China's heavy-handed behavior is driving neighbors, especially Australia, farther away from its orbit.
Here’s one way to gauge just how much China has shot itself in the foot by bullying neighbors and rattling sabers: It’s making what looked like a painful choice for Australia a whole lot easier.
For years, policymakers from Down Under have worried about just how long the country could balance moving ever closer to China in terms of economic interests with maintaining deep defense ties with the United States as tensions rise in the Asia-Pacific. With the U.S. "pivot to Asia" — featuring a leading role for Australia — and growing concern about China’s heavy-handed diplomacy, those fears had been intensifying.
"The question is not whether we want to choose between them, but whether we might find ourselves forced to make such a choice," Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, told Foreign Policy recently.
China is doing its part by picking fights with Vietnam and the Philippines, single-handedly pushing Japan to scuttle decades of pacifism, and running roughshod over the international rules and norms that underpinned the region’s decades of peace and prosperity. As a result, Australia has taken giant strides toward the United States and its allies.
On Tuesday, just weeks after doubling down on security ties with the United States, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe signed sweeping economic and defense deals, reaffirming the two countries’ "special relationship." The deals, which include plans for joint development of advanced submarines, indicate Abbott’s vocal support for Abe’s more muscular military posture — while also sending a clear message to China.
"For decades now, Japan has been an exemplary international citizen. So Australia welcomes Japan’s recent decision to be a more capable strategic partner in our region," Abbot said, addressing Parliament with Abe. "I stress, ours is not a partnership against anyone; it’s a partnership for peace, for prosperity and for the rule of law."
Coming right on the heels of Abbot’s June trip to Washington — in which he stressed that "Australia will be an utterly dependable ally of the United States" — Abbott’s stance puts to rest worries that Australia might throw its old friends under the bus to guarantee lucrative trade ties with Beijing, some experts say.
"In a strategic and political sense, Australia has already chosen: It is a firm U.S. ally, and the alliance has intensified," said Rory Medcalf, a director at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, Australia’s leading think tank. "In the end, it is very difficult to see how Chinese economic leverage could compel Australia to loosen or break the alliance."
Abbot himself underscored that point, telling Parliament, "You don’t win new friends by losing old ones."
For decades, countries such as Australia and New Zealand never had to choose between economic growth and security. The dominant economic power and the dominant military power were one and the same: the United States. "So long as one country … was able to set the international security agenda, there was no significant divergence between economic aspirations and the desire for security," former New Zealand Defense Minister Wayne Mapp noted in a paper written this spring.
That has all changed with China’s dramatic transformation over the last 40 years from economic weakling to titan. China is Australia’s top trading partner, with bilateral exchange worth more than $150 billion annually. China’s voracious appetite for raw materials and energy resources, in particular, helped underwrite Australia’s economic growth over the last 20 years; former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said in a speech last year that such trade accounted for about half of Australia’s income gains from 2000 to 2010.
Even as China’s double-digit economic growth slows, accompanied by corresponding drops in its demand for Australia’s raw materials, Australia’s prosperity remains centered in Asia. That leaves policymakers in Canberra to wrestle with how best to position Australia to take advantage of the "Asian century."
Australian leaders spanning the political spectrum, from conservatives such as John Howard and Abbott to liberals like Rudd and Julia Gillard, have tried to chart "best of both worlds" courses, seeking more affinity with everyone. Rudd speaks Mandarin. Abbot offsets visits to Japan with stops in China. And now Canberra is placing itself firmly under Uncle Sam’s wing even as it pursues finalizing a new free trade pact with Beijing by year’s end.
"America has kept us safe while China has made us rich. We would like that to last forever," Australian National University’s White said.
Indeed, Australians have a blurry view of just what’s best for the country. In the latest annual Lowy poll, Australians said China was the country’s best friend in Asia — ahead of Japan or South Korea, its other big trading partners, which are also democracies allied with the United States. Aussies registered their warmest feelings toward China in 10 years of Lowy polling. And the importance they placed on the military alliance with America hit a five-year low, though 78 percent of Aussies still favor it.
Yet nearly half of Australians believe China will become a military threat in the next 20 years, a significant uptick from last year’s survey. That likely reflects unease with China’s recent regional aggression, such as dispatching an oil rig to Vietnamese waters in May, constructing an airstrip on an island claimed by the Philippines that same month, and constantly sparring with Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea with both air and naval power.
Even as those actions pushed Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, and Australia closer to Washington, "they will not be able to ignore China’s expectations," Mapp, the former Kiwi defense minister, told FP. "In short, the increased power of China does change the calculus. And it means accommodating at least some of China’s expectations — not every one of them can be rebuffed."
Top U.S. and Chinese officials are discussing the two countries’ impasse at the big strategic and economic talks in Beijing this week. Pentagon planners are plotting ways to push back against Chinese encroachments in the South China Sea. If things turn ugly, Washington would expect Australian help, including direct military assistance; that’s likely to prompt some serious soul-searching in Canberra.
"Joining the United States in military operations against China would have immense consequences for our relations with Beijing. If such a conflict escalated, which is not a remote possibility, Australia would soon face a real ‘us-or-them’ choice," White said.