A Tilt Toward China? Australia Reconsiders Its American Ties

In August 2012, Australian professor Hugh White released The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power. White argues that America—unchallenged as the preeminent power in Asia since the Second World War—now has three basic options in the face of growing Chinese power: contest leadership in Asia, voluntarily cede primacy, or establish a regional concert of great powers. Historically, the foundations of American primacy have been built on unparalleled economic size and strength. For White, these foundations are crumbling, and future peace and stability depend on Washington being prepared to step back and accept China as its strategic equal in Asia.

In the face of what is often called a rising “Asian Century,” White’s proposal is more serious than it might first appear. And as America’s closest ally in the region, with power in its own right, Australia has some influence over Washington’s course. If China overtakes America as the world’s largest economy over the next decade, as former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating noted in endorsing White’s book, the People’s Republic will want and expect more “strategic space,” which Australia, in White’s argument, could benefit from advocating. Moreover, the idea of urging America to treat China as a strategic equal should also be understood as an attempt at a policy response in the face of some very difficult questions ahead for American security allies and partners in the region. China has emerged as the largest or second-largest trading partner of every major country in Asia, including Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, India, and Australia. This trade dynamic exists uncomfortably alongside the fact that China is allowed very little strategic role in the region, with countries preferring to outsource their security to America. In May 2012, a retired senior People’s Liberation Army officer, Song Xiaojun, reflecting cynically on these tensions, told Australian newspapers that leaders in Canberra cannot juggle diverging security and economic interests indefinitely and may find it necessary to eventually reconsider Australia’s “godfather” in the region. With such a potential decision looming ever larger, it is no wonder that White’s proposal that America share power and strategic responsibilities with China—reducing pressures for regional countries to make such a portentous choice—is seen by many as a viable option.

In Australia, fretful officials, from Prime Minister Julia Gillard to Defense Minister Stephen Smith, have explicitly rejected White’s argument. But as a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Bob Hawke and the principal author of Australia’s Defence 2000 white paper, White is highly regarded—and by no means sympathetic to the Australian left’s knee-jerk anti-Americanism. His thesis has significant support, including from Keating, the former Labor prime minister, and Malcolm Turnbull, recent leader of the conservative opposition in Parliament and still a prominent MP. White’s arguments for a regional concert of powers have also generated strong support from the mainstream press, and from business groups—especially in the mining sector—who believe that backing America’s “strategic competition” is an unnecessary distraction from the wiser policy of seeking closer economic relations with China.

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The small but influential support behind The China Choice has been dismissed by some as a quirky agreement between former Australian politicians and officials who have little relevance to current policy. After all, China’s major trading partners mentioned above have all deepened or reinforced strategic and military relations with America in the period of increased Chinese assertiveness in the Pacific from 2009 onward. Australia remains the staunchest of American allies, recently agreeing to a rotation of up to twenty-five hundred US Marines in Darwin that was announced during President Obama’s visit in November 2011. In contrast, China has few allies, with the possible exceptions of North Korea, Cambodia, and perhaps Pakistan—none of which could be considered genuine strategic assets. Russia is at best a noncommittal partner; even Myanmar is creeping away from Beijing’s demanding embrace.

Yet Australian strategists and commentators are debating in public what many of their Asian counterparts are already considering privately. Most Asian states are in a wary holding pattern, hedging their bets by moving closer to America without decisively climbing aboard Washington’s slow-rolling bandwagon. They hope that American budgetary problems will be temporary while double-digit growth in Chinese military spending will not last, but they are prepared to be wrong. Meanwhile, Australia’s commodity-driven economy remains intimately tied to Chinese economic growth. Therefore, the conduct and resolution of the frank and open debates in Canberra about America’s and China’s futures in Asia—and how best to position itself amongst these giants—should be viewed as the proverbial canary in the mineshaft, an early-warning indicator of sorts, by Washington.

White himself is no fan of the Obama administration’s so-called pivot back to Asia, which has been a chief indication that America isn’t ready to relinquish its dominant strategic role. Instead he urges Canberra to do all it can to persuade America that maintaining primacy is all but impossible and that forming a stable concert of great powers is the region’s best prospect for peace and stability. But it will be an awkward conversation. As the argument goes, a stable concert of powers—à la the hundred-year peace that steered Europe until the outbreak of the First World War—can only be achieved if Washington is prepared to step back and accept Beijing as its strategic (and moral) equal in Asia, and this, so far anyhow, the Obama administration seems unwilling to do.


In some ways, the American military has never been more welcome in Asia than it is today. America has more than seventy-five thousand military personnel deployed in Asia and the Pacific (excluding Guam, a US territory), mainly in Japan and South Korea, but spread throughout seventeen countries in the region.

America has maintained bilateral alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, Thailand, and the Philippines, in addition to its de facto alliance with Taiwan. It has a close security relationship with Singapore, a longstanding security partnership with Malaysia, and is reforging a partnership with Indonesia. All of these countries offer America generous access to bases, ports, and sovereign sea-lanes, and openly support America’s military and diplomatic presence in the region.

Even former adversaries now appear to be friends. Since final approval of the US-India nuclear deal in 2008, which effectively legitimized India as a nuclear power, naval cooperation between the two countries has deepened. Vietnam is also embracing the American presence, having offered Cam Ranh Bay as a repair-and-supply facility for US naval vessels with the promise of more regular access in the future. Indeed, China continually accuses America of perpetuating a Cold War–era mentality by virtue of the alliances it has forged and the military deployments it has made throughout the region.

The popularity of the American presence should not be surprising. Asia has more rising and prosperous littoral states than anywhere else in the world. In peacetime, the US Navy is expected to guarantee the safe and orderly passage of sea-based economic activity. This includes protection against piracy and other asymmetric threats in Asia’s coastal seas, which can disrupt economic activity. In times of prospective war, the Seventh Fleet is expected to cooperate with other partner states to deal with threats in terms of deployment and actual use of military force.

The importance of the US to peace and stability in Asia, and of Asian countries to the US, is highlighted by the fact that the Asia-Pacific region holds seven of the world’s ten largest armed forces and five of the seven US mutual defense treaties (with Japan, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, and Australia). Paradoxically, the Chinese accusation that America is an “interloper” in Asia as a result of the historical accident of the Second World War actually plays to Washington’s advantage. As a geographically nonresident power, Washington relies on the explicit acquiescence of other regional capitals to maintain its forward deployments. Key states and regional groupings such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are hardly bullied into seeking security relationships.

Indeed, there is broad-based regional approval of American alliances with Japan, South Korea, and Australia, as well as for American security partnerships with other countries such as Singapore. Outside Beijing and Pyongyang, these bilateral security relations enjoy widespread support and legitimacy as stabilizing arrangements in the region.
Since America requires the acquiescence of regional powers to play its current security role, Washington is in some meaningful sense structurally bound to provide public security goods freely and impartially. In this context, the Seventh Fleet is kept on a relatively tight leash, and ugly-American behavior considered taboo. The same could not be said for a dominant Asian power that would not require acquiescence of its allies to remain preeminent to the same degree. In other words, American geographical distance adds to its regional appeal.

But just as acquiescence can be granted, it can also be withdrawn. America’s strength could be transformed into vulnerability without a shot being fired in anger. In the early 1990s, the American naval base at Subic Bay, in the Philippines, was the largest supply-and-repair station for the US fleet in the region, until domestic disputes eventually led to a permanent American withdrawal in 1992. A more recent example is the dispute over the American air base on the Japanese island of Okinawa, which deepened when Yukio Hatoyama, of Japan’s Democratic Party, came into power in 2009 having campaigned on a platform that included removal of the American presence from the island.

The overwhelming majority of American military assets in Asia reside in established liberal democracies, and political and strategic elites in those countries broadly welcome the American presence at present. But they can only continue to do so, over time, with ongoing popular support. Washington should be aware that any wavering in this support could have dramatic consequences for its security role in the region.


Back in Australia, The China Choice looms, as does the fear that a network of alliances with the US does not constitute a long-term, stable solution for the region’s future. Although White’s recommendations are widely criticized, including by this author, the ongoing Australian debate—and the amount of intellectual oxygen White’s thesis has taken in—offers a rare insight into the evolving regional zeitgeist, given that it is an open, honest, and blunt discussion about the future of America in the region unencumbered by the usual euphemisms and deference. As meetings with senior officials in capitals throughout Asia confirm, the discussion is being closely monitored. Every one of these allies and partners is facing the same China dilemma—and privately speculating about future options and alternatives. The strategy of hedging, by way of deepening strategic relations with America, cannot be assumed as a permanent status quo for the region.

Moreover, a decade of Chinese “charm diplomacy,” beginning in the 1990s, won Beijing more than a few hearts—if not many minds. Increased engagement helped make China a more active member than the US in regional institutions, reinforcing the notion of China’s peaceful and constructive rise. Australia’s decision to welcome an enhanced American strategic role in Asia, it is worth noting, comes on the back of significantly increased Chinese assertiveness in the region, from 2009 onward, over territorial claims in the East and South China Seas and American and South Korean naval activities in the Yellow Sea. That Beijing’s public relations gains could be so easily undermined through a couple of years of rash and aggressive policy not only shows China’s real intentions but also serves as a warning that Washington could experience a similar loss in popularity if it does not conduct itself properly.

In the annual authoritative poll released by the Lowy Institute in Sydney on overall attitudes toward other countries, America achieved a score of seventy-one (on a scale of zero to one hundred) with only New Zealand receiving a higher rating of eighty-five. This was an increase from a rating of sixty in 2007. Americans would also welcome the result that eighty-seven percent believed that the alliance with America was either “very important” or “fairly important” for Australia’s security.

However, these attitudes fluctuate wildly under the influence of current events. At the height of the war in Iraq, which was highly unpopular in Australia, only fifty-eight percent felt “positive” toward America. Significantly, in 2005, a majority of Australians polled were “more concerned” about America’s foreign policies than China’s. Remarkably, only twenty-one percent of Australians polled agreed with the proposition that Australia should honor its alliance commitments by joining an American war over Taiwan. But by the time of the 2012 poll, seventy-four percent of Australians were in favor of the announced American troop rotation in Darwin, indicating a revival in the popularity of the ANZUS alliance, the agreement among Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. But it is much less likely that any Australian government would have had the political will to forge such a deal to host US Marines in the middle of the previous decade of negative feelings, even if strategists from both sides of the Pacific Ocean demanded it.

In Japan, fluctuations in the public’s view of America, and ambivalence about the alliance are also evident. In 1995, the rape of a schoolgirl in Okinawa by American servicemen brought much negative attention to the “social costs” of hosting American troops, leading to an eighty-five-thousand-strong, nationwide protest against the American presence. In 1999, the North Korean launch of a missile over Japan raised many doubts about America’s ability to protect the island ally. A poll in 2000, conducted by Gallup and the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, captured the ambivalence toward the alliance: 41.8 percent of respondents did not trust America, compared with 44.5 percent who did. More recently, in August 2009, just before being elected as Japan’s prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama authored a now famous opinion piece for the Japanese monthly journal Voice in which he mused about the declining influence of America and wondered, “How should Japan maintain its political and economic independence and protect its national interest when caught between the United States, which is fighting to retain its position as the world’s dominant power, and China, which is seeking to become one?”

Hatoyama’s piece resonated with a population that had nervously watched the deepening economic turmoil in the advanced economies—in contrast to Chinese economic growth that continued virtually unabated on the back of a massive stimulus program. Although Hatoyama’s proposed solution of an integrated East Asian community (which excluded America) did not ultimately come to much, it is further evidence that America’s system of bilateral alliances with Asian democracies cannot endure without broad-based consensus that the alliance is in the country’s best long-term interest.

It is worth noting that White’s thesis has some serious defects of its own, as readers have noted. For example, there is little evidence that “sacrificing” Taiwan would permanently satisfy Chinese ambitions, particularly in the South China Sea, as the author suggests. Such a surrender will more likely give Beijing a larger strategic gateway into the Western Pacific and seriously undermine the credibility of America as an alliance partner, thereby diluting America’s strategic role by a greater margin than was ever intended. Recognizing Indochina as a Chinese sphere of influence, another of White’s criteria, makes little moral or strategic sense. Vietnam would never agree to it; trying to negotiate Chinese suzerainty over the Vietnamese will engender rather than subdue conflict in that part of the region. More broadly, there is little guarantee that elevating China as an American equal in Asia would lead to greater Chinese contentment. After all, China sees itself as the permanent “Middle Kingdom” in Asia, and America as a foreign power. Over time, rising powers always tend to want just a little more.

Yet the region by and large supports the notion that we have entered an “Asian Century,” and no one wants to be left behind if a sea change does occur. Australia’s Gillard government has even released a white paper called Australia in the Asian Century, outlining how the country can best benefit from the shift of economic power from West to East, focusing on China, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, and India, but excluding America from the analysis.

Many Americans I have spoken to insist that the emerging milieu is more accurately termed the “Pacific Century.” They may be right. China’s economy has serious defects, and its current authoritarian system may well preclude it from offering genuine public security goods to the region. Even if China continues to rise, proposals such as Professor White’s that America cede its primacy in the region remain premature at best, and, at worst, not fully thought through. But White’s thesis shows that nothing any longer is guaranteed in the Pacific. America should remain watchful and attentive—and work overtime to convince allies that a Pacific rather than an Asian Century is at hand and that it has the staying power to help define its course.

John Lee is the Michael Hintze Fellow and an adjunct associate professor at the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney and a nonresident scholar at the Hudson Institute.

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