Global Insight

November 17, 2011 5:36 pm

Australia-US security pact is not without risk

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Accord is a key episode in growing geopolitical contest

In 1942 the Japanese air force dropped more bombs over Darwin than they had used at Pearl Harbor, and in the process turned Australia into a rock-solid ally of the US.

On Thursday Barack Obama, US president, visited the same northern Australian town and recast the alliance for a new era.

The numbers of American marines to be based in Darwin may be modest but the strategic significance is not. The beefed-up security pact with Australia is a hugely important episode in the growing geopolitical contest between China and the US over the future of Asia.

For the last three decades Australia has served as a sort of early-warning system for the rise of China. To understand the impact China is having on the world, Australia has been a good place to start.

Prodded by some far-sighted diplomats, Australia was one of the first countries to wake up to China’s economic potential.

In 1985, then prime minister Bob Hawke took Chinese leader Hu Yaobang on a personal tour of the Pilbara, a remote stretch of western Australia with vast deposits of iron ore. In a way it was the start of the current commodities boom.

Since then ever-larger slabs of the iron-rich red earth have been transported to China to make the steel for China’s mammoth urbanisation.

Australia’s think-tanks and universities have many of the best China-watchers in the English-speaking world, and in Kevin Rudd it had the first Chinese-speaking prime minister of a western country (Mr Rudd is now foreign minister).

But Australia was also well-ahead of the pack in being rattled by Chinese state-owned industry. In 2009 Stern Hu, an Australian citizen of Chinese origin who worked for Australian miner Rio Tinto, was arrested by the Chinese authorities on charges of stealing state secrets.

The charges were later reduced to industrial espionage and Mr Hu admitted to taking bribes, receiving a 10-year prison sentence. But the suspicion lingered that his prosecution was partly the result of a fierce dispute between the miners and Beijing over iron ore prices.

Given the central importance of China to its economy, Australia might have been expected to drift away from its close links with the US, which were forged in the heat of the second world war. “You could not get much closer to China than we are,” Geoff Raby, the former Australian ambassador to Beijing, used to joke. “But we will.”

Yet the fact that Canberra is doubling-up on its defence alliance with Washington is one of the most powerful indicators of the way that Beijing has unnerved the rest of the Asia-Pacific region over the last few years with its more abrasive diplomacy.

While Mr Obama was in Australia, Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, was in the Philippines, another regional neighbour which has watched Chinese behaviour with growing apprehension and which is celebrating a 60-year security pact with the US. She agreed to provide Manila with a new warship.

The calculation in Canberra and other capitals around the region is that they can continue to have it both ways – trading freely with a booming China while benefiting from the security umbrella provided by the US. With a greater show of unity and renewed American engagement in the region, these countries hope, China’s more disruptive instincts can be curtailed and the Asian boom will continue apace.

But all that assumes the geopolitical rivalry between the US and China does not escalate. There is another potential future that could await Australia which would involve more painful choices.

Suppose one of the skirmishes between Chinese and American ships in the South China Sea were to escalate. With US marines and kit on its territory, Australia could find itself pulled into a conflict between its security guarantor and its main market.

Some in China have not been slow to make the same point. “Australia cannot play China for a fool,” an article in the nationalist Chinese tabloid the Global Times said on Wednesday. “One thing is certain – if Australia uses its military bases to help the US harm Chinese interests, then Australia itself will be caught in the crossfire.”

Australia would then find itself blazing another geopolitical trail, as one of the first countries to be squeezed between the two great powers of the age.

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