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Australia hedges bets on US in foreign-policy balancing act

China's rise prompts new outlook from longtime Washington ally

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop shake hands at the end of a June 5 press conference in Sydney (© Reuters)
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop shake hands at the end of a June 5 press conference in Sydney (© Reuters)

SYDNEY -- A new foreign policy charter drawn up by the Australian government reveals a key U.S. ally beset by doubts about America's staying power in Asia yet clinging to the hope that its role will survive the turbulent presidency of Donald Trump.

In an effort to anchor the U.S. more firmly in the region, Australia is prepared to expand the basing of American forces in its territory and engage even more closely with U.S. high-tech weapons systems, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told media ahead of the launch of her department's new Foreign Policy White Paper.

The paper, issued on November 23, is the first since 2003, when an earlier conservative Liberal-National coalition government reappraised its foreign policy. Drafted by diplomats and intelligence specialists, the new paper addresses Australia's fears about the changed Asian order over the intervening 14 years, giving emphasis to military-strategic balances.

By contrast, a white paper called "Australia in the Asian Century" published by the previous Labor government in 2012 was written by two leading economists and talked up the opportunities for an Australia located handily close to the region's growing middle classes. This paper was effectively shelved by the coalition when it came to office in 2013.

The divergent approaches illustrate split thinking in a country which has one third of its trade with China along with strong Chinese investment, and a foreign policy based on a military alliance with the U.S. formed in the Second World War. Until the rise of Chinese economic power, there was no such dilemma as Australia's major Asian trading partners such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan were also aligned with the U.S.

Concerns have deepened since Trump came to office a year ago, dumping the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, ramping up military threats against North Korea in response to nuclear and missile tests, blowing hot and cold on China, and for a while questioning U.S. defense guarantees for Japan and South Korea.

Some senior figures like former conservative Prime Minister John Howard have argued the alliance will survive leadership vagaries, in Australia's case because of the defense treaty known as ANZUS and the "Five Eyes" intelligence-sharing pact with the U.S., Britain, Canada and New Zealand.

"Those people who are talking about the need for some kind of radical recasting of our attitude towards the United States forget the reality that this is a relationship so deeply embedded in history and sentiment that it survives changes of personnel both in Canberra and Washington," Howard told the national broadcaster ABC earlier this month.

Others suggest it's time for Australia to assert more independence. The former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating, now an investment banker advising Beijing's state-owned China Development Bank, said Australia should cut its "tag-along"  foreign policy, while the U.S. should shift from a "hegemonic" role to a "balancing" one in Asia.

"We've got to this almost sort of crazy position now where the American alliance, instead of simply being a treaty where the United States is obliged to consult with us in the event of adverse strategic circumstances, has now taken on a reverential, sacramental quality," he said in the ABC interview, adding this attitude was also prevalent in some sections of the Labor Party.

While he wanted to see the U.S. alliance continue, "what we have to do is make our way in Asia ourselves with an independent foreign policy," he added. "Our future is basically in the region around us in Southeast Asia. We'd actually be more useful to the United States, by the way, if we were doing these things."

China concerns

The new white paper argues that without U.S. political, economic and security engagement in the region, power would shift too rapidly to Beijing, to Australia's detriment. The changed balance of economic weight already sees China challenging the U.S. as the dominant power.

China's rise will bring economic benefits, it says, but Beijing would also seek to use its newfound regional influence to suit its own interests, citing the territorial disputes in the South China Sea that formed a "major fault line" in the region.

"Australia is particularly concerned by the unprecedented pace and scale of China's activities," the white paper said. "Australia opposes the use of disputed features and artificial structures in the South China Sea for military purposes. Elsewhere in the region, Australia is concerned about the potential for the use of force or coercion in the East China Sea and Taiwan Strait."

Canberra will seek to strengthen relations with China because of its "capacity to influence virtually all of Australia's international interests," and will urge it to "exercise its power in a way that enhances stability, reinforces international law and respects the interests of smaller countries."

But to act as a counterweight to China, the white paper said the U.S. needs to stay engaged in a region Canberra now joins Washington in calling the "Indo-Pacific," which it defines as a hemisphere from the U.S. itself to the Indian subcontinent.

Australia already hosts a U.S. Marine Corps taskforce for six months each year, plus periodic exercises involving other American units. The white paper suggests this presence will be expanded. "To support our objectives in the region, the government will broaden and deepen our alliance cooperation, including through the United States Force Posture Initiatives," it said.

The document does not spell out what these measures will be, but in recent times the home-porting of a U.S. aircraft carrier group in Perth, facing the Indian Ocean, has been mooted as one option.

This is a policy for a country that has decided that the U.S. cannot be relied upon to protect the regional order

Peter Hartcher, Sydney Morning Herald's international editor

The white paper said Australia would also seek to expand its relationships with the four major democracies of Asia -- Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and India -- as well as other nations in Southeast Asia. In her interviews, Foreign Minister Bishop said she would not frame this diplomacy "in terms of hedging" but as operating "in addition to our support for US global leadership."

With Japan, the white paper refers to a "special strategic relationship" that would see deeper military and intelligence ties. It also gives explicit support to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's recent steps to reinterpret the constitution to expand the ambit of the country's Self-Defense Force. "Australia supports these reforms and Japan's efforts to improve its security capabilities and to play a more active role in the security of the region," it said.

Usually the work of many hands and rewrites, white papers typically aim not to cause offence or alarm. This one, from the initial reaction of foreign policy analysts, conveys the deep sense of a region in transition.

"This is a policy for a country that has decided that the U.S. cannot be relied upon to protect the regional order," wrote the Sydney Morning Herald's international editor, Peter Hartcher. "It doesn't envisage an Indo-Pacific region without America. But it implicitly accepts that region has already lost American leadership."

Bob Carr, a former Labor foreign minister and state premier who now heads the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney, said the background notion of "waiting out Trump" was mistaken, as he was unlikely to be succeeded by a liberal internationalist, given the shifts of both major U.S. parties to populism.

"We need to work harder at understanding this huge transformation in America," Carr said. "It's mistaken for Australia to imagine that at our urging America is going to pour military resources into Asia. They are probably at their high point."

Allan Gyngell, a former chief of Canberra's peak intelligence body, the Office of National Assessments, said the white paper did actually include calls for more self-reliance. "I like the emphasis on the need for us to actually get off our behinds and do things ourselves," he said. "There's quite a lot of that in it."

It also included recognition "things are changing," said Gyngell, now a professor at the Australian National University's Crawford School of Public Policy. "It's not an effort to pretend that big things are not underway and to hold back those forces, while doing it in a framework which is very familiar to Australian governments reaching back 40 years or so."

However Gyngell said he would not be rushing to change the title of his recent, much-acclaimed history of Australian foreign policy since 1942: Fear of Abandonment

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