Australia's delicate dance on the global stage
MONDAY, APRIL 3, 2006
The Blair and Rice visits were reminders of just how difficult it has been for Australia not to follow the lead of its oldest allies. It joined them in the mire of Iraq in a gesture that seemed in Asia to have even less logic than its involvement in Vietnam and to be at odds with its avowed attempts to strengthen relations with Asian neighbors and play down its Anglo- American connections. Australia has also signed a free-trade agreement with the United States that has more political than economic rationale.
But if Iraq showed the sense of dependence on America that Australia feels, the Wen visit illustrates that Australia has been edging away from the US when it comes to China policy. Australia has distanced itself from U.S. commitments to Taiwan's defense, avoided criticizing China's currency policy and generally given the impression that China is a partner, not a competitor or potential foe.
The reason is obvious: China has a thirst for Australian mineral and energy resources and is by far Australia's fastest-growing trade partner. Its economy is complementary not competitive. During Wen's visit an accord will be signed on uranium sales, despite deep-seated opposition in Australia to uranium exports. (Australia has 40 percent of global uranium reserves, but most states ban new uranium mines)
But how far can Australia go with its China relationship without upsetting the United States and Japan? In all the euphoria over deals with China, it is sometimes forgotten here that Japan is still by far Australia's largest export market, with America second. And despite the minerals boom, Australia has a trade deficit with China. With the China-Japan relationship shaping up as the most dangerous medium- to long-term threat in East Asia, Australia may at some stage be forced to choose between its old ally, the Japan-aligned United States, or attempt a neutrality that could be dangerous for a nation with many resources, including uranium and natural gas, but few people - and no nuclear weapons.
Then there are the issues of Southeast Asia and India to contend with. India wants to be able to buy uranium too, and as a democratic nation should have more claim to do so than China. Yet India is currently barred because it is not a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Nor is it clear how far Australia will go in joining hands with America in its military cooperation with India. As an Indian Ocean as well as Pacific power, Australia has the potential to play a significant cooperative role. But how would that affect its relations with China?
Then there is the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which Australia long wooed. In December, Australia (like India) was welcomed to the East Asia Summit sponsored by Asean - but mostly because of a desire for counterweights to China. In any event, Asean itself is too disparate to be a force for anything beyond trade, and the wider East Asian grouping is irrelevant unless China and Japan can back away from nationalism.
Australia's international relations are currently also marked by a spat with Indonesia over would-be refugees from Papua, which is delaying a visit by Prime Minister John Howard to Jakarta. Australia has few fundamental differences with a Jakarta that knows it must deal with China but is suspicious and would prefer stronger ties with Japan. But even with the best of intentions, cultural frictions seem inevitable, whether set off by religious fundamentalists on either side or by the different levels of economic development. Sympathy within Australia for Papuan separatism is naturally infuriating for Jakarta, but there is little that Australia can do unless it is to use the same illiberal methods against Papuan refugees as it has against Muslim fundamentalists.
So though it may be nice for Australia to be visible on the global stage for reasons other than sports, it might have been more comfortable remaining a prosperous, medium-sized nation that the world was happy to ignore. Resources can be a curse as well as a blessing.