Australia finds a new role as Sino-US matchmaker
Every year, Australian and US defence and foreign affairs ministers and advisers discuss security issues and how they both see the world. Last weekend, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates and the influential Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte met newly elected Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon and Foreign Minister Stephen Smith in Canberra to do just that. But this meeting was different: an occasion for Australia to show off its diplomatic middleman credentials.
A nation like Australia is, with its strong historical links to the US and its burgeoning economic and strategic relationship with China, well placed to perform a unique role - that of defusing the often tense atmosphere that characterises the Sino-US relationship. Under the previous administration of conservative prime minister John Howard, the interests of the US and Australia occasionally diverged. But, generally speaking, the personal closeness between Mr Howard and President George W. Bush stopped Australia straying too far from the American line on China.
But now that Mr Rudd is in charge, and Mr Bush is on the way out, that dynamic is changing. As was evident over the course of discussions between the two countries over the weekend, Australia clearly has a role to play in facilitating a more positive relationship between Washington and Beijing.
Mr Negroponte admitted that he and his colleagues were using the talks to learn from Australia about how to deal with the Chinese, particularly given Mr Rudd's extensive knowledge of China and his enviable list of contacts in Beijing. 'Exchanging views and analyses about the relationship with China' was high on the list of things to be discussed with Mr Rudd and his ministers, Mr Negroponte said late last week.
And Mr Smith took the opportunity of the talks to help his US colleagues understand that dealing with China is not simply a case of love 'em or hate 'em. 'It can be a win-win,' he said after the talks. 'We can have a very good economic relationship with China, which doesn't adversely impact upon our relationship with the United States. On the contrary, we encourage the US to have a good, positive, constructive dialogue with China.'
And it would appear that the Americans were listening. 'I don't think there's anything incompatible with developing an economic relationship with China and also managing our bilateral relationship and the alliance,' Mr Negroponte said. In other words, it is in American's interest that one of its closest allies gets on so famously with an emerging superpower in the form of China.
To put the weekend's events in context, one could argue that it is high praise indeed for senior members of the US government to be overtly seeking the assistance of a middle-ranking nation like Australia on the vexing issue of engagement with China.
There are some immediate issues where Australia could perform this middleman role. One that springs to mind is dealing with the disquiet in the US over the extent to which China is building up its military and nuclear capacity. The US thinks the Chinese are up to no good and they have some cause to say so. Blocking access by US warships to Hong Kong, as Beijing did in November, doesn't help matters.
Over the weekend, Mr Smith observed that he has already asked the Chinese to be more transparent about the extent of their military modernisation programme. Hopefully, the Chinese will listen. And, no doubt, Mr Rudd sees that he is well placed to help the Chinese and the Americans co-exist more comfortably in the Asia-Pacific region.
There has never been a better time for Australia to assert a genuine middleman role, given the respect in which it is held in Beijing and Washington. It has made a good start.
Greg Barns is a political commentator in Australia and a former Australian government adviser