ABC The Drum Online

By Tom Switzer

What do Paul Keating, Malcolm Fraser, Hugh White, Bob Carr, Malcolm Turnbull, Mark Latham and Kerry Stokes have in common?

Although they express themselves in different ways, they all raise concerns that Australia is in the process of mismanaging, even damaging, relations with the People's Republic of China. Canberra's decision to upgrade military ties with our closest security ally, the argument goes, runs the risk of damaging relations with our most important trade partner.

Meanwhile, both sides of federal politics are unqualified advocates of the US alliance. Both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott even express faith in the notion of American exceptionalism. Earlier last year, a teary-eyed Prime Minister told a joint session of Congress that "you can do anything". Last month, an enthusiastic Opposition Leader told the Heritage Foundation, a leading Washington think tank, that "America needs to believe in itself the way others still believe in it."

My own view, for what it is worth, is that although the US alliance - the centrepiece of our foreign policy for more than six decades - will endure, it will change in the coming decade.

It will endure for two reasons. For one thing, the benefits include favourable access to technology and intelligence, as well as the all-important security insurance policy.

For another thing, the need for "great and powerful friends" (as Sir Robert Menzies often put it) is deeply imbedded in the national psyche. Since independence from Britain in 1901, Australia has always sought a close association with a great power with which we share ideals and interests.

It is for these reasons that the US alliance, as Lowy Institute polling demonstrates every year, attracts widespread support in the Australian electorate. But the nature of the alliance will also change, and in ways that neither Labor nor the Coalition recognises. Why? For two reasons: the decline of America and the rise of China.

Start with US foreign policy. Although both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are champions of American global leadership, the "American Century" - the idea coined at the height of World War II to describe US global pre-eminence - is drawing to a close. One does need to be an isolationist or non-interventionist, like Ron Paul and Pat Buchanan on the right or Michael Moore or Noam Chomsky on the left, to recognise that Washington should end the kind of expensive global leadership role that has defined US policy in the post-war years and re-order the fiscal priorities in favour of internal affairs.

Last week, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs revealed its annual survey of American public opinion and US foreign policy. It found that increasing numbers of Americans are opposing a global leadership role for their nation. Its conclusion:

The lesson many Americans took away from the Iraq war - that nations should be more cautious about using military force to deal with rogue nations - appears to be taking hold more broadly.

Meanwhile, Washington will continue to place more emphasis on how to reduce its skyrocketing levels of debts and deficits that are eroding US economic power, which is the foundation of military power.

Yet an ambitious and interventionist foreign policy is incompatible with that goal.

All of this means that Washington will increasingly place more emphasis on recognising limits to power in a more plural international environment. The days of a Pax Americana are fading fast. There's another reason why our alliance with Washington will change: China. Its explosive economic growth is undoubtedly the most significant geopolitical development of recent times. Its military budget is rising by nearly 10 per cent per year, and Beijing is likely to translate more of its economic wealth into strategic assets.

There are, of course, risks and uncertainties involved, not least demographic. As John Howard often argues: "China will grow older before it grows richer."

But the fact remains that, even allowing for a sharp slowdown, at some point in the next decade, China will become the number one economy (though obviously not in per capita terms), and this could presage a more assertive China in the region.

So, what does all this mean for Australia?

Well, we are not faced with a hard, stark choice between China and the US. But our political leaders, as former ABC Boyer lecturer Owen Harries and I have argued elsewhere, will learn to play a more demanding diplomatic game than ever before, one that will on occasion involve the difficult feat of riding two horses simultaneously.

This means that instead of the straightforward virtue of unconditional loyalty that has served Australia until recently, Canberra will need to become more ambiguous, discriminatory and qualified in our commitments.

For example: although there is no case for withdrawing from the US alliance, there are good reasons to refrain from enhancing military cooperation between Canberra and Washington. This is especially the case at a time when US economic and political trouble represents serious structural decline. Why not let our record in the alliance speak for itself?

Nor is there any case to march in lockstep with the Americans in a misbegotten venture in tribally divided medieval societies. Notwithstanding the noble role our Diggers and diplomats have played in Afghanistan, the fact is the returns from our intervention will not justify the investment.

As former Bush administration official Richard Haass acknowledged recently: "There is going to be sand castles on the beach [when we withdraw]; the waves are going to come and wash them away."

So instead of always leading the cheer squad, Canberra will need to cultivate some of the skills of the helpful passenger. These include encouraging careful steering, some timely map reading, a judicious use of the brakes and, not least, better road manners.

As with all efforts at back-seat driving, it is unlikely that such advice will always be gratefully received in Washington. But it would serve the national interests of both Australia and the US. And it should assuage Beijing's leaders that Canberra is not part of any plan to encircle and contain our largest trade partner.

This article originally appeared on The Drum Online.