The Magazine

The View from Across the Pacific

Washington gains a friend in Canberra.

Sep 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 03 • By ROSS TERRILL
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Howard once told Jiang Zemin, “I don’t believe in lecturing others any more than we [Australians] like receiving lectures ourselves.” Ric Smith, Australian ambassador in Beijing at the time, said of the Howard years: “The Chinese would have preferred the Australians not keep saying, ‘We have different values, different history,’ and just get to the bottom line, ‘We can do business,’ but they accepted it.” Labor and some Liberal business folk are more prone to talk about common values with the Chinese.

Last year Beijing suggested to Labor foreign minister Bob Carr that Australia might have to choose between China and the United States. Some Australians take this seriously, but Abbott doesn’t. Over 11 years, Howard found the U.S. alliance “no impediment” to Australia’s relations with Beijing. “Many Chinese saw it as an asset,” he recalls. “Others respected the fidelity displayed by Australia to our American friends. It was evidence that we were a dependable, reliable people with whom to have an association.” That is likely to be the Abbott-Bishop position also.

Scholars in Melbourne and Sydney fuss that two ill-fitting “structures” mark the Asia Pacific region (unlike the smooth Brussels machine allegedly masterminding Europe): U.S. alliances with Japan, Australia, South Korea, and others, and the grip of the Chinese economy. But the apparent anarchy of this jostling pair may not be so problematic. Australia illustrates why. Asia is not a cultural region, so we may leave culture to one side and consider money and power. Australia’s “problem” is that it’s close to China economically but close to the United States strategically. But the same dualism is so widespread in Asia Pacific that one asks whether it is really a problem.

With the Soviet Union, such a two-sided policy was not possible for many reasons, including the limitations of Moscow’s economy. But today China and the United States are deeply involved economically with each other, just as U.S. allies are with China. Beijing has had to contemplate Australia and the United States as allies since the birth of ANZUS in 1951. This hasn’t stopped it from buying Australian wheat in the 1950s and 1960s, or coal and iron ore today. Australian leftists fret about upsetting China, but they should consult a map. South Korea hosts many times more U.S. troops than Australia, yet enjoys a flourishing economic tie with nearby China; similarly neighboring Japan. How could fewer than 1,000 Marines (so far) in Darwin prejudice Australia’s trade with China thousands of miles away?

The biggest difference between Abbott and Labor is not on China but on the United States. Outgoing foreign minister Carr said Labor, had it been in power in 2003, would never have supported George W. Bush in Iraq as the Liberal-Nationals did. One Labor leader prior to Rudd, Mark Latham, called President Bush “incompetent and dangerous” and declared, “The alliance with the United States is just another form of neocolonialism.” Gillard in a long speech on national security strategy in January never mentioned ANZUS. To all this Abbott retorts: “America’s habitual critics should more often consider to which other country or body they would rather entrust a solution to the world’s troubles.” 

Labor, like Obama, is given to multilateralism as an end in itself and enamored of world disarmament and the United Nations. Abbott promises “more Jakarta, less Geneva,” privileging bilateral ties over international bureaucracies. The Liberal-Nationals are generally in tune with Japan’s Shinzo Abe, who wants U.S. allies in the region to do more together. Abbott believes in an “international community of values” as part of national security, and Abe does too. A resurgent Japan with backbone could well be the next Big Trend in Asia, so a lot rides on Abe’s new economic and foreign policies. The opportunity at Abbott’s feet is to strengthen the joint role of two key spokes on the U.S. security wheel in Asia Pacific.

Hillary Clinton took some good steps on the “pivot” in Southeast Asia, but Obama’s chanting what the pivot is not is feeble (like harping that his Syrian move will be “limited” and “tailored”). The pivot is and should be about China. Beijing’s foreign policy centers on the United States, after all. The job of the democracies in East Asia is to strengthen each other, the better to deal effectively and peacefully with China.

The Chinese leaders know that Western-derived values of free markets and free expression have been an element in China’s post-Mao rise. Abbott and Abe should ask Beijing how these assets relate to China’s idea of a “harmonious international society.” The two prime ministers should also encourage Obama to be direct with Beijing about the pivot.

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