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Student post: The Australian choice?

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8 October 2012 11:19

The Interpreter has coordinated with the Australian National University to offer a guest post to the best op-ed by an undergraduate taking ANU's Australian Security in the Asian Century course. The following piece is by Tiffany Sleep, a final year student.

In his new book, Hugh White suggests that Australia is caught between the US and China, two powers whose rising strategic competition will inevitably force Australia to choose one relationship over the other. Traditionally the analogy used asks, 'Who should be Australia's dance partner?' But given the difficult nature of the US-China relationship, what if we use another analogy, of Australia as a child caught between divorced parents?

This might at first seem demeaning to Australia but it does recognise the triangular nature of the US-Australia-China relationship and the choices made within this relationship. This analogy recognises that the child's bond with each of its parents in conjunction with the parents' rivalry provides the child with considerable benefits. In some circumstances the child is able to manipulate its parents in order to receive various incentives. Similarly the parents are able to manipulate the child for their own benefit.

In this analogy the US is Australia's mother. In its maternal role, the US provides Australia with stability, reassurance and protection. Both countries share democratic values and have similar moral and religious principles. The US also heavily influences Australian society with its soft power and popular culture.

However, along with nurturing and protection comes strict rules and discipline. The US expects Australia to strictly adhere to the terms of the ANZUS alliance. New Zealand's extinguished participation in the alliance is a constant reminder of the inflexibility of having an alliance with the US.

This leaves China as Australia's father. In its paternal role, China provides Australia with significant income. China's need for Australia's natural resources drives Australia's economy and has made mining one Australia's largest industries. China also acts like a father who overindulges his child, providing a constant stream of prosperity. This economic benefit has created a dependence that ultimately undermines the relationship Australia has with the US.

China recognises Australia's relationship with the US, like a father recognises the relationship his child has with their mother. China will protest when the US tries to manipulate Australia away from China. This was evidenced by China's reaction to the announcement of the Darwin deployments. China is very careful, however, not to discipline Australia for its move towards the US, for two main reasons.

First, China knows that any discipline it attempts to administer will drive Australia further toward the US. Second, lack of discipline allows China to play the role of the 'cool' parent. In this position, China is able to deliberately undermine the discipline enforced by the US through the ANZUS alliance. The animosity and tension that this causes creates a wedge in the relationship between mother and child.

Even if the split between the parents sours further, this analogy suggests that the idea of an absolute choice between the parents is illusory. The US recognises Australia's strong economic ties with China, while China also recognises Australia's long-standing security alliance with the US. Both countries in their parental roles would never coerce Australia, the child, into making such an unambiguous decision. And even if they did, in 10 or 100 years, both parents, given their geography, will still be in our region, and given their size, both will still be important economic partners.

Australia should not concern itself with having to make a choice. It should continue its child-like ways, and focus on how it can benefit from both relationships. As most children with divorced parents can attest, being fought over can bring abundant rewards.

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