Commentary | 10 June 2014

Australians back close friendship with America amid China tensions

Australians back close friendship with America amid China tensions

Rory Medcalf

The Age

Please click here for full online text.

  • Rory Medcalf

Australians back close friendship with America amid China tensions

Rory Medcalf

The Age

Please click here for full online text.

  • Rory Medcalf

Executive Summary

Former Australian prime minister Malcolm Fraser has called the United States a "dangerous ally", proposing nothing short of the extraordinary step of breaking off one of America’s closest alliances in the world.

New polling confirms that most Australians disagree. As Prime Minister Tony Abbott heads to the United States next week, no doubt to reaffirm the bonds between Canberra and Washington, he can be confident that on this issue at least his policy is popular.

But there is another edge to the data. The poll could be also read as a reminder for Australia to do its utmost to influence the shape of the alliance and US foreign policy more generally so that it continues to serve Australian interests in a changing world.

First, the facts. In its 2014 poll of Australian public opinion on foreign policy, the Lowy Institute has found that 78 per cent of Australians think the alliance is important for the nation’s security, with 52 per cent saying it is very important and 26 per cent saying it is fairly important.

This is consistent with a trend, set out in previous annual polls, of very strong public support for the alliance over the past five years.

Bear in mind that these results are based on nationally representative samples: this year comprising 1150 interviews.

The answers should hardly be surprisingly. It is fair to speculate that a large number of this country’s citizens have become increasingly concerned about the strategic changes under way in Indo-Pacific Asia, including the uncertainties surrounding the rise of a powerful China.

Current tensions such as the China-Vietnam confrontation over Beijing’s placement of an oil rig in disputed waters in the South China Sea are likely to sustain such anxieties.

While the new opinion poll ranks China essentially equal with Japan as this nation’s best friend in Asia, it also illuminates what many Australians would seem to see as the limits of such friendship.

It is extraordinary, for instance, that 48 per cent of poll respondents think that China is likely to become a military threat to Australia within the next 20 years.

This is at odds with much expert opinion; the idea of Australia having to fight a major power single-handedly has tended to remain outside this country’s mainstream foreign policy debate.

But even beyond such scenarios, the poll reflects concern about what a stronger and more assertive China will mean. When asked to consider threats to Australian vital interests over the next 10 years, 41 per cent of respondents described "the development of China as a world power" to be a critical threat.

This is to not to deny that China has legitimate reasons to develop military power, or that its economic development has benefited a large portion of humanity – albeit amid repression worst exemplified by the Tiananmen massacre 25 years ago yesterday. Nor is it exactly clear why in the future China would seek by military means the dominance it may be striving for through economic ones. 

Still, it is reasonable to conclude that a large number of Australians see the US alliance as insurance against whatever a powerful China may mean for the region and the world.

None of this means that Mr Fraser is a lone voice. In the poll, 26 per cent of respondents described "US foreign policy" as a critical threat to Australia’s interests in the decade ahead. Interestingly, this is similar to the percentage who did not consider the US alliance important for Australia’s security.

In other words, although most Australians still back the alliance, a substantial minority worry about where alignment with US defence and foreign policies might take us.

One perennial criticism of this or indeed any alliance is: can an ally truly be counted on to equate its own interests with its partner’s, to deliver on promises in times of need?

Presumably US allies in this part of the world – not only Australia, but also Japan, the Philippines and others – were listening nervously last week to President Obama’s speech at West Point, in which he identified limits to US willingness to go to war, and said little about Asia.

But he insisted also that the security of allies remained a US "core interest", and Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel affirmed America’s opposition to coercion and intimidation in Asia when he spoke last weekend at the Shangri-La regional security dialogue in Singapore.

As for ordinary Australians, a very convincing 85 per cent believe it is likely Australia will still be able to rely on the US security guarantee in five years’ time, with two-thirds still confident this will be the case 20 years from now. 

Of course, none of this is reason for inertia or complacency among our political leaders and defence establishment. The future is unknowable, and an Australia more capable of providing for its own defence will also be a more reliable ally and more likely to be listened to when offering counsel on America’s own strategic direction.

Rory Medcalf is director of the international security program at the Lowy Institute.