Great sea changes of foreign-policy opinion are rare in Australian politics, taking place perhaps once in a generation. But there is ample evidence that we are undergoing one now.
We all know that Australia has marched in lockstep with the US in every major military dispute for decades. Less apparent, however, is how deeply skeptical we are about Washington's staying power in Asia and how relaxed we are about China's rise.
The United States Studies Centre released a survey last week on Asian-Pacific views on the United States' place in the region. The findings are striking: 80 per cent of Australians believe America's best days are behind it and 53 per cent think China will or has already replaced the US as the world's leading superpower. To the extent that such attitudes prevail, they are inimical to the notion of US global leadership in the post-Cold War era.
There is good reason to believe that such attitudes will prevail, especially if the Coalition is re-elected on July 2. Although the Gillard government enhanced security ties with the US in 2011-13, its conservative successors have struck a different tone, lest our defence posture upsets China.
Under Tony Abbott, much to the angst of Washington, Australia joined the China-led Asian investment bank. His government also went to great lengths to dismiss the Pentagon's claims the US would send B-1 bombers to northern Australia. Since 2014 Canberra has invited Chinese soldiers to conduct joint trilateral military exercises with the Americans.
Under Malcolm Turnbull, Australia rejected the US-backed Japanese submarines bid. He did not keep the US in the loop about his government's decision to allow a PLA-linked Chinese company to lease the Port of Darwin. Nor has he supported the Obama administration with follow-up freedom-of-navigation operations in territorial waters claimed by Beijing in the South China Sea.
This month, a UN tribunal in The Hague will deliver a judgment on the legality of China's growing assertiveness. A ruling in favour of the Philippines is expected and once again Canberra will be lobbied to follow the US through the 12-nautical zone of the artificial islands that Beijing has been building.
What should we do? That question is at the heart of the dilemma now facing Australian foreign policy: how to reconcile our rapidly expanding trade ties with China and our deepening security alliance with the US. Like every prime minister since Menzies, Turnbull supports the alliance, which retains overwhelming public support. But he's also a foreign-policy realist, conscious that our own interests and commitments should be balanced with China's right to an enhanced regional profile.
After Barack Obama and Julia Gillard announced the rotational presence of US marines in Darwin in 2011, Turnbull warned against having "extravagant professions of loyalty and devotion to the United States" and a "doe-eyed fascination with the leader of the free world" at the expense of our biggest customer. A year later, he wrote: "We should seek to ensure that Americans do not allow anxiety about a rising power lead them into a reflexive antagonism that could end in conflict."
Turnbull's restraint on the South China Sea reflects the views of John Howard. China, the former PM told the Wall Street Journal last month, is "exhibiting all of the tendencies of a new great power who has fairly recently arrived on the scene". There is, he warned, no need to bring the issue to a head.
Such prudence is in stark contrast to the more assertive Labor opposition. According to defence spokesman Stephen Conroy, Canberra should sail follow-up patrols to help deter China's "belligerent behaviour". It's a position echoed by Labor party grandees Kim Beazley and Gareth Evans, but not, it should be noted, Bob Carr. In response, Liberal MPs have warned Labor's unnecessary hawkishness risks elevating tensions with China.
As the debate unfolds, one is struck by the role reversal of the major parties on foreign policy. Labor has now moved directly in the ground vacated by the Coalition, only with far greater assurance. Apart from anything else, this has set Labor at odds with the public.
Why are we changing? Because China is our largest trade partner that, among other things, helped ensure we weathered the global financial storm. Only 12 per cent of Australians think the US and China are very likely to extremely likely to end up in conflict, indicating that we are either naive about rising tensions or feel confidently insulated from the consequences of a spat in a region where we have no territorial claims. If an accident or miscalculation led to conflict, it is not clear how we'd respond.
Uncertainty may prompt hedging at a time when many in the region think Uncle Sam is pivoting away from the pivot. After all, NATO is expanding operations eastwards in the Baltics, the US remains mired in misbegotten wars in the Middle East and Washington does not have unlimited resources.
No Australian leader should denounce the US or the alliance. But the polling evidence shows there's nothing wrong with a certain amount of well-reasoned caution. Nor would there be anything wrong if our leaders were to say that, although we support an international rules-based order, Australia will be guided by Palmerston's dictum: we have no eternal enemies and no eternal friends, only eternal interests.
Tom Switzer is a senior fellow at the University of Sydney's United States Studies Centre and a host on the ABC's Radio National. Illustration: Jim Pavlidis Illustration: Jim Pavlidis
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