ABC The Drum Online

By Tom Switzer

What's the big issue facing US-Australian relations in coming years? Judging by the media analysis in the lead-up to Tony Abbott's US trip this week, you might think climate change. Some will say free trade, especially President Barack Obama's proposal to create a 12-nation trans-Pacific partnership. Still others could point to the Arab world, where a "liberated" Iraq has slid into chaos and internecine conflict and led to the birth of a terrorist haven for a new generation of jihadists.

All are important issues that the Australian Prime Minister and the US president raised during their Oval Office meeting this morning (AEST).

But it is the People's Republic of China that is the number one priority for leaders and policymakers in Canberra and Washington. And on that subject, the key question remains: will Beijing's leaders continue to tolerate the powerful US strategic presence in the region, or will China try to drive a wedge between Washington and its regional allies and eventually force the US out of East Asia? 

Neither Abbott nor Obama spelt out this issue after their first formal bilateral meeting. But you can be sure that China was the elephant in the room.

In recent years, it is widely believed that China's so-called "peaceful rise" has given way to more assertive attempts to challenge the regional balance of power. In both the East and South China Seas, Beijing's goal has been to reinforce claims to specific territories. It is also to establish the position of the "Middle Kingdom" as the great power in the region whose demands must be respected.

There is nothing particularly odd with this behaviour: it is how rising great powers, including the US in the 19th century - conduct themselves as their power increases and their definition of national interests grows.

In the face of a rising China, the Americans - egged on by several allies (most notably Japan), as well as old foes (most notably Vietnam) and old colonies (the Philippines) - are intensifying their security presence in the region. So much so that the widely touted "pivot", or rebalance, to Asia reiterates America's strategic dominance that has ensured peace and prosperity in Asia for generations.

The danger is that such a stance could push an insecure China into an anti-foreign posture that has often characterised that nation since its defeat in the Opium wars in the mid 19th century. Accidents or miscalculations could spiral into dangerous confrontation.

Of course, there is always a possibility that China, faced with severe internal pressures - demographic, environmental, even the prospect of a serious economic downturn - will be so focused on holding together a disparate people that it is unlikely to be assertive abroad.

But the point here is that China could try to court neighbours with economic inducements as it uses its growing military muscle to assert a sphere of influence in the region.

The US alliance was rightly reaffirmed overnight. But one can be a supporter of the 63-year security relationship and still recognise that China's dramatic rise means different things for Australia and the US. For the latter, its main significance is the emergence of a potent geopolitical rival; for the former, it is the opportunity for a rewarding trade partnership. (Australia now exports more to China than the US by a ratio of more than 6-1.)

None of this, however, means that Canberra is faced with a hard, stark choice between China and the US. But it does mean our leaders will need to be more nuanced and qualified in their support for what Menzies called "our great and powerful friend".    

This morning President Obama declared that "Aussies know how to fight and I like having them in a foxhole if we're in trouble". To which Prime Minister Abbott replied: "Australia will be an utterly dependable ally of the United States."

Perhaps the truth, though, was revealed on ABC television a few hours earlier.

The Washington definition of a gaffe is when a politician inadvertently tells the truth. David Johnston may have met that definition last night on the ABC's Lateline. When pressed by host Tony Jones on whether the US alliance "commits Australia ... if the US is in a conflict in our region", the Australian Defence Minister said: "I don't believe it does."

When Alexander Downer made similar remarks 10 years ago, he was widely denounced, not least by the Americans, privately at least. At the time of writing, no one, including the Prime Minister, has clarified the Defence Minister's frank remark. Perhaps Johnston's response to Jones' important question has more significance for US-Australia relations than the White House meeting today.

This article originally appeared in The Drum Online.