Australia looks for balance to China’s rising power in Indo-Pacific region

Canberra’s Foreign Policy White Paper says Beijing is challenging US dominance in region as existing order comes under increasing strain

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 November, 2017, 2:24pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 November, 2017, 11:27pm

Australia is seeking to work more closely with the major democracies in the Indo-Pacific as it calls for a greater US role to provide a balance to China’s increasing power in the region.

The country’s Foreign Policy White Paper, published on Thursday, reiterated the country’s support for the United States as it warned that the security network that it had relied upon in the past was under increasing strain given the shifting power dynamics.

“To support a balance in the Indo-Pacific favourable to our interests and promote an open, inclusive and rules-based region, Australia will also work more closely with the region’s major democracies, bilaterally and in small groupings,” it said, adding Australia will enhance coordination with Japan, Indonesia, India and South Korea.

“Our alliance with the United States is central to Australia’s approach to the Indo – Pacific,” it said, “Today, China is challenging America’s position.”

The White Paper, unveiled by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, is the third one in Australia’s history.

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“In the past we could safely assume that the world worked in a way that suited Australia,” Turnbull told reporters on Thursday in Canberra. “Now power is shifting and the rules and institutions are under challenge,” he said.

“We are experiencing unprecedented prosperity and opportunity but the liberal, rules-based order that underpins it all is under greater stress than at any time since its creation in the 1940s.”

The White Paper also warned that “political alienation and economic nationalism are on the rise in many countries”, warning that powerful countries were “ignoring or undermining international law”.

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The “Indo-Pacific” label, which US President Donald Trump used during his recent trip to Asia, recalibrates the focus on the region by moving the emphasis away from China – the key actor in the “Asia-Pacific” region – towards India and the Indian Ocean.

The idea of the quadrilateral security initiative of “like-minded” democracies was first raised by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2007 but, wary of their relations with China, India and Australia hesitated to take part initially.

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The Chinese Foreign Ministry earlier said regional cooperation should neither be politicised nor exclusionary.

Xu Liping, an international relations expert from Chinese Academy of Social Science, said the call for a strong US role in the region reflected global changes.

“The American First policy advocated by Trump administration weakens the traditional US-Australia alliance and makes Australia afraid; and as Beijing continues expanding its economic, diplomatic and military might, it’s wise for Australia to adopt a more agile and flexible strategy in coping with Beijing,” said Xu.

A meeting between the US, Australia, India and Japan on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Manila earlier this month raised the prospect of a bloc emerging to counter China’s strategic expansion.

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The White Paper said Australia was “particularly concerned by the unprecedented pace and scale of China’s activities” in the South China Sea, where mainland China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei all have competing claims to sovereignty.

“Australia opposes the use of disputed features and artificial structures in the South China Sea for military purposes. Elsewhere in the region, Australia is concerned about the potential for the use of force or coercion in the East China Sea and Taiwan Strait.”

The paper said Australia will continue to make engagement with China a priority, but called on Beijing to share responsibility for supporting regional and global security.

“Closer engagement will be accompanied by friction arising from our different interests, values and political and legal systems.

“Regular and substantive engagement at senior levels will be essential to achieve our ambitions for the relationship,” it said.

Additional reporting by Bloomberg