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#4439, 14 May 2014
 

US in Asia Pacific

Rebalancing: Australia's Middle Way Approach
Obja Borah Hazarika
Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Dibrugarh University, Assam
 

The US’ ‘rebalance’ strategy certainly has important policy implications for Australia.

Apart from other considerations that underlay the US’ decision to announce the pivot, the China factor is the most oft-cited one. Positioning itself to counter a growing and decisively aggressive China have been seen as the prime reasons for Washington’s rebalance strategy. The US has had troop presence in many countries surrounding China even prior to the announcement of the ‘rebalance’ strategy. However, by announcing the ‘rebalance’ strategy, one that is strategic and military in nature, the US made its intentions to be positioned in Asia-Pacific absolutely unambiguous. 

A possibility of the US-Chinese standoff complicates the position for Australia. Australia has to play its own balancing act between China and the US. This dilemma is often depicted as a choice Australia will have to make between its traditional security alliance with the US and its key trading partner – China.

The 1951 Security Treaty between Australia, New Zealand, and the United States of America remains the foundation of the Australian security structure. Even today, the US continues to play a gargantuan role in the Australian security architecture. Making the US its most formidable security ally is indispensable to Australian defence strategies.

On the economic front, however, Australia is tied to the dynamic Asian region, and with China in particular. Australia’s top 10 two-way trading partners in 2011 included seven Asian countries, with China in the lead, making itself exceptionally critical to the Australian economic agenda.

For the first time, Canberra is faced with a situation where its major trading partner is not a security ally. Australia cannot do without either the US or China. A deteriorating US-China relationship will thus force Australia to choose sides, which means it will have to make a decision between its economy and its security – both of which are integral to the health of Australia as a country, and thereby making such a choice extremely exigent.

The US’ ‘rebalance’ strategy to Asia thus becomes a mixed blessing for Australia. Canberra welcomes Washington’s strategy to the Asia-Pacific as it entails a commitment of the most powerful country in the world to maintaining stability in the region surrounding its landmass. Simultaneously, a number of commentators in Australia express concern about anything that may ignite strategic competition in the region.

Australia’s middle-power status can be used as a matrix to comprehend its response to the US-China competition in Asia-Pacific. Middle powers such as Canada and Australia, are not Great Powers; but they are not failing/fragile/failed states either. They occupy rungs in the middle of the spectrum of states. Geographically, economically, and militarily, Australia has immense consequence, albeit lesser than the US or any of the P-5, giving it vast significance in world politics.

However, none of these aforementioned attributes make Australia a dominant power anywhere in the world except in the South West Pacific region. Its middle power status determines its behaviour and its responses. Middle powers usually are characterised by a commitment to multilateral institutions, the rule of law, and norms constraining the use of power.

Australian responses to the international system have also provided a more nuanced understanding of the concept of middle power diplomacy. Australian middle power diplomacy has attempted to pursue coalitions with like-minded states to generate the impetus necessary to bring about multilateral diplomatic outcomes; lacing the overall Australian strategy with a large dose of moral leadership. Being several steps shy of being a great power, building coalitions and pursuing multilateral engagements are politically and diplomatically prudent ways of navigating its responses as a significant power with an interest in shaping the evolving strategic order in its immediate neighbourhood.

Therefore, Canberra is in the process of choosing a middle path to navigate out of the conundrum of having to choose between Washington and Beijing. The 2012 White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century throws light on the country’s attempts to manoeuvre its way around the issue. The White Paper stressed that that Australia is interested in stability and the sustainable security of the region and that a strong US presence in Asia will support regional stability, as will China’s full participation in regional developments.

Not wanting to negatively impact its economic ties with China or its security relationship with the US, Australia will artfully use all its skills and position as a middle power to prevent escalating tensions and/or a security impasse between Beijing and Washington. In the foreseeable future, institution-building, coalition building, and multilateral governance will remain the mainstay and foremost tools of Australian diplomacy to navigate its relations with the US and China.

Not wanting to rub either giant the wrong way, and remaining true to its status in the spectrum of nations, it is taking the ’middle’ route out of the dilemma at hand.

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