As China Rises, Australia Asks Itself: Can It Rely on America?

As China Rises, Australia Asks Itself: Can It Rely on America?


The arguments come against a backdrop of concerns over China’s growing influence in Australia. These include allegations of Chinese meddling in Australian universities and news stories about ethnically Chinese businessmen with connections to the government in Beijing giving generously to election campaigns.

Australia’s heavy reliance on iron ore and energy exports to China has long raised questions about the need to diversify its economy. However, dependence on China has only grown, as an influx of Chinese students and travelers now also helps to sustain the higher education and tourism industries.

Australia has tried to balance its growing economic dependence on China with its longstanding post-World War II security relationship with the United States.

But China’s assertive behavior in the South China Sea, and Mr. Trump’s decision to abandon the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the trade pact America once sought to lead, have rattled the underpinnings of Australia’s policies.

Australia’s leaders have gone beyond the white paper’s careful reassurances, openly declaring that Australia must confront the shifting power dynamics of the region.

Mr. Turnbull has called this the first time in Australia’s history that its dominant trading partner was not also its dominant security partner. He argued that the country should see this as an opportunity and not a risk, but his comments were also laced with uncertainty and concern.

“Now power is shifting, and the rules and institutions are under challenge,” he said. “The major players are testing their relationships with each other, while undergoing rapid change themselves.”

Foreign policy experts say the white paper’s assessment of American staying power does not reflect a growing consensus among many Australian policymakers that the United States, at least under its current leadership, cannot be relied on as a stable partner.

Michael Fullilove, executive director at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, described what many Australians see as a fraying of the liberal international order because, he said, “the president of the United States is neither liberal in his inclinations nor orderly in his behavior.”

Many say it’s time for Australia to stop pretending about American intentions, and begin considering other options. This view has found one of its clearest and most strident voices in Mr. White, whose 27,000-word essay bluntly argues that Australia needs to wake up: The game is over and China has already won.

“We all underestimated China’s power and resolve and overestimated America’s,” wrote Mr. White, who worked on sensitive intelligence and military matters with the United States as a senior official at the Australian Defense Department. “Not only is America failing to remain the dominant power, it is failing to retain any substantial strategic role at all.”

Photo

President Trump with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in New York this year. The Australian government says it can still count on American support.

Credit
Al Drago/The New York Times

In reply to the government’s paper, Mr. White said Australia’s stance was unrealistic because it clung too much to the vestiges of a fading power that would not be able to stay ahead of China’s economic strength.

“The paper has an elegiac feel, the sense of a sunset,” he said in an interview.

The biggest splash came from Mr. White’s recommendations for what Australia should do about an American retreat. Faced with what he called Chinese efforts to impose its influence and different political values, he said Australia will have to do more to defend itself, including perhaps even one day acquiring nuclear weapons.

He said China’s rise is likely to spark an arms race in the Asia-Pacific, with both Japan and South Korea likely to become nuclear powers within a couple of decades.

“And the logic that drives them has implications for others,” Mr. White said. Australia could remain a middle power, he said, by keeping only a small nuclear arsenal. “It might look something like Britain’s submarine-based nuclear force,” he wrote.

American officials have tried to counter such conclusions. During his visit to Sydney in April, Vice President Mike Pence told Australian business and government leaders that the United States remains Australia’s most vital economic partner, with American investment growing by 50 percent in the past three years.

Another sign that Washington may seek to reassure its Australian allies has been talk of the possible appointment of Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., the United States commander in the Pacific, as the next ambassador to Australia. Some American officials have said they would welcome the move because it would send a message to China that the United States will not retreat.

Australian media have chimed in, calling Admiral Harris “China’s least favorite American.” Still, it’s far from clear whether that would be enough to offset the deep concerns here about President Trump.

Australia has also tried to hedge its bets by reaching out to other democracies in the region, particularly Japan and India. Citing concerns about China’s advance into the South China Sea, the government’s white paper backed the idea of joining India, Japan and the United States to promote a free and democratic Indo-Pacific region that could offset China.

In China, the Foreign Ministry took offense at the comments about the South China Sea, saying Australia had no business meddling. The state-run Global Times suggested China might retaliate with boycotts in tourism and higher education.

“Fortunately, the country is not that important and China can move its ties with Australia to a back seat and disregard its sensitivities,” the newspaper said.

In his essay, Mr. White warned that Beijing could use its growing naval power to ramp up pressure by contesting Australia’s claims to remote pieces of Australian territory, such as islands that it controls in the Antarctic, or by deploying forces to South Pacific neighbors, where China enjoys good relations.

Analysts sympathetic to the Turnbull government have pushed back, saying Mr. White’s essay paints an overly alarmist picture.

“While many of the trends in the region are concerning, White underestimates America’s stake in the region,” said Andrew Shearer, who was an adviser to former Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Mr. White is “is premature in reaching the conclusion that President Trump will acquiesce to Chinese supremacy, and that the United States is already withdrawing.”

Still, the essay performed a useful service, Mr. Shearer said, by drawing attention to the rapidly shifting balance of power in Asia and the need for a more coherent response by Washington.

Some Chinese analysts said Mr. White may have overstated China’s success in the region. “The U.S. is still very much wanted and needed by regional countries, including Australia. The white paper makes that clear,” said Zhang Baohui, professor of international affairs at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.

But by 2030, Mr. Zhang said, China will have won the geopolitical race. “Everyone will then live under the shadow of Chinese power,” he said.

America does not get entirely short shrift from Mr. White. “It won’t be the dominant power in Asia,” he wrote, “but it will have both the means and the motive to exert some influence over China’s conduct — including in East Asia — through the global system in which it will play a key role.”

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