement of 1951, which remains the foundation of Australian security today.
So with its security guaranteed, the next logical step for Australia was to take full advantage of the incredible economic rise of China. Twenty five percent of Australia’s total export revenue emanates from China. China receives the raw resources and agricultural material it requires, and in return, the consumer driven economy of Australia receives low priced products. Everyone is a winner.
So with its security guaranteed and a trade relationship with China that other states envy, you would think that Australia has it pretty good, right? Sadly, and predictably, the answer is a resounding no.
Whilst Australia is happy to reap the economic benefits from a booming Asian economy, it simply must come to terms with the possibility of being faced with a scenario where the United States and China develop a bitter standoff. This situation leaves Australia with a choice: follow the money and face a potentially disastrous security exposure, or take a substantive economic hit and remain in the favour of their American cousins.
As operations are (or are at least planned) to conclude for allied forces in the Middle East, Washington has publically stated that it plans to conduct one of the biggest strategic reorientations in its recent history. In the coming years the focus of its military presence will bear heavily upon its operations in the South-Pacific. This directly affects Australia, as the Obama administration plans to make use of the convenient locality of their allies in the South-Pacific.
In 2011 Obama and the Department of Defence announced that the Marine Corps will deploy to Australia’s Northern Territory, taking the total number of troops stationed there to 2,500. Deployments such as this are crucial in helping us to understand American intentions. Announcements like this are likely to send mixed messages to Australia’s neighbours as it clearly demonstrates that America is taking proactive steps to reaffirm and develop its foothold in the region. Further, it could also be interpreted as a provocative move on behalf of Australia. You could easily argue that this signals a clear lack of willingness to engage with their South-Asian neighbours and the last thing Australian’s need is to become isolated from one of the fastest economically developing regions on the planet.
The exit of the New Zealanders from the ANZUS treaty consolidated Australia’s relationship with the States and its position as America’s only remaining Anglo-European ally in the region. Whilst this serves Australia’s security interests well, they cannot rest upon their laurels. Australia was the highest contributor of forces to the campaign in Afghanistan of any other non NATO member state. Symbolic commitments like this do well to reaffirm Australian gratitude for the unique relationship they share with Washington.
By 2050 China aims to possess a military that is a peer competitor to the United States. The development recently of the Chendu J-20 stealth fighter and the acquisition of its first aircraft carrier, suggests that things are going to plan for military top brass in Beijing. Policy makers in China are keen to stress the peaceful intentions of the PLA. However, it is pretty clear to observers that once China nears military parity with the United States Australia’s security guarantee will be severely undermined.
Yet if we look at the facts, for the time being the threat that the PLA poses to Australia is minimal. In the past, resources were devoted to PLA land forces. Consequently, the PLA Navy suffered as a result of the lack of attention and funding it received. China is not set to possess a ‘Blue-Water’ navy for some years. Until then, Beijing has been unable to project itself internationally on the High Seas in a way that the United States and some of its allies can. This gives the Australian government time to reap the rewards of a growing Chinese economy and formulate their response to a Sino-American confrontation in the South-Pacific. Either way, they are going to have to sacrifice one of the two rewards; prosperity or security.
Whilst it is clear that the alliance between the United States and Australia remains vital for the latter partner, Australia must take steps to secure their position in a region where military stand-offs and clashes are more likely to occur. Whilst the continual development of the PLA Navy hasn’t caused widespread alarm in Washington, as time progresses more attention will be paid to what will one day become the United States Navy’s main competitor. If Australia is wise, it will continue to reap the benefits of the relationship it has with both America and China while it can. After all, all good things must come to an end. Why not ride the wave while you can?