On a very relative scale, Australia can be grouped into the ‘second or third’ level players in terms of significance in the political game unfolding in the Indo-Pacific region. This group could also include Pakistan, Iran, and South Korea. And the main players are undoubtedly the United States and China.
The significance ascribed to Australia above allows the country to be viewed, on the one hand, as an object impact of ‘heavier’ players’ strategies, while on the other hand, it plays no small role as an autonomous participant in this regional action.
Realpolitik illustrates both of Australia’s ‘hypostases’. Its state as an ‘object’ can be seen in how the country is currently performing very uncomfortable geopolitical splits, as it finds itself in a military and political alliance with the United States while being significantly dependent on the economic prosperity stemming from the development of trade and economic ties with China.
Evidence of Australia’s status as an actor is seen in the country’s unwavering (15 years running now) participation as a full-fledged member of various anti-Chinese military and political projects. Periodically, for example, the work of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue — or ‘Quad’, composed of the US, Japan, India, and Australia — is made obsolete.
Such ‘swings’ in this project can be explained by efforts by the United States and the People’s Republic to clearly aim to avoid the possibility of ending up in a zero-sum game, in which the trajectory of events in the region are leading them (unavoidably, it would seem). Efforts to slow the slide of Sino-American relations into an unmanageable state are expanding the maneuverability for players in Australia’s ranks.
Experience from the past two months shows that Australia has, with some success, used its ability to maneuver. The country’s partial shake-up of its ministers cabinet at the end of August gives this process fuel. Assuming the government helm as prime minister is Scott Morrison, a Liberal Party member just like the previous prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull.
With a certain degree of caution, one could suppose that the new ruler, while demonstrating in every way a commitment to the alliance with the US (and to a quasi-alliance with Japan), is more inclined to develop relations with China than his predecessor was.
This latter tendency was supposed to be on display during a November 8 visit to Beijing by Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne (Minister for Defense under Turnbull), coupled with the results of her talks with Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi. However, the Associate Press’ use of the term ‘thaw’ in its commentary was perhaps excessively emotional since there were no noticeable ‘frosty’ relations. Quite simply, the enormous volume of bilateral trade (which reached $175 billion in the 2016-2017 fiscal year) continues to be dominated by Australian exports to China of raw goods, primarily coal and iron ore. However, repeated bilateral statements on the need to increase cooperation in the hi-tech sector and the flow of Chinese investments to Australia (Beijing is only Canberra’s ninth-largest partner), have not led to noticeable results on the ground.
As it were, on the eve of Marise Payne’s arrival in China, the Australian government rejected a bid by a Chinese-Hong Kong consortium to obtain just under half of shares in the Australian gas company APA group (worth $9 billion), a company that also works on innovations in the renewable energy sector. Marise Payne, “welcoming Chinese investment in Australia”, indicated that in this particular case, the government couldn’t allow “an excessive concentration in the hands of a foreign owner” of stocks to the largest gas transportation company in the nation.
Something similar was said two years prior, when a Chinese state electric grid distribution company was not allowed to acquire 50.4% of stock in the Australian company Ausgrid for a similar amount of $7.7 billion.
In August of this year, ZTE and Huawei, among the world leaders in modern communications systems, were not allowed to operate in Australia.
Judging by these events, the new government of Australia is also contented with this type of trade and economic relations with China, despite the rhetoric referenced above.
In a recent study by the non-governmental Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), the lack of a consistent approach towards a China policy was noted, as well as a certain competitiveness for its economic, defense, and political components.
It is noted, as well, that the policy is not bifurcated, but rather disintegrated into interest groups. As way of illustration, on October 25, the State of Victoria (Australia’s second most populous and economically significant state) signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Chinese ambassador in Canberra on the subject of connecting the state to China’s New Silk Road (NSR) project.
Unsurprisingly, ASPI’s work received a negative reaction in China, where its contents were deemed to be another example of “Western” paranoia regarding a non-existent “Chinese threat”.
But whichever way you slice it, there is no reason to suspect any “disloyalty” from the country’s central government when it comes to its obligations to its allies. Australia is a leader of the nominal “West” in strategic opposition with China for control of the South Pacific sub-region and the islands states located here.
Australia participated in yet another meeting to revitalize (or rather, cool down) the aforementioned Quad. The magic action was completed on November 15 in Singapore on the sidelines of another summit of East Asian countries. However, based on the level of representation (the US Department of State, for example, only sent low-ranking officials), even the participants don’t seem to believe in the longevity of this project.
However, it may become relevant again, but only if the objective process of China becoming a global superpower is definitely perceived by all members of the Quad as a threat to vitally important interests.
But, to repeat, even the Quad’s leader, the USA, isn’t leaving efforts to find compromise in resolving problems in Chinese relations. The same can be said about the other three participants, including Australia.
As such, one can stipulate that the Quad is actually winding down as a military-political project. However, it should not be excluded that the meeting in Singapore didn’t act as a survey regarding the possibility of reformatting it into an alternative to China’s NSR. And on this note, on July 31, the foreign ministers of the United States, Japan, and Australia agreed to jointly finance infrastructure projects in the Indo-Pacific Region.
At the November 13 meeting in Tokyo between US Vice President Mike Pence and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, both parties decided to create a $70 billion fund to invest in such projects “from the shores of the Indian Ocean to the West Coast of the Americas”. They also once against brought up the need to create an alternative to China’s NSR.
Finally, a trip to Australia taken by Mr. Abo after participating in the Singapore summits, is worth mentioning. At the center of Mr. Abe’s discussions with his Australian counterpart, Mr. Morrison, were the differing take-aways from the 2+2 Australian-Japanese talks between the countries’ ministers of foreign affairs and defense that took place October 10 in Sydney.
During his visit, Abe visited Darwin, which suffered under Japanese bombing in 1942-1943. The destruction was more extensive than during the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor. In addition to his visit to the memorial dedicated to these sad events, Abe inspected the work at the development sites of Ichthys’ biggest underwater natural gas field (drilling and transporting gas to the shore through an 800 km pipe, liquefying the gas and filling sea tankers with LNG). The project is being conducted primarily by Japanese companies, while the French company Total is also contributing. The first tanker carrying LNG departed Darwin at the end of October of this year.
There are reports of preparations for joint training of both countries’ air forces in the north of Australia. Its name — Bushido Guardian — perhaps contains a bit of British humor, but considering what happened in Darwin 75 years ago, it borders on masochism.
Overall, the events of the past several weeks involving Australia show that countries of the same level of significance still have room for maneuvering while the two main players continue their oppositional stances towards one another: chest to chest, nose to nose.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on issues relating to the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”