What price friendship?

Greg Barns-1

US Vice-President Dick Cheney stood before an audience in Sydney on Friday and let China have it between the eyes.

He began by praising Beijing for its role in bringing about an agreement with North Korea over nuclear technology.

But then he added that 'other actions by the Chinese government send a different message. Last month's anti-satellite test [and] China's continued fast-paced military build-up are less constructive and are not consistent with China's stated goal of a peaceful rise'. In that test, a ballistic missile launched from the ground destroyed a Chinese weather satellite.

Mr Cheney was addressing the Australian-American Leadership Dialogue, a private organisation that promotes ties between the two countries.

The next day, Australian Prime Minister John Howard was asked whether he agreed with the vice-president's criticism of China.

He cleverly avoided endorsing Mr Cheney's remarks, by emphasising Australia's closeness to both China and America. Mr Howard said his government has, over the past decade, been able to build 'a very constructive, understandable relationship with China', while remaining realistic about the fact that China 'remains an authoritarian country'.


Washington's apparent fears about China's rise as an economic and strategic power could one day put pressure on a key foundation of Australian foreign policy: namely, its military and strategic alliance with the US, which has been in place now for over 60 years.

On this occasion, Mr Howard was able to neatly sidestep any disagreement with Mr Cheney's rather pessimistic view of China, but that may not be so easy in the future.

That point was made 18 months ago by Doug Bandow, a former adviser to US president Ronald Reagan and a former senior fellow with the Washington-based Cato Institute.

In 2005, Mr Bandow said on Australian radio: 'Australia has to ask the question, if you want to be linked with the US in military terms, what the US will probably want is a commitment in terms of dealing with China.


'And then ... basically Australia has to make a decision - is that worthwhile or not?'

Canberra might have to ask itself that question if, for example, the US military asked its Australian counterparts to take part in joint exercises in the Pacific region as part of a China-containment strategy.


Mr Bandow was careful not to say that Australia should turn its back on the US, in favour of China.

Rather, he implied that Australia should not allow itself to be a mere proxy for US policy on China and North Asia generally.

The challenge for Canberra when it comes to dealing with China, he said, is to work out whether Australia's core interests differ from those of the US.


If the US headed down the path of seeking to contain China, then the answer to that question would surely be 'yes'.

Mr Cheney's tough talk on China last week seemed to indicate that there are still some in the Bush administration who think a US policy of containing China might not be a bad idea.

On the same day that Mr Cheney took his swipe at Beijing, his colleague, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, said he suspected 'that the Chinese are probably spending more on their military than will be reflected in the state budget'. Further, there 'are developments under way with respect to the Chinese military capabilities that are a concern', he said.


Canberra would surely not want to feel obliged to join any American approach to China that emphasised containment.

Australia's long-term interests would be much better served by continuing the current friendly, pragmatic and co-operative relationship that has been developed with Beijing over the past few decades.

Not only is their economic relationship important to both countries, but Australia and China must also co-exist in the same region, whereas the US does not.

Greg Barns is a political commentator in Australia and a former Australian government adviser