Competing futures


China hangs like a shadow over the twenty-first century. In our country, not a day goes by now without someone, somewhere writing or speaking about China’s economic, strategic and cultural ascent. China, unlike our traditional and historic ally in the North Asian region, Japan, is likely to challenge one of the bedrocks of our foreign policy, the Australian-US alliance.

Even the government of John Howard, which has cemented that sixty year old alliance with reinforced concrete over the past eight years, is now being forced to play the ‘choice’ game when it comes to conflicts between China and the US.

The most recent evidence that this is the case came last month when Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, announced that Australia will not oppose the European Union lifting its fifteen year arms embargo on China, which was imposed after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. The Australian newspaper, reporting the story on 12 February, described the Howard government’s decision as ‘the most serious strategic disagreement between Washington and Canberra in recent years.’

But Mr Downer told ABC Radio the same day, that he has not been asked by the US to back its opposition to any lifting of the embargo. ‘It’s not been raised with me by the American ambassador or the Secretary of State or the Secretary of Defence,’ he said.

Given however, that Japan is standing with the US in opposing the lifting of the arms embargo by the EU, Australia’s decision could not have pleased the neo-conservatives who run so much of Washington thinking on foreign policy matters these days.

Although the Bush Administration feels strongly about continuing an arms embargo on China – last month Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that the US is ‘concerned about the transfer of technology that might endanger’ the military balance in the North Asian region – the Howard government has revealed a preparedness to balance it’s recognition of the growing importance of China on the one hand, with its traditional security and economic ties to the US on the other.

This is not the first time in the past year that Australia has been prepared to loosen its alliance with the US by going ‘its own way’ over China.

Last August, Mr Downer told an audience in Beijing that Australia would not automatically join the US in the event of the latter defending Taiwan from an attack by China. His comments brought criticism from Washington and Mr Downer was forced to retreat, arguing that he had only been speaking hypothetically.

For Australia, smooth relations with China at this point in time are particularly important. Australian and Chinese officials are currently working on a scoping study, due to be completed in April this year, to determine if negotiations for a free trade agreement between the two countries should commence.

Mr Howard is scheduled to visit Beijing in April to meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao. The Australian Prime Minister wants to be able to use that opportunity to announce the commencement of talks on such a free trade deal.

While a free trade agreement with China is not universally applauded in this country, the Howard government believes that we can ill-afford to hitch our train to the fastest growing economy in the world. In short, it would argue, it’s not in Australia’s immediate diplomatic and trade interests to be picking a fight with China.

One of this country’s leading strategic analysts, Hugh White, reckons that the arms embargo issue is typical of the sorts of ‘dilemma’s Australia will face in a future where the US and China compete for influence.’

White told the Sydney Morning Herald on February 19 ‘the US continues to regard as strategic competitors and potential adversaries the country [China] that we see as our future economic saviour. This is a kind of a dilemma that we face and are going to increasingly face as issues like this come up, and the US and China will both be seeking to make Australia choose.’

But Alan Gyngell of the Lowy Institute told David Broder of the Washington Post last month that Australia sees ‘nothing but opportunity in China, a major market for goods and services and an economy that complements, rather than competes with ours. It is now our No. 2 trading partner, after the United States, and the fastest-growing.’

Who is right – Gyngell or White? It’s hard to know and predicting the future of international relations is fraught with danger. But what is clear is that Australians need to be fully informed and cognisant of the increasing Chinese presence in global power terms. We are also entitled to expect that our foreign policy is independent enough to be able to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to either China or the US when it’s in our interests and those of the region in which we live.

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