Government and governance, International relations, National security | Australia, Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific, The World

28 September 2016

China’s assertiveness, tensions on the Korean peninsula, increasingly entwined economies, and the threat of terrorism all present challenges and opportunities for Australia’s relationship with the US. Daniel Fazio takes a look at how the alliance can survive and thrive in a changing world.

Australia and the US have similar rather than identical Asia-Pacific interests. These shared objectives and values have underpinned the successful management of their alliance since the 1951 ANZUS Treaty. The continuing alignment of Australian and US geo-strategic interests suggests the alliance will endure for the foreseeable future, but its management will be problematic if, or when, Australian and US interests diverge – and there are certainly some big challenges ahead.

The history of the alliance demonstrates its capacity to evolve and shows Australian and US officials have been adept at managing tensions. In the coming years, both countries will need to maintain management efforts irrespective of whether Clinton or Trump is in the White House. The superficial perception the alliance will remain strong under Clinton but weaken under Trump overlooks the nuance and potential tensions in the alliance. This is further compounded by the complexity of the regional geo-strategic dynamics.

Four factors present the Australia-US alliance with constructive opportunities in the Asia-Pacific, while at the same time containing inherent tensions that could test it.

China’s assertiveness, notably in the South China Sea island dispute, provides the biggest challenge. Much of the commentary about Australian foreign policy assumes the inevitability of an alignment with either China or the US. The more complex and problematic scenario awaiting Australian governments and policymakers will be maximising Australia’s interests amid Chinese and American attempts to co-opt Australia into serving their respective economic and strategic interests. Australia will likely sustain, and have to resist, US and Chinese pressure to avoid becoming a pawn in the rival regional power play between the two great powers and ensure its strategic and economic interests are met.

More on this: Australia’s foreign affairs song remains the same | Alan Tidwell

A full-scale conflict between the US and China is unlikely but the possibility cannot be dismissed. Any accidental or deliberate miscalculation or provocation can rapidly escalate into a catastrophic open conflict. Some diplomatic rancour is very likely but ultimately disputes will only be solved through constructive accommodation, and Australia can help by facilitating regular dialogue to ensure both the alliance with the US and the important relationship with China serves Australia’s interests.

The Korean peninsula has been a focal point of the Australian-US alliance since the two countries’ strategic interests converged there following World War II. Indeed, the US-Australian Korean engagement in the formative years of the Cold War was central to the making of the alliance. The interests of four powers – the US, Russia, China and Japan – intersect on the Korean peninsula and it remains crucial to Australian interests as well. The US has security alliances with South Korea, Japan and Australia. China, the US, Japan and South Korea are Australia’s top four trading partners. Unlike the US, Australia has diplomatic relations with North Korea and can use the US alliance and its relationship with South Korea, China and Japan to help facilitate dialogue to try and diffuse tensions over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, while also promoting Australia’s own agenda.

Security and defence co-operation and military diplomacy can significantly reduce regional tensions. Regular personnel exchanges, as well as joint and combined exercises between the armed forces of the US, China, Australia, Japan, South Korea and Indonesia will help reduce tensions by emphasising common interests and building trust and co-operation.

On the economic front, the prospects for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) appear problematic. Both Clinton and Trump are seemingly opposed to this trade treaty which now faces myriad US and regional obstacles. China’s exclusion from the TPP has heightened tensions between the economic and strategic interests of Asia-Pacific nations.

More on this: The upcoming Australian foreign policy White Paper | Policy Forum Pod

However, regardless of whether or not the TPP comes to fruition, Australia’s strong economic links with the US, China, Japan and South Korea will grow deeper. Indeed, economic diplomacy can significantly reduce tensions by integrating relationships among regional states. Australia’s regional links make it well placed to play a constructive role in economic diplomacy that will benefit its ongoing national interests.

Terrorism, too, presents not only challenges, but also opportunity. While it heightens fear and suspicion the threat of terrorism can be a catalyst for co-operation and unity among the Asia-Pacific nations. It is in the interests of all regional nations to successfully confront this danger. Australia’s alliance with the US and strong relationships with Asia-Pacific nations are solid platforms from which Australia can step up to play a unifying role confronting terrorist threats.

Indonesia is crucial to the fight against terrorism, and Australia can draw on the US alliance and its long-standing relationship with the Southeast Asian nation to forge greater co-operation between Canberra, Washington and Jakarta.

Australians must have faith and confidence that our governments and policymakers can and will pursue Australia’s best interests by managing the US alliance and other regional relationships. This provides the most constructive path for Australia to fully grasp the opportunities presented by the US alliance and the evolving geo-strategic dynamics on its doorstep in the Asia-Pacific.

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Fazio, Daniel. 2016. "Testing Times For Alliance - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.