Saturday 09 Oct 2021 | 05:40 | SYDNEY
Saturday 09 Oct 2021 | 05:40 | SYDNEY

Australia all at sea with US and China


Rory Medcalf


3 September 2009 16:09

Today's Sydney Morning Herald has this intriguing story suggesting US and Australian military leaders want a new shape for trilateral security engagement – this time involving China. The source appears to be an interview with the Commander of Pacific Command Admiral Timothy Keating, who was in Australia this week for talks with the security establishment and a dinner speech at the Lowy Institute

But before we assume an invitation will be on its way to Beijing soon, let's unpack the story a bit. For a start, the idea is basically a good one, and overdue. A year ago I argued in the US National Bureau of Asian Research's 2008-09 Strategic Asia volume:

… the United States could implement its new cooperative maritime strategy by seeking opportunities to engage China, among other regional powers, in the provision of international public goods such as disaster relief. The United States would find Australia, with strong links in regional naval diplomacy, a useful player in any plurilateral efforts at security cooperation involving China.

China's naval deployment on anti-piracy duties off Somalia further underlined the logic of countries like Australia developing with China habits of cooperation at sea. And an Australian initiative on this front would help limit the diplomatic damage from the unnecessary focus on China-as-problem in the publicity about the Australian Defence White Paper. 

If an invitation is now to be issued to Beijing, then better late than never. But I suspect there is nothing even close to a final agreement between the US and Australia to proceed with this. An idea being broached by military leaders during a wide-ranging dialogue is one thing. All-of-government agreement on a formal initiative – and this sort of dramatic gesture would need high-level political endorsement – is another.

Either way, some important questions remain. Whose idea was it? If it was Australia's, why did we not propose it earlier, and save ourselves some of the agony our China relationship has gone through of late? If it was a US idea, then it would seem an ironic and – for Australia – piquantly embarrassing turn of events: the US, and its military no less, offering to help Australia fix its diplomacy with China. So much for Australia serving as some sort of diplomatic bridge between the giants.

Of course, a more charitable reading is that the US military simply wants our help in achieving one of its own priorities: engaging constructively with the PLA, including to reduce risks of misperception and conflict, such as over incidents at sea

Finally, how might the Chinese respond? A fundamental challenge to military engagement with China is Beijing's habit of using even this vital channel as just another political football – for instance, switching off US ship visits and military-to-military dialogue due to US policy on Taiwan and Tibet. Australian – or joint Australia-US – defence outreach to China will work best if we can begin with some degree of confidence that it will not be cancelled the moment Beijing sniffs some fresh bit of political bother. Let’s hope that in their recent talks, the US and China reached some new understanding on this score.

Photo by Flickr user mashleymorgan, used under a Creative Commons license.