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Tuesday 22 Aug 2017 | 02:02 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 22 Aug 2017 | 02:02 | SYDNEY

Australia's slow-motion alliance choice



6 July 2012 17:28

The posts published yesterday by Andrew O'Neil and Malcolm Cook were each submitted without knowledge of the other, but taken together, they summarise pretty nicely the two sides of Australia's debate about the US alliance.

O'Neil warns that the economic and strategic forces shaping Asia may force Australia to choose between an alliance partner that might want to contain China and an economic partner that chafes against any suggestion of US-led containment. By contrast, Malcolm Cook argues that Australia's course has never been clearer. We don't have to choose between security interests and our desire to engage with Asia because both are pushing us in the same direction: the ANZUS alliance serves our bilateral relationship with the US and is increasingly in sync with other Asian powers.

There's a sting in the tail of Malcolm's post:

The fact that the People's Republic of China is outside this common Asia Pacific view and its assertive actions have helped forge this view should be seen primarily as a Chinese regional policy problem rather than a problem of the common view and the Asia Pacific powers who share it.

It's not unreasonable to take umbrage at China's assertiveness, but is it productive? Is the posture Malcolm advocates (it's China's fault that regional powers are coalescing against it; only China can fix this) going to get Australia the result it wants? And what are the risks should such a posture fail? Those are big questions because the downsides are substantial.

The alternative posture is that even countries with a real grudge against China will have to swallow their pride a little and make nice because teaming up against China is ultimately a losing proposition, given China's growth trajectory. That's not a risk-free approach either.

As Andrew O'Neil points out, we're unlikely to have to face this choice in one big lump; China has intruded on Australia's strategic landscape gradually, and short of some strategic shock, such as a war, we're unlikely to ever have to make a stark, black or white choice. To me, that suggests Malcolm Cook's view is likely to prevail. As Andrew points out, there's barely a more secure country in the world than Australia; is it likely that any country in that position would make the deliberate and reasonably radical policy shift of diluting a 'gold standard' alliance that has served it for 60 years?

I appreciate the strong arguments that favour doing just that. But I'm not talking about the merits; I'm talking about likelihood. Here's a question for the diplomatic historians out there: is there a precedent we can draw on to analogise Australia's alliance choice? Has any highly secure country ever consciously downgraded a long-standing alliance with a major power in order to accommodate another power?

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