Australia is Not on the Fence Between America and China


When Australians gather for barbeques today in celebration of Australia Day, they’ll do so in the midst of a swelling debate over the direction of Australian foreign and defense policy. This debate pits supporters of the U.S. alliance – codified in the 1951 ANZUS Treaty – with those calling for a more circumspect policy, deferential to China’s burgeoning clout. But the tensions at play can be overstated. Most recently here on War on the Rocks and in The Interpreter, Greg Colton proclaimed that Australia has been uncomfortably “sitting on the fence.” As U.S.-China security competition intensifies in the Pacific, he argues, Australia will be compelled to choose a side, which may entail limiting Chinese influence in some cases. Colton is right to note that Washington sees China as revisionist, and he suggests useful ways for Australia to shape the evolving landscape – but he overstates the “unpleasant dilemma” facing Canberra. As the competition heats up, Australia has already and repeatedly made clear on which side of the fence it stands.

Alliance and Its Discontents

In Australia, the U.S. alliance has long been above politics, with broad bipartisan and popular support, even after the election of the erratic President Donald Trump. It is not only a treaty obligation – ANZUS was invoked only once, by Australia, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks – but also the central organizing principle of Australian strategy since the fall of the British garrison in Singapore in 1942. The alliance provides a security guarantee for the Australian homeland, and has also aided Australian-led offshore contingency operations, such as the 1999 East Timor intervention. Australia’s peacetime policy and military operations have generally focused on shaping a friendly and stable Indo-Pacific region, and contributing to security operations globally. From the Boer War to anti-ISIL operations in Syria, Australia has sought to act globally in order to secure itself, and has always done so alongside allies.

On the other side of the debate are small but disproportionately vocal calls for more hedging – turning away from the United States to accommodate Chinese interests. The standard-bearer of this argument is Hugh White, who has long argued that Australia should unhitch itself from the alliance as the United States hurtles towards war with a soon-to-be-dominant China. White’s policy prescriptions for Canberra are obscure and unsatisfying, but underlying his argument is the calculation that Australian national interests are best served by equidistance between major powers.

An Expression of National Interests

The truth of the matter is that Australia’s policy preferences are authentically aligned with America’s. They are the cause, not the effect, of the alliance. Both Australia and the United States share an interest in the liberal order – challenged by China – which safeguards open commerce, secure global commons, and rules-based conflict resolution. For this reason, Peter Varghese, the former secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, argued that Australia should prefer to see the United States continuing to be firmly ensconced in Asia. The alliance is a complementary part of, not a barrier to, an Asia-facing Australian foreign policy.

Australian military effectiveness also rests upon the U.S. alliance. The two militaries use the same best practices in force organization, they train together extensively, they use interoperable equipment and processes, and they integrate senior officers in each other’s hierarchies. Their intelligence communities are deeply interdependent, symbolized by the joint facilities used for global surveillance. Their defense cooperation only continues to deepen, with the recent rotational deployment of marines to Darwin. And, bringing it all together, they have an unparalleled history of wartime operational partnership. Serving in the Australian Defence Department starting in 2001, I observed a generation of soldiers and bureaucrats brought together by a shared, almost fraternal warfighting experience. This is an alliance, developed through institutions and shared experiences, that is now baked in to the national security machinery of both partners.

Conversely, of the two regional giants, only China – not the United States – poses a threat to Australian interests. The animating threat is not of Chinese amphibious troops landing at Bondi beach, but of military coercion or faits accomplis in the region that could jeopardize Australia’s interests. At worst, China could launch long-range strikes against U.S. forces or facilities in Australia in the throes of a major war. Australian policy statements have noted this growing power and threat for the better part of a decade. The 2009 Defence White Paper was replete with veiled but obvious references to the looming threat from China. The 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper noted the intensifying competition between the United States and China, but argued that the United States remains the indispensable actor in counter-balancing regional security threats.

Acting Against Chinese Revisionism, Not Chinese Influence

Canberra has matched its declarative policy with action. In 2013, Australia sharply rebuked China’s establishment of an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea. Canberra continued surveillance flights over the South China Sea, despite strenuous objections from Beijing. In 2016, Australia was one of only seven countries demanding that China respect the South China Sea arbitration ruling that favored the Philippines. In 2017, it rankled Beijing with a naval task group deployment, exercising with and calling on multiple likeminded states across the region. And most starkly, it has reacted forcefully in recent months against Chinese meddling in domestic Australian politics.

With all these cases, Australia pointedly declared its support for the rules-based regional order and admonished Beijing for its breaches of that order. These actions were not aimed at China’s power or influence – to deny its rightful and growing place in the region – but at China’s revisionist behavior, especially in illegally expanding its territorial control.

The aim of Australian policy is not to needlessly antagonize China. This is why, for example, it has to date been reluctant to conduct freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea. And it certainly does not seek to contain China. After all, China is Australia’s largest trading partner and source of investment. But while economic interdependence has enriched Australia and brought it closer to China, it has not placed Australia awkwardly on a fence between American and Chinese security preferences. Indeed, if economic interdependence with China forced states into a paralyzing dilemma over their security policies, Washington itself would have long ago retrenched from its regional commitments. Despite its undeniable economic reliance on China, on strategic policy Australia has made its choice. There is no fence-sitting.

What Are the Real Choices Left to Be Made?

Critics of the alliance warn that Australia should distance itself from the United States, in case the unthinkable happens – a war between America and China. Australia’s economic future lies with China, they claim, and Beijing has been known to exact retribution on the disloyal. But in a war, Australia need not fear economic retribution and could not avoid the economic consequences of such a conflict even if it was a neutral party. Such a war would be catastrophic for the world economy and if Australia maintains studied neutrality, or even sides with China, it will not be spared the inescapable, global repercussions of the tragedy.

In their preoccupation with the America vs. China shibboleth, Australian policymakers and commentators may be neglecting the increasingly urgent consideration of other choices.

Australia would face a tougher choice in case of a Chinese conflict with, say, Vietnam or Taiwan. Indeed, so would Washington. U.S. and Australian deliberations over intervention would depend heavily on their respective domestic political landscapes. With the memory of Iraq still fresh, many Australian alliance loyalists are still wary of the risk of entanglement in unnecessary conflicts. Canberra may limit its action to diplomatic demarches, rather than armed intervention. Opting out of such a limited expeditionary conflict remains firmly an Australian prerogative – one that Australia chose not to exercise (but which Canada did) in the Iraq war. Being an ally does not entail identical policies in every offshore crisis, and the alliance will survive such disruptions.

Absent a crisis, Australian policy will continue to support the liberal rules-based order. That policy usually implied congruence with U.S. policy, although, in the Trump administration, such congruence can no longer be assumed. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull recently proclaimed that Australia would continue to advance the liberal order, even in the absence of the United States. Thus, also, Australia finds itself working more closely with likeminded democracies, especially Japan and India, including with the resurrected Quad construct. The aim is not to lock in rival blocs, but to work with overlapping networks of aligned, like-minded states. On occasion, depending on the issue – including contingencies on the Korean peninsula – this may even extend to include cooperation with China.

This may be Canberra’s real choice in peacetime: choosing how to consolidate the liberal order in the absence of its putative leader. Broadening Australia’s strategic relationships is not a choice against the alliance. In fact, working with these other states – to support the liberal order and reduce the scope for revisionist states to use coercive leverage – builds on and reinforces the foundation laid by the U.S.-Australia alliance.

In strategic competition between its security guarantor America and revisionist China, Australia has made its choice. This is not cause for complacency – any alliance requires active maintenance to mitigate risks – and there are many opportunities for hard work to develop the alliance. It remains unclear whether economic interdependence can dampen that strategic competition. The outcome of that test is yet unknown – but we can say with certainty that it will affect not just Australia, but all of Asia, including China and the United States themselves.

Arzan Tarapore (@arzandc) served for 13 years in the Australian Defence Department, which included a diplomatic posting, working to directly support the Australia-US alliance, at the Australian Embassy in Washington, DC. He recently completed a PhD in the War Studies Department at King’s College London, and is now based in Washington, DC.

Image: State Department