‘Tryst with Security’ in the Asia Pacific: Australia’s Strategic Choice between the Eagle and the Dragon

Parikshit Thakur
March 25, 2019


‘The traditional obligation to defend freedom and the necessity for co-existence with adversaries’, a  principle US foreign policy dilemma, is currently reflected in Australia’s predicament of choice between the US and China. The Asia-Pacific has undergone some significant changes due to the growing tension in the South China Sea. In recent years, the Asia-Pacific region has gone through certain notable changes like the rise of China as a military as well as an economic power and America’s counter strategic approach for engagement with Australia and Japan. Such a strategic development has created complexities for countries like Australia in terms of maneuvering its strategic alignment between the US and China. From the policy perspective, Australia has always tried to play as a junior player in the Asia Pacific region along with its traditional pivotal power as the United States. Traditionally, Australia has been regarded as a ‘middle power’ in the Asia-Pacific region; putting greater emphasis on securing its interests by entering into an alliance with a great power like the United States. Like many other regions of the world, the US exported security and imported goods from Australia. The Australia-US security relations dates back to 1941, and they came closer with the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security (ANZUS) Treaty in 1951.  The fourteenth Australian Prime Minster John Curtin declared that : “Without any inhabitations of any kind, I make it clear that Australia looks to America.”

Earlier, China due to capability deficit, was not regarded as a preeminent pole to reckon with in the regional security scenario. However, the upward trajectory that China has registered in recent times in the military as well as economic sphere, has substantially impacted the way in which countries like Australia balances it ties between an ally like the United States and a rising power like China.

The expectation that the end of the Cold War will see the role of security diminished, failed to capture the real world politics and the nature of alliances. Moreover the rise of China as a dominant power in the post-Soviet period has changed the policy option for countries like Australia. Although the role of the US in the Asia-Pacific regional scenario is significant, China’s rise and the emerging debates on US relative decline has led to concerns among countries in the region regarding the extent to which the US will go to deter China’s aggressiveness. Gradually, China has appeared as an alternative power house with the declaration of Air defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea and the “Great Wall of Sand” (China’s island reclamation activities) in the South China Sea. The rise of China’s presence in the South China Sea  and its show of aggression in the area has in recent times led to a number of instances of confrontation with the US military presence and influence in the Asia-Pacific region.

Presently, China is the economic center of Asia and will be so in near future. Earlier, there was a singular hierarchy i.e. military as well as economic hegemony was enjoyed by a singular power in the form of the United States. However, the emergence of China as a trading giant and its increasing military modernization has created a scenario of dual hierarchy in Asia Pacific which generates competitive dynamics between the United States and China. But as a middle power, Australia has shown suspicions regarding American security commitment in Asia-Pacific. While China is constantly engaging in an expansionist policy in Asia–Pacific, the question remains as to how Australia will manage its ties between the US and China.

China’s diplomatic strides in recent times, such as the ambitious One Belt, One Road Strategy (OBOR), the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) have been perceived as means to compete with the overarching global influence of the United States. There has certainly been a transition from geo-strategic to geo-economics in the Asia Pacific, creating more complexities for the regional order in Asia-Pacific. Moreover, the debates on the implications of China’s rise and US relative decline is playing out amidst the emerging dynamics of a multipolar world order, and also the existing interdependence between the US and China. Hence, the emerging geopolitical scenario and the nature of US-China dynamics will to a large extent, determine how Australia chooses its allies and partners in the near future.

*** The author is Assistant Professor in Department of Political Science at Dwijendralal College ***