- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
Australia has for years worried it might have to choose between China, a huge economic partner, and the United States, Canberra’s main defense partner. Now a U.S. Army Colonel has waded right into the middle of that debate, telling Australian radio that the country has to choose between trade with China and its long-term alliance with the United States.
“I think the Australians need to make a choice,” U.S. Army Col. Tom Hanson told Australian Broadcasting Corp. Radio on Thursday. “It’s very difficult to walk this fine line between balancing the alliance with the United States and the economic engagement with China.” He went on, “there’s going to have to be a decision as to which one is more of a vital national interest for Australia.”
Asked about the comments, Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Gary Ross told Foreign Policy that Hanson, the U.S. Army Pacific Assistant Chief of Staff, was expressing a “personal view” and his comment “does not represent the views of DOD or the U.S. government.”
“The idea that Australia, or any country, needs to choose between its longstanding ties to the United States and its emerging links with China presents a false choice,” Ross said. “Australia has strong, multifaceted ties with its Pacific neighbors, including China, just as we seek the same.”
But the notion isn’t entirely fallacious. Australia’s natural resource export boom for years has fed China’s industrial maw deepened the economic interdependence between the two countries, at least until China’s recent slowdown. But an increasingly assertive China, especially its expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea, has also sparked alarm throughout the region, including in Australia, which has beefed up its navy and is acquiring top-of-the-line submarines from France.
And Australia has long been a steady ally for the United States in Asia, sending troops to fight alongside American forces in Vietnam, and participating in more recent military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Aussies have also agreed to host about 1,500 Marines along with their helicopters and other heavy equipment in Darwin in northern Australia.
The comments come at a critical time for the Australians, as the country is in the midst of a debate over how to navigate the transformation of China from a backward country to regional and even global powerhouse. The tricky balancing act is clear in terms of Chinese investment in Australia: Beijing has sought to assuage Aussie fears over its lease of the port of Darwin, next to where U.S. Marines will be stationed, but was just rebuffed from purchasing an electricity company due to “national security” concerns.
Former Prime Minister Paul Keating this week has lamented Canberra’s lack of a policy to accommodate China’s rise.
Lately, China’s heavy-handed style of diplomacy and willingness to play hardball with international laws and conventions in the South China Sea have complicated Canberra’s efforts to thread the diplomatic needle with Beijing.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop tried to play down Hanson’s comments, saying in a statement Thursday that “we are balancing relationships between our largest strategic ally and our largest trading partner with deft diplomacy, consistency and pragmatism.”
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