01.09.2014 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Australia’s Confusion in the Modern Regional Game


Australia is rarely mentioned in European political science journals. It’s an exotic prosperous country, a paradise for tourists, located just on the opposite side of the globe – that’s what an average European recalls of this continent-state, and all this is generally true. But recently Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott has provided us with a reason to turn our attention to this country by lecturing Russia on its “behavior” in the Ukraine crisis.

Meanwhile, Australia – cannot be regarded as a state of little importance in the global political game. Today, this country belongs to the list of averagely important players. It has proven over a hundred years ago during the days of the First World War that it is a forced to be reckoned with. The Australian Expeditionary Force formed the backbone of the operation in Gallipoli that nevertheless ended disastrously.

Australia took an active part in the battles of World War II as well. Over the last decades, the Australian armed forces have been following persistently all the military adventures of its geopolitical allies.

Australia’s role in world affairs is increasing gradually as the center of gravity of the Euro-Atlantic area undergoes a major shift towards the Asia-Pacific region. With a total population of just over 25 million people, Australia today occupies the thirteenth position in the world in terms of GDP.

Its armed forces are relatively small (52 thousand people currently serving, with a possibility to mobilize up to 4 million people from reserves), but they are modern.  Australia spends around 30 billion dollars on its military operations across the globe which means that its military spendings are ranked twelfth in the world. Of the five military-political alliances that the US had formed in the Pacific Rim, the most effective military support to its actions on the international stage is being provided by Australia – one of the participants of ANZUS (the abbreviation stands for  The Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty).

It’s no wonder that Australia  is frequently referred to as a”regional deputy sheriff.” Most likely, it will continue carrying out the role of a policeman in the region, despite the accelerating process of “normalization” of Japan, a much more powerful ally of the United States in the Asia-Pacific region. For Tokyo  plays a key role in the region that won’t be limited to the blind following of the US foreign policy.

However, in the last 10-15 years Australia has encountered a complex dilemma in choosing the optimal “Grand Strategy”. Apparently it would rather have a foreign policy that would be most consistent with its national interests.   Any country, just like any individual, is facing a common list of concerns. You need to ensure that you are able to build a house that would be cozy and comfy. In addition, one would be willing to avoid any external threats in order to protect its well-being and life itself.

If we apply this logic to the “Grand Strategy”, we will notice that in order to achieve the above stated goals one has to deal with two components:  economic development and the security of the country. The problem is that these components of the “Grand Strategy” do not always meet and sometimes they are in direct contradiction with each other.

The majority of the South-East Asian (SEA) countries are facing the same concerns that Australia does. The transformation of China into the world‘s second economy and the world’s largest trading nation boosted economic development of a number of nations. China is the major trading partner of the Southeast Asian countries, and their economic progress is determined by the state of bilateral relations with their powerful northern neighbor.

But at the same time the very factor of Chinese presence, which includes an increasingly noticeable twist of a military componentwith China claiming that 80% of the South China Sea belongs to the PRC, is perceived by the majority of Southeast Asian countries as a threat to their national interests. In order to balance the power of China, these countries are encouraging the presence of the United States in the region, along with India and Japan, the fundamental geopolitical opponents of the PRC.

But Australia is presented with the most dramatic and increasingly uncompromising dilemma in finding the optimal “Grand Strategy”. The economic and social prosperity of the country is based on the sale of Australian minerals (mainly iron ore and coal) to China.

The scale of bilateral trade exceeds a staggering (for Australia) one hundred billion US dollars. China is the major trading partner of Australia, hence Canberra is highly interested in maintaining a state of relatively trouble-free relations with Beijing. At first glance it doesn’t seem like rocket science since the Australian continent lies beyond the border of territorial disputes between China and its neighbors in Southeast Asia.

However, we must not forget that Australia is in an alliance with the United States and, therefore, can not ignore the factor of US-China relations, the state of which is still defining the political climate in the Asia-Pacific region. Although in recent years the political component of these relations prevails and the level of confrontation keeps dropping, but the prospect these relations are hardly identifiable.

The disinclination of Washington when it comes to going into an armed conflict with China over “unimportant” concerns seems fairly obvious, and one of those are the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

But is the Taiwan problem a similar “non-significant” matter for the US? Should we be waiting for an armed intervention in case Beijing runs out of patience in the further implementation of Taipei‘s strategy of strengthening its current status as a de facto independent state? The Taiwan Relations Act that was adopted by US Congress in 1979 leaves the executive branch with a certain freedom of interpreting the developments in the Taiwan Strait and the nature of possible American “responses.”

But if Washington decides to go all in, what should Australia do in this situationThe extremely sensitive Taiwan issue leaves Australian experts clueless as how Canberra respond in case of a new conflict within U.S.-China relations. The very prospect of being faced with a choice between the primary military and political ally and the source of economic well-being is sending shivers down experts’ spines.

Like almost everywhere in the world, in Australia one can observe the phenomenon of “split elites” Therefore, a possible response to such a scenario will depend on the affiliations of the ruling party. While the center-right National-Liberal coalition is in power (in the periods 1997-2007 and from 2013 to now onthe “anti-China” sentiments govern the foreign policy of Australia.

The National-Liberal coalition is always talking about the need to form some quasi-military alliance involving the United States, Japan and India, about the need to support the expanding American military presence on the Australian continent, and sign agreements with Japan on military-technical cooperation. The latter option has become more viable after the lifting of self-restricting rules on military-technical cooperation with other states Japan had adopted on April 1.

During the periods when the Labour Party is in power (2007-2013) the tendency of strengthening constructive relationships with China becomes apparentIt has manifested itself especially clear (and somewhat extravagant) during the term of office of the former Prime minister Kevin Rudd (2007-2010).

And yet, the opportunity to avoid a foreign relations “nightmare” in the Asia-Pacific (as well as all other countries in the region) is largely out of the reach of Australian politicians. This matter fully depends on the relationships between the major regional players.

As noted above, there‘s a number of reasons to be cautiously optimistic. Among them one may name the attempts to restore bilateral contacts made by Japan and China in recent months. 

Vladimir Terekhov, leading research fellow at the Center for Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the Russian Institute of Strategic Research, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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