Pivoting towards Asia
Australian and American style
by P. R. Chari
Australian and American style
by P. R. Chari
The American and Australian responses to India’s nuclear tests in 1998 might be recollected. The United States was greatly miffed with India and took the lead in widening the sanctions against India’s civilian nuclear programme. But Australia went further to break off its relations with India and expelling Indian officers doing courses in Australia’s military educational institutions.
Australia’s behaviour is entirely explicable. During the Cold War its dependence on the United States was complete. It joined all the anti-eastern bloc military alliances promoted by Washington. They included ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand and United States) that continued between 1952 and 1986. Also, SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation) comprising Australia, France, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, the United Kingdom and the United States, which functioned between 1954 and 1977. Both these Treaties were designed to provide for mutual defence of the signatories. And ANZUS and SEATO were unequivocally focused against China and the former Soviet Union.
Proceeding further, Australia has been unapologetic about its dependence on the United States. But there are nuanced differences in how this dependency relationship is perceived by its western and eastern regions. Briefly, the populous western and southern states have a Pacific orientation, and are more greatly inclined towards the United States. But eastern Australia looks expectantly towards Asia. Canberra is constantly balancing these domestic imperatives in framing its foreign policy. The rise of China, alongside the decline of American power, but renewed aggressiveness by both countries in seeking their national security has necessitated rethinking in Australia’s worldview and foreign policy.
Indeed, its White Paper (2012) was, significantly, titled “Australia in the Asian Century”. It appreciates Asia’s remarkable growth, and the inevitability of its becoming the world’s largest producer and consumer of goods and services. It is also the most populous region, and will soon be home to the majority of the world’s middle class. The Asian century is Australia’s opportunity. The need for minerals and energy will be the most visible concomitant of Asia’s rise, and speaks for Australia’s strength. The White Paper highlights five key areas for pursuit by Australia. Briefly, they include building on its skills and education, innovation, infrastructure, tax and regulatory reform; developing scientific and technical excellence, adaptability and resilience, and a deeper understanding of Asian cultures and languages; Australian firms developing new business models and new mindsets to connect with Asian markets; supporting sustainable security in the region by strengthening bilateral cooperation through existing regional mechanisms; and strengthening Australia’s broad social, cultural, political and economic relations across Asia.
Despite the return of President Obama to the White House, neo-conservative opinion across the political spectrum believes that a clash between a non-democratic China and a democratic United States is inevitable. These sentiments are fully reciprocated by Chinese “triumphalists”, who believe that conflict is inherent in US-China relations. Kissinger, for instance, is convinced that Sino-American relations are competitive, essentially zero-sum, a “marathon contest” and the “duel of the century. The only alternative to total success is humiliating failure. If China in the 21st century cannot become the world’s number one, cannot become the top power, then inevitably it will become a straggler that is cast aside.”
In these circumstances, the US ‘pivot’ towards Asia has been euphemistically construed as a ‘rebalancing’ of US global interests with the emphasis on Asia. On the other hand, there are intimations of the growing potential of China and India to rival and overtake the United States. Unsurprisingly, the new American focus on Asia has caused a huge ferment in Australia’s foreign policy establishment. President Obama’s November 2011 speech in Perth informed that the United States had negotiated an agreement with Australia to station 2500 US Marines in Darwin, and was planning a further expansion of the American presence in the region, including the positioning of military aircraft in northern Australia. He had also declared in the Australian Parliament that “Every nation will chart its own course. Yet it is also true that certain rights are universal, among them freedom of speech, freedom of the Press, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, and the freedom of citizens to choose their own leaders. This is the future we seek in the Asia Pacific — security, prosperity and dignity for all…” Sans the rhetoric, the reference to universal rights definitely has China in its cross-hairs.
The East Asian region remains undefined, but includes the Asia-Pacific hinterland and extends into the Bay of Bengal. Realistically evaluated, however, US pre-eminence in Asia is not feasible but Chinese pre-eminence enthuses nobody; hence a viable solution suggested is a concert of powers in the Asia-Pacific. This perfect solution is unfortunately a-historical. The annals of history are replete with examples of established and rising powers contending, but not living peacefully, with each other. China and the United States might, therefore, co-exist and co-evolve in future, cooperating where possible, and undertaking damage control when conflict becomes unavoidable.
For Australia, however, assembling a concert of allies, including South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and the Southeast Asian nations, makes eminent sense. The inclusion of India in this assemblage would brilliantly serve the interests of the American pivot and Australia’s Asia policy.
This train of logic explains Australia having turned decisively towards India with business and trade delegations and high-level visits tripping over each other on their way to New Delhi. Several Australian think-tanks are following suit to establish academic linkages with India. Remarkably, the last Australian High Commissioner to New Delhi, Peter Varghese, has become its first Indian origin head of the Foreign Ministry.
India also needs to re-think its anaemic commitment to non-alignment to robustly discern where its best national interests lie. A good point to start would be deciding whether a rising China and a rising India can ally? Or, only co-exist and co-evolve in the Washington-Beijing mould?