Balancing Australia’s strategic interests in the Asia-Pacific

Balancing Australia’s strategic interests in the Asia-Pacific

Australia has attracted criticism for failing to align its economic and strategic military interests in the Asia-Pacific region.

In the past Australia’s merchandise trade with the US weighed more heavily than its trade with China. This legitimised Australia’s ‘best friend’ military status with the US. However, China’s emergence as a global economic powerhouse has shifted Australia’s economic priorities and, according to some, put Australia in a hypocritical situation.

The ANZUS treaty signed in 1951 formally created the Australia – US defence alliance. Under this treaty, Australia and the US are required to consult on mutual security threats, and coordinate their actions in responding to common dangers.

The bilateral defence relationship between Australia and the US was strengthened further last year following the signing of the Force Posture Agreement. This initiative authorises the stationing of 2,500 US Marines and Air Force personnel in Northern Australia, and foreshadows increased aircraft and naval cooperation.

The closeness of the defence relationship between Australia and the US has caused uneasiness in the Asia-Pacific region. When the Force Posture Agreement was first announced in 2011 as part of the US ‘pivot’ toward Asia, concerns were raised by some of Australia’s Asian neighbours.

Concerns have also been raised about Australia’s deepening military ties with Japan given Japan’s conflict with China in the East China Sea. Although there exists no bilateral defence obligation between Australia and Japan, they share space surveillance intelligence and Australia is currently negotiating purchase of ten Japanese Soryu class submarines.

It has been argued Australia’s defence alliances with the US and Japan are inconsistent with its economic interests. China, after all, is Australia’s largest merchandise trading partner.

Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last year pointed out the duplicity in Australia benefitting from Chinese trade while expecting the US to defend it against Asian threats. In an interview with Fairfax Media, she warned Australia that increased reliance on China as a trading partner ‘makes you dependent, to an extent that can undermine your freedom of movement and your sovereignty, economic and political.’

But do Australia’s military and economic interests necessarily need to be aligned?

Australian Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, has claimed that Australian military interests are already aligned with Australian economic interests, and that there is no incongruence between interests, given the importance of both US trade and investment to Australia.

But this seems silly. Why should Australia need to pick the US over China as its best friend? Regardless of which economy is more important to Australia in strictly dollar terms, the three economies share dependent trading relationships and trade between them is integral for collective economic success.

Like economic prosperity, regional security cannot be obtained simply through a bilateral agreement. All countries in the Asia-Pacific should cooperate if they are to effectively defend the region against emerging threats.

Australian and Chinese defence forces have commenced joint humanitarian assistance and disaster relief exercises demonstrating a willingness to act cooperatively. Australian leaders have also foreshadowed the possibility of joint military cooperation between Australia, and China and the US.

Multilateral cooperation, not preferential bilateral agreements and alliances, are needed to ensure stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region.