The New Politics of the Pacific Sends Shudders Through Australia


Jul 24, 2000

This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Times on July 24, 2000.

Foreign policy: National missile defense fuels concerns that the U.S. will drift into confrontation with China

Australia has recently commemorated its 100th birthday, the 1900 Act of the British Parliament that forged a single nation out of separate colonies. But it also recently marked another anniversary that has been far more consequential for its place in the world: the 1942 Battle of the Coral Sea, after which Australia's strategic destiny became irrevocably linked to that of the United States. Today, however, uncertainties both in Asia and in America's regional role are unsettling Australia's security-watchers.

Unlike the relief that the end of the Cold War brought to Europe, the new era has intensified doubts about the future in Asia. For Australia, the chain of islands to the North no longer provides a barrier to the Asian continent's potential troubles; indeed, some have become a source of concern in themselves.

Near-neighbor Indonesia's transition beyond the authoritarian Suharto regime has been far from smooth and, for Australians, has been most marked by the crisis over East Timor. East Timor provided the first shudder in Australia's calculations about its steadfast partnership with the United States. When the crisis reached the point where peacekeeping forces were needed, the Australians took the lead and most of the burden—but not before Washington said "no thanks." The same inhibitions that led the United States to pursue a fatalities-free victory in Kosovo also kept U.S. ground troops out of East Timor. The U.S. did provide logistics, airlift and a marine amphibious unit just offshore, but it declined to share peacekeeping risks on land. This is leading Australians to wonder what Washington's response would be if something more consequential happened in Indonesia or elsewhere in the neighborhood.

Like everyone else concerned with Asia, Australia also is taking a hard look at China's future, as well as at Washington's approach to it. It's not clear that Canberra and Washington see eye to eye. Australia is nearer to China, but is psychologically more distant as well as more sanguine about how China will define its regional role. Key strategic observers worry that the U.S. will drift into confrontation with China, which is relatively more important economically to Australia than it is to the U.S., whether by accident or design. Certainly, supporters in Congress of Taiwan's obduracy and even independence send shudders down Australian spines.

There is also little support in Australia for the projected U.S. national missile defense program, in part because of vocal Chinese opposition. Not themselves threatened by any of the countries cited by the U.S. as potential aggressors, even North Korea, many Australians wonder why Washington is risking a crisis with Beijing. They also are not enthusiastic that the U.S. is asking that a shared satellite facility in Australia be included in the missile defense program.

Both close to and farther from home, then, Australians are being pulled into a new era of political and strategic engagement. At the same time, they are developing concerns about half a century's special relationship with the U.S. For example, the United States has been proposing to downgrade the quality of bilateral naval exercises—for years a demonstration of cutting-edge military cooperation with Australia—in favor of multilateral exercises that are "dumbed down" to include less-advanced countries such as Singapore and the Philippines, which the U.S. wants to nurture.

Some Australians see a more strategic purpose: the rudiments of a policy to contain China, based on a ring of alliances and other partnerships. While official Washington stops short of such an approach, several U.S. strategists have been promoting this line in Australia, provoking concern.

It is not surprising that Australia has launched a major review of its strategic environment, military challenges and defense structure. Some defense modernization is in the cards, along with a modest rise in military spending.

Most important, Canberra is looking to the United States to provide a clear sense of strategic purpose in the western Pacific. Especially unsettling are inconsistent and changing signals about the future of U.S. policy toward China—whether "engagement" or "containment" will prevail. As has happened in Europe with every U.S. presidential election, this year Australians also are waiting with some apprehension to see what a new American administration will do in their corner of the globe.

Robert E. Hunter, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, is a senior advisor at the RAND Corp. in Washington.

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