international analysis and commentary

Obama’s Asian pivot viewed from Australia


Last November, President Barack Obama spoke to the Australian Parliament about a “deliberate and strategic decision” he had taken to engage more fully in Asia. When it came to this region, the president said, the United States was “all in.” He also announced that by 2016, 2,500 U.S. marines will be on rotation in the north of Australia.

Obama’s Canberra speech and other elements of this reweighting have raised concerns that America is going down a containment path toward China, setting up the risk of new bilateral tensions in Asia.

It is certainly true that one of the motivations for America’s “pivot” toward Asia is the rise of China. China’s economic transformation in the last three decades has been remarkable. It has remade its economy, driven extraordinary productivity increases, and in so doing raised hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Now this country of 1.3 billion people is achieving an economic weight befitting its huge size.

Increasingly China’s new economic strength is mirrored in its growing military capabilities, which boost its ability to project power within Asia and around the world.

China has a strong hand, yet it is not clear how it will play that hand in the future. There is a notable dualism to China’s approach. On the one hand, the Chinese leadership’s first priority is regime continuity and it remains overwhelmingly focused on domestic issues. Chinese foreign policy is neither expansionist nor extreme; in many ways, China has been slow to claim the influence it deserves.

On the other hand, it is impossible to miss China’s rising confidence and international ambition, even though they sit alongside strains of caution and insecurity. Sometimes, Chinese assertiveness spills over into bluster. In 2010-2011 there were frictions in many of China’s relationships: with the United States, Japan and Australia, with Europe and India, with countries in Southeast Asia, Latin America, Africa, even with Russia. Many long-time observers are pessimistic about the direction of Chinese foreign policy.

There is an uneven quality, then, to China’s international stance: usually quiet but occasionally strident; usually cautious but occasionally combative; always prickly; and never entirely predictable.

In this context, Obama’s new concentration on the Asia-Pacific makes sense. During his first year in office the president persistently sought to accommodate Beijing’s interests. Yet Beijing failed to clasp his outstretched hand.

Obama is still seeking to develop the bilateral relationship with China, but he is doing so from a position of strength. His policy is not directed at containing China, but neither is he prepared to vacate the field. The president seeks to cooperate with China. But he also intends to renew America’s presence in Asia and maintain a balance of forces in the region at a time when there is significant uncertainty about China’s future behaviour.

How should Australia try to manage the strategic triangle formed by Washington, Beijing and Canberra? Professor Hugh White has written of the dangers of U.S.-China competition, suggesting that the region needs a concert of powers, comprising China, the United States, Japan, India, Indonesia and other countries. For our part, he suggests, Australia should try to encourage the United States to award China new prerogatives. We should also be more circumspect about speaking our mind to China on issues such as human rights and Tibet. I’m not persuaded by this argument.

The U.S. alliance is a valuable national asset for Australia. It entails the promise that we would be protected from a strategic threat, unlikely though that may be; the interactions with U.S. military forces that keep the ADF sharp; privileged access to the fruits of U.S. intelligence; and entrée to some of Washington’s inner councils – presuming we have interesting things to say.

Apart from anything else, the alliance saves us billions of dollars a year in defence expenditures we would otherwise have to make to guarantee our security. If Australia could no longer rely on the principle of US extended nuclear deterrence then a debate would inevitably occur as to whether we should acquire our own nuclear weapons.

Before downgrading such a valuable asset, then, we need to be clear-headed about what we hope to achieve, and what we risk in doing so. I take a conservative approach to national security. I agree with the injunction contained within the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm. By all means, Australia should seek to influence events and power structures in Asia. But we also need to be realistic about our ability to shape the power relations of a region of billions.

If we cool our alliance with the Americans, do we really increase ability to affect events? How likely are we to change the trajectory of the United States, even if we wanted to? How easy would it be to rig up a concert of powers in Asia? And what are the downsides of cooling the alliance?

Given the uncertainty about China’s future policies, it would seem strange to pre-emptively move toward Beijing. Surely it is more sensible to balance against the risk of future Chinese recklessness by keeping the United States deeply engaged in the region and strengthening, not weakening, our alliance institutions.

I have never heard a Sinologist say that the one thing the Chinese respect is weakness. In my observation, unsolicited gifts to rising great powers are rarely reciprocated. Usually they are simply pocketed. Of course we should not try to contain China, which would be utterly impossible in any case. But neither should we back off from defending our own interests and values.

The leaders in Zhongnanhai may not have been happy with President Obama’s Canberra speech. But neither its message, nor the Darwin announcement, would have been surprised them. Beijing knows that Australia has been a U.S. ally for sixty years. We already host the joint facility at Pine Gap. I don’t believe this latest development will have given the Chinese conniptions – at least, it shouldn’t have.

In any case, just as we should not overestimate our influence, we shouldn’t underestimate it either. We have a good deal to offer China, as a mature and wealthy country and a stable source for the strategic resources it requires. It is in our interest that the relationship between Canberra and Beijing should be strong, positive and cooperative. This is also in China’s interest.

Alliances are not always easy relationships to manage – especially alliances with the most powerful country on earth. Even like-minded countries sometimes see things differently. And less powerful allies often spend a lot of time worrying about the temper of their alliance – that it is close, or too distant.

But to paraphrase Winston Churchill: “The only thing worse than having allies is not having them.”


An earlier version of this article was published in The Australian