By Xu Qinduo
Australia Defense Minister Kevin Andrews on May 22 directed criticism at China in a speech expected to usher in the country’s defense white paper later this year.
But when I put to him the question of whether Australia is going to send troops to patrol the South China Sea, Andrews lowered his tone. Instead of directly answering the question, he stressed, with a smile on his face, the principles of resolving those disputes through peace and dialog.
The subtle difference reflects Australia’s attempt to strike a balance between maintaining its traditional alliance with the United States and building a strong relationship with its largest trading partner, China.
On the surface, it unswervingly toes the line of U.S. foreign policies, but in reality, it’s hard to justify following the U.S. in lockstep, especially taking into account Canberra’s national interests.
A security alliance with Washington is paramount to Australia, which is often keen to demonstrate its loyalty to the U.S. For example, Canberra has sent troops to support the U.S. in every major military conflict since World War II.
But escalating tensions in the South China Sea as the U.S. threatens to send military aircraft and warships within the 12 nautical miles of Chinese territory put Australia on the spot when it comes to navigating between security and commercial interests.
Last month, the U.S. released video clips showing a spy plane flying over Chinese islands under construction. The Chinese military sent out warning messages eight times to drive the U.S. plane away.
The looming confrontation between China and the U.S. requires an immediate and likely different response, particularly in the wake of a Washington official speaking of sending B-1 bombers to northern Australia.
In an important note, Bob Carr, former Australian foreign minister, told News Corp. Australia, “Here is an area where our interests don’t coincide deeply with that of the United States.”
He said, Tony Abbott’s government, while “unabashedly pro-U.S.,” is resisting moves to be enlisted in Washington’s military pivot to the Asia-Pacific and is leading a “pragmatic trend” toward China.
Making his point clearer, Mr. Carr said, “It is not a crucial Australian interest whether a rocky atoll or reef somewhere in that sea is under Chinese or Vietnamese or Philippine sovereignty.”
Brenden O’Connor, from the U.S. Studies Center at Sydney University, also warned against being dragged into regional conflicts. He told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that the prominence of American troops in Australia was something that the country has to “think about a little more strongly” because of Australia’s increased engagement with Asia and China.
Yes, as said by O’Connor, on the other end of the balance is Australia’s significant and growing trade relationship with China.
In addition to trade, China is poised to inject more investment Down Under. The purchasing power of China’s expanding middle class means huge opportunities for Australia. More Chinese tourists and young students are traveling to Australia too.
Earlier this year, Canberra went ahead and signed up for the China-proposed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, despite phone calls from Washington opposing such a move.
The ruling out of hosting U.S. B-1 bombers is a further step Canberra took in line with its own national interests.
This article was originally published at Shenzhen Daily