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Australia places itself in the center of things

May 15, 2013

The new Australian Defence White Paper has been noted for its conciliatory language toward China, leading some observers to wonder whether the Aussies are beginning to stray from the long-time US alliance.  That language, though, is not that much different from what you hear emanating from Tokyo, New Delhi or Washington, DC.   All of these powers speak of peaceful co-dominion with rising China, but at the same time all are preparing for containment of or outright conflict with her.

Indeed, the Australian defence planners have placed themselves in the center of the maritime encirclement of The Dragon.  Whereas the Aussies previously spoke of their primary strategic interest in the Asian-Pacific region, the new White Paper introduces the new term “Indo-Pacific” region.  The Indo-Pacific strategic arc begins in India, traces across the Indonesian Archipelago and up to Japan.

Indo Pacific Arc large

Australia has a tricky relationship with China:  On the one hand, China is Australia’s largest trade partner, but on the other hand the aggressive territorial claims and ambitions of China has the Aussies (like every other nation in the region) worried.   Also, the large trading relationship with China is dwarfed by the even larger collective relationship with nations often at odds with her (see graphic below).

Aussie trade partners

Some in Australia fret that they have to “choose” between their relationships with China and the US.   Some – including former Prime Minister and noted friend to the US John Howard – call such a debate “infantile.”  I don’t think it is infantile – it is simply a choice that does not need to be made today.  For now, Australia has managed to cut the baby in half – maintaining its lucrative trade ties with China while also being a lynchpin in the US-led virtual maritime containment of the same.  With any luck – and skillful diplomacy by all involved – the choice will never have to be made.  But, if that day comes, Australia’s defense planners are quite clear that they will be in the middle of things.

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