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Australia no longer home alone

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COMMENTS

20 June 2012 09:15

The Asian Century conversation chips away at one of the deep-seated sources of Australian insecurity: the sense of being home alone.

The good news for Australia in the Asian Century is that we are all in this together. This is not just feel-good, team-building stuff; it reflects the hard numbers of geo-economics and the hard power calculations of geopolitics.

The sense of regional 'oneness' is being massively helped by the toughest strategic issue of all: the US and China. Look around: everyone else is grappling intensely with the same issue. And in many cases, the conundrum presents in a similar form. The challenge everyone faces is well summarised by Singapore's Defence Minister, Ng Eng Hen:

The political, economic and cultural ramifications of a newly-empowered Asia are bound to impact existing security and economic relationships. One stark present example illustrates this: China is currently the largest trading partner of ASEAN, Australia, Japan and South Korea, while the United States remains the dominant resident security power in this region. This divergence of economic partnerships and defence relationships will challenge existing alignments among nations.

Because it is an election year in China and the US, that starkness is a prominent and unsettling element of the intimately intertwined security and economic spheres.

For Australia, the dilemma is presented as the first time our major economic partner is not also an alliance partner. For Asia, render this as the tension between the relationship with the traditional security guarantor and the region's new paramount economic power. The power shift is palpable and everyone feels it.

Australia's Asia Century discussion has shown a range of understandings of the basic point that it will be such a century for us because we will share it with Asia. This has some value beyond statement-of-the-obvious cliché or truism because it reflects a significant shift in the Oz psyche.

In the past, Australian understanding of the uniqueness of this continent has translated into a belief that many of our geopolitical problems are as unique as our geography. The 'home alone' element in this basic belief was well conveyed in the book titles of leading Australian diplomats after the American defeat in Vietnam, including Malcolm Booker's 1976 tome The Last Domino and Alan Renouf's The Frightened Country from 1979.

In the same territory, Paul Hasluck wrote in 1980 that Australia was 'without a perch' on the international stage, raising significant questions about the nation's 'situation, resources, risks, opportunities and options...we are not sure of our own identity nor fully acceptable politically to other member nations in the geographic region to which we belong.'

In the decades since, the shift has been from talking about Australia as a unique outsider towards ideas of belonging, membership and partnership; in Dick Woolcott's wonderful phrase, to an Australia that is 'the odd man in'. To turn around Hasluck's metaphor, Australia now has a perch on the same tree as everyone else. It may be a puzzling place to be, but at least we have a lot of other birds to talk to.

A shared quandary, of course, does not always produce similar answers. Yet Australia is not alone in putting new effort into convincing the Americans that we like having them around. A lot of other birds in the Asian aviary are showing more public affection for the American eagle. Thus, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta gave his keynote speech in Singapore on the US military rebalancing towards Asia and then flew on to visit those important new partners, Vietnam and India.

Australia differs from some of the other players in the formal and enthusiastic expression of its affection for the US as the benign military hegemon. Nick Bisley makes a big but eminently arguable call when he judges that the Australia-US alliance is in the best shape of its 60-year history:

The Australia-US alliance has been politically tightened, operationally engaged for over a decade, and subtly adjusted to respond to the changing international environment. The political foundations in Australia are very robust and the alliance is likely to retain its current centrality over the longer-term. Australia has hitched its strategic wagon very firmly to the United States. But such a close commitment has knock-on consequences for the rest of Australia’s foreign policy. Whether in its dealings at the United Nations or its relationship with China, managing the externalities of its close relationship with the United States will be a central, and at times difficult, task for Australia’s diplomats in the future. Australia, the United States, and other regional allies, must also recognize the risk that placing such an emphasis on continued American military predominance is likely to increase regional friction, particularly with China, and steps should be taken to establish mechanisms for minimizing these risks.

Just beefing up the US alliance is not going to be enough to steer Australia through the Asian Century. But an important element of the dilemma is that it is widely shared.  And in considering equations produced by a declining America and a rising China, many in Asia are showing a certain Oz-like enthusiasm for the US. Perhaps a fragment of Hilaire Belloc echoes through their minds: '... always keep a-hold of Nurse, For fear of finding something worse.'

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