Zhang Feng: The Australia-US Military Alliance is Not Permanent

How much of the Australia-U.S. military alliance is targeting China? This problem needs to be answered from two perspectives, that of the U.S. and of Australia as well. America’s primary strategic goal in the Asia-Pacific region is to repress China, and the Australia-U.S. alliance, like the Japan-U.S. alliance, is a strategic tool America uses to curb China’s rise. But does Australia think this alliance is mainly for controlling China? This is a complex question.

This author believes that it is not wise to see this alliance, or any alliance, as permanent. It is not to say the Australia-U.S. alliance has any serious cracks. Rather, it’s just that the partnership is not flawless. There are numerous examples to support this theory, one of which is a speech made by Julie Bishop, the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, at a conference held in the United States. Surprisingly, she only mentioned China once in the speech, and it was only when she talked about China also being a victim of terrorism, and not in any sense of controlling China.

When the Australian foreign minister does not mention the China factor in a speech about how to deepen the Australia-U.S. alliance, what does it mean? It means that America’s allies have their own considerations, too. Australia’s biggest worry is not China’s rise but the reach of extremism within its borders. The Sydney terrorist attack at the end of last year was already a sign, whereas the “Threat of China” is only in the imaginary future. Australia actually wants the Chinese economy to grow faster so that Australia can get a piece of the pie.

Can Australia firmly side with America in any China-U.S. conflict? This is an unknown. Last June, when ex-Australian Defense Minister David Johnston was asked whether terms in this alliance applied to the China-Japan conflicts in the East Sea, he replied that they were not applicable; such answers did not even create controversy within Australia. In comparison, back in 2004, when the defense minister then said the alliance may not apply to conflicts in the Taiwan Straits, his statement created a huge uproar within Australia. In the past 10 years, there have been qualitative changes in Australia’s strategic attitude toward China.

This is not only true on the governmental level. The Australian people do not believe Australia should become involved in China-Japan and China-U.S. conflicts either. When the Lowy Institute for International Policy recently conducted an Australia-China research poll which asked what Australia’s response should be when a China-Japan conflict arose and America supported Japan, most Australians opposed applying the Australia-U.S. alliance to conflicts over the Diaoyu Islands.

The Australian government and its people’s change of attitude toward China is profound. Of course, this does not mean that the Australia-U.S. alliance is showing cracks and that China can divide and conquer. What the alliance desperately needs now is not to control China but ways to react to global threats which affect Western societies’ safety and international status, especially terrorism. China can recommend measures to counteract global threats to help Australia and the alliance. In my view, the Australian government could only express welcome as a reaction. This is an important way to strengthen the China-Australia security relationship. When the economic relationship between the two countries is blossoming, improving the security relationship should be the next goal.

The author is an international relations scholar at the Australian National University.

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1 Comment

  1. The U.S. does not seek to contain China except when China threatens its neighbors as with its vast territorial claims. And as far as the U.S.-Australian alliance, it will endure because they are both part of the free world and have learned that they need to stick together to prevent others from trying to dominate them. China’s belligerence drives other countries more closely together, and does not scare them into submission.

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