Trevino: Australia, in the Crossfire Between China & the U.S.

By Jorge Trevino


Jorge Trevino is an International Relations analyst for National University of Mexico, studying national security, counter-terrorism and intelligence agencies. Based in Mexico City. Exclusively for FRN. 

Located in the south of the South Pacific region, Australia is likely to become one of the first victims of the increasing tensions between its major trade partner, China, and its guardian and political ally, the U.S.

For historical reasons, Australia shares with the West its values (whatever that means), vision and mission in the South Pacific, serving as an American military and geopolitical enclave from where the U.S. launches its hegemonic interests in Asia. On the other hand, Australia is a major raw materials exporter feeding the Chinese economy, from where Australia has benefited enormously. Suffice to say is that it was Australia the first Western country in getting out of the 2008 world financial crises. The dichotomy comes precisely from this dual partnership among two rival great powers. For many decades this dual, contradictory partnership was far from being problematic for Australia enabling it to feel safe geopolitically (through the U.S. military umbrella) while profiting widely from the impressive Chinese economy.

Everything looked more or less under control for Australia until ten years ago, when after two decades of globalisation and industrialisation provided China billions of dollars on foreign investment from Western corporations moving their manufacture plants there looking for mass production at lower pay rates than those in the West. Soon, Chinese economic leverage in the world arena put that country on a confrontation path with the U.S. It was then that President Obama launched his ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy in 2011, a sort of desperate mean to politically and economically counter China in the South China Sea, and decided to deploy marines in Darwin, NT, Australia, as a military outpost in the Timor Sea, the closest Australian port to the South China Sea.

By trying to make a geopolitical gain from the historical territorial disputes between China and its six neighbours (Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam) in the region, former President Barack Obama convinced the Philippines to launch a territorial claim in the frame of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (an arm of the UN the U.S. is not signatory) on the legality or not of China over the “nine-dotted line”. It was obvious from the start that the claim would not have a chance to succeed since China didn’t take even part in the process of the arbitration, denying it any legal binding. Obama’s attempt to create a wedge between China and its neighbours was simply crushed and ignored by the Chinese who deployed its military on Japan’s disputed Senkaku/Diayu islands and seized the Scarborough Shoal out from the Philippines in 2012, after the harmless glance of Obama, who refused Philippine’s President Rodrigo Duterte call to help him push the Chinese out.

The ‘Pivot to Asia’ also intended to counter China on trade through the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal, the defunct trade agreement that intended to create a Pacific economic bloc of countries without China.

For understanding the importance of the South China Sea, it is essential to acknowledge that such sea is a vital artery to China’s maritime trading routes to Europe and for its energy supplies from the Middle East – through the Malacca Strait in Singapore and Malaysia – on their way to the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. An eventual shut down of that route by the Americans will has the potential to strangle China’s vital supplies of energy resources, and exports. The stakes can’t be higher, the volume of trade navigating the South China Sea rounds $5 trillion dollars per year.

It’s not clear why China would be interested in interfering with the freedom of navigation rights of the six South China Sea nations they have territorial issues with. Being China a major trade partner of all of them – with the only exception of Taiwan -, it’s not in the Chinese interests to wedge fights with its partners. In this context, it is more logic to think that the military ‘freedom of navigation’ missions that American, Australian, British and French vessels do in the area are more a provocation than a real threat from the Chinese side. It is as if Chinese military vessels navigate the Gulf of Mexico claiming “free of navigation” rights near Miami or New Orleans. For China, the South China Sea is a vital artery while for the U.S. is just a containment policy for not letting China growing stronger, no matter what the biased Western media can argue about it. Suffice to say that if a serious crises between China and the U.S. arises, the U.S. can strangle China by blocking her from the sea – from where her exports and energy resources navigate through.

It is precisely in that house of cards that Australia has erroneously fully aligned with the U.S.

Now it’s certain that the Trump administration has been tougher against China than what Obama was. Trump’s implementation of severe economic sanctions on China has to be seen as a countering ‘policy’ to limit, and even reverse, Chinese political, economic and military leverage in Asia.

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The American all-time-high ties with Taiwan since 1972, when the Americans agreed on the One-China-Policy acknowledging China and Taiwan being one single country, has been challenged for the first time in 46 years by the Trump administration. Since his inauguration day, Trump telephoned his Taiwanese counterpart for a chat that made sound the alarms in Beijing.

Ever since, the Trump administration started a series of provocative measures increasing “freedom of navigation” missions all around the South China Sea and even in the Taiwan Strait, in front of Chinese territorial landmass.

Within this context of tough American diplomacy revisioning 45 years of stable relations with China is that Australia needs to re-calibrate its position in Asia. Sabotaging her own major trade partner and root of economic success, doesn’t look wise. If tensions escalate further, Australia will be risking not only being sanctioned by China – something that create hiccups in Canberra, but involved in a hot war. The fact that a few weeks ago a former American general said that it is likely that the U.S. will be at war with China in fifteen years, followed by China’s President Xi Jinping remarks calling his Army for war preparedness, are symptoms that things can spiral up
and that a hot war is always possible once two great power’s interests collide.

The time for Australia to re-calibrate its geopolitics and national security stances in the South Pacific region has come. In a time when China is catapulting its leadership and leverage in the whole Asian landmass – think of the ambitious Road and Belt Initiative (RBI), the inter-connective system of infrastructure linking Asian, South Pacific, Middle Eastern, African and European markets to the Chinese manufacture centers through a web of high-speed railways, pipelines and ports funded by a Beijing based multi-billion dollar Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a colossal development plan not seeing since the Marshall Plan in 1945.

Not only that, China has also launched its Shanghai International Energy Exchange, aimed to buy oil future contracts in yuans, challenging not only the petro-dollar itself but providing the Yuan with a reserve currency status.

Made in China 2025 industrial policy is another front opened by the Chinese challenging U.S. know-how on high tech, including Artificial Intelligence.

All these Chinese new stances in Asia are facts that call China as the major threat to the American already dead unipolarity. At the same time, they show that the U.S. is no longer capable to counter China in a fair competitive civilized way but through illegal (economic sanctions) or violent (military and political provocations) means. This situation may create chaos in the region.

Thus, Australia has to avoid being trapped in the crossfire between the two great powers. A military conflict, even if it is not nuclear, between the U.S. and China will deprive Australia from her main economic partner and, if that occurs, the U.S. won’t come up on Australia’s help. For Australia playing the American vassal is certitude of catastrophe in a time when is undoubtedly that the U.S. is on decay, and China on the rise.

Indeed, Australia requires a strong military ally in a continent with no strong allies and culturally different. However, how far is Australia willing to go poking the dragon with no real gain whatsoever but with the risk of being found in the crossfire of two great powers war?

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