Australia’s crucial role in preventing a Sino-American cold war in Asia

  • Richard Heydarian writes that Canberra has avoided appearing to tilt either to Washington or Beijing by turning itself into an Indo-Pacific strategic mediator
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 December, 2018, 11:15am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 December, 2018, 10:52pm

Not long ago, Malaysia’s outspoken Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad memorably dismissed Australia as a “deputy sheriff to America” that had little place in the community of Asian nations.

Only a decade earlier, the continent-nation was seen by many of its Asian neighbours as an outpost of the Anglo-Saxon world, a consummate Western nation awkwardly perched at the intersection of Southeast Asia and the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Today, however, Australia is seen as a critical stakeholder in the emerging security architecture across the Indo-Pacific.

Three elemental forces have driven Australia’s proactive engagement with Asia: fear, greed and hope.

It dreads the prospect of strategic isolation amid the rise of culturally distinct Asian nations, as well as the emergence of China as a truly global power now extending its influence onto Australia’s doorstep in the southern Pacific.

Then there is its intense desire to tap into the vast markets of Asia, which are hungry for Australia’s raw materials, high-end agricultural products and services.

And in recent years there has been a growing expectation that the country can play a crucial role in shaping and preserving an inclusive, free and open order in the Indo-Pacific region through engagement and cooperation with all relevant powers, including China.

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Despite its relatively small population of only 25 millions souls, Australia does matter. It has managed to punch well above its weight in international affairs.

And along the way it has gradually staunched wounds in its historically troubled relations with Malaysia and Indonesia.

Throughout the 1990s, Mahathir constantly expressed his dismay at Australia’s ill treatment of illegal migrants and its long history of institutionalised racism, including the White Australia Policy that aimed to exclude potential immigrants of non-European origin, especially Asians and Pacific Islanders. The practice only ended in the late 20th century.

Mahathir lashed out at Canberra for supposedly “talk[ing] down to Asia”. The Australian government “tells the Asians how to behave themselves, even when the Australians themselves are not very well behaved”, he told reporters in 1993. The remarks came after then-Australian prime minister Paul Keating described the strong-willed Malaysian leader as a “recalcitrant”.

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As for Indonesia, bilateral relations with Australia reached a nadir in 1999 when Canberra sent troops into East Timor for post-independence stabilisation.

This move was seen by many Indonesians as evidence of Australia’s effort to undermine the country’s territorial integrity. And along with Malaysia, a fellow Muslim-majority nation, Indonesia vehemently opposed Australia’s support for the Iraq War.

Australian foreign policy, however, took a decidedly Asia-oriented tilt under former prime minister Kevin Rudd, the country’s first Mandarin-speaking leader.

What followed was a renaissance in Australia’s economic and strategic relations – not only with China, but the broader Asian neighbourhood to the north.

The 2012 “Australia in the Asian Century” white paper, produced by the administration of former prime minister Julia Gillard, was a landmark document that underscored the country’s commitment to “a new phase of deeper and broader engagement” with its Asian neighbours.

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Describing Asia as the new centre of global geo-economic gravity, the paper ambitiously called for a “whole-of-Australia effort” where “businesses, unions, communities and governments” would become “partners in a transformation as profound as any that have defined Australia throughout our history”.

Far from just toeing Washington’s line, Canberra has increasingly adopted a sophisticated, independent-minded foreign policy, reorienting its strategic identity as an Indo-Pacific nation.

Amid rising Sino-American tensions, Australia has found itself, perhaps more than any other country in the region, at a strategic crossroads

Though Australia has advocated for international law, including the Philippines’ landmark arbitration award at The Hague, as a basis for resolving regional maritime disputes, it has rejected Washington’s call to conduct its own freedom of navigation operations against China in the South China Sea.

Advocating an inclusive regional vision that doesn’t cast Beijing as a threat and an outsider has been a key pillar of Canberra’s policy. Moreover, Australia believes that any stable regional security architecture recognises the role of middle powers, particularly India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. To this end, Australia has established itself as a key dialogue partner of Asean nations by hosting the inaugural Australia-Asean summit in Sydney, while upgrading strategic cooperation with India.

As Stephen Smith, a chief architect of Australia’s Indo-Pacific strategy, said in an interview: “I was persuaded that the rise of India as a great power and the rise of Indonesia … would cause the geo-strategic design [of the future regional order] to be more than simply the US, China, the Pacific and North Asia.”

For the former Australian defence and foreign minister, the future of the region shouldn’t be defined by Sino-American competition, which “must be balanced and managed so that [it] does not see the potential for misjudgment or miscalculation”.

In its 2017 foreign policy white paper, Australia underscored its commitment to “strong and constructive ties with China”, welcoming the Asian power’s “greater capacity to share responsibility for supporting regional and global security”. It underscores the country’s hope to “strengthen our comprehensive strategic partnership for the benefit of both nations”.

Amid rising Sino-American tensions, however, Australia has found itself, perhaps more than any other country in the region, at a strategic crossroads.

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It faces a difficult choice between tilting to its treaty ally (Washington) and assuaging its top trading partner (Beijing). So far, however, it seems that Canberra has chosen a third way, namely transforming itself into the ultimate “strategic mediator” in the Indo-Pacific.

This is a smart and constructive position, which makes Australia crucial in preventing a Sino-American cold war in Asia.

Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic and author