The United States and their pivot to the Asia Pacific region has produced both opportunities and trepidation for Australia. In 2011, then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the United States would be refocusing on the Asia Pacific region, specifically acknowledging China as a key recipient of its revived strategic interest in the area, discussing the challenges of managing the US’s relationship as the Chinese economy continues to grow at immense rates. Former Secretary Clinton clearly elucidated that the United States would be devoting its power to the region in an effort to ensure the status quo is maintained. The rebalancing of US power to the Asia Pacific allows Australia to secure their trade relations in the region from an emerging hegemony – ensuring the status quo is unchallenged. Consequentially though, Australia risks becoming so entangled with the United States that it may be reluctantly drawn into peripheral conflicts with China, risking its Sino trade relations for little or no explicit security benefit to Australia.
Through 2011, the United States began a strategy to rebalance and ‘pivot’ a substantial portion of their diplomatic, economic and strategic assets to the Asia Pacific region1, as it was to become – “the future key driver of global politics”2. The enhancement of existing alliances in the area, including Australia, the development of the United States’s relations with emerging powers, notably China, and the forging of a broader military presence in the region, would be the central tenants of the policy shift. Former Secretary Clinton, in outlining the pivot, specifically illuminated China, describing it as representing “one of the most challenging and consequential bilateral relationships the United States has ever had to manage”3. In handling this relationship, the United States identified a variety of core principles necessary to achieve success, including, guaranteeing the defence capabilities of their allies, accentuating Australia, whose commitment to strengthening the regional architecture has been “indispensable”4.
The US pivot to Asia represents an opportunity for Australia to ensure the continuation of the current global order – one that has been so beneficial for decades. Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd labeled the US pivot to the Pacific “entirely appropriate”5 and has argued that without a rebalance of US focus to the region, China would deduce that an economically frail United States may have begun waning in influence in the Pacific6. As China continues to grow its economic power, military and strategic power will follow, leading to a possible confrontation as China will invariably find itself in conflict with the interests and values of the status quo. As China rises, its important to note that it views itself with an important reference to its national history, considering its enormous growth as a “final repudiation of a century of foreign humiliation”7 and its rise as a “return to its proper status as a great civilisation”8. The growth in Chinese power, coupled with the perceived decline of the United States, has led many to consider the current Asia Pacific balance of power to be in flux. Alan Beattie writes that “The global order fractures as American power declines”9, referring to the importance of American power across the globe for maintaining the current status quo. The balance of power is critical for understanding the connection between a declining great power and war10, and as the shift in power occurs in Asia, uncertainty ensues. The absence of conflict in the Asian and Pacific regions is not only crucial for those regions, but is also vital to the global order11, as Sino-US relations have “repercussions for the stability and wellbeing of the global community”12. The rebalancing of US military and strategic forces to the Asia Pacific region is an opportunity for Australia, and the globe, to retain the current status quo – one that has been beneficial to Australia for decades.
The US pivot to the Asia Pacific region directly risks Australia’s greater involvement in peripheral hostilities, jepordising their relationship with China. As the United States began its pivot towards the Asia Pacific region, they attempted to heavily incorporate Australia, including: the stationing of US Marine forces in Darwin, seconding an Australian Army General with the US Army in the Pacific region, and involving an Australian war ship, tasking it to a US Navy patrol in the North Pacific13. The cumulative effect of this depending involvement with US forces in the Asia Pacific, argues Geoff Miller of the Lowy Institute for International Policy, is Australia’s growing difficulty to remove themselves from any direct hostilities that may transpire14. These hostilities could include the territorial disputes currently occurring in the waters surrounding China, for islands that “possess minimal economic and strategic value”15. As the current landscape exists, Sino-US relations appear to be at their worst since the start of the 21st century, the result of the United States siding with claimants against China in territorial disputes and an expanded strategic presence in Indochina and South Korea, among other actions16. The pivot is poised to worsen the United States’s Sino relations by feeding China’s aggressiveness17. Robert Ross, a Professor of Harvard University, argues strongly that China does not pose a threat to Australia, and that it will be many years before Australia encounters a Chinese security challenge18. Australia’s unique geographical positioning in the Asia Pacific region ensures that we are not under threat from even the most advanced Chinese missiles. Further, Australia is relatively energy independent, and only has minimal shipping through the South China Sea. Conversely, Chinese economic modernisation has been an enormously beneficial to Australia, currently comprising 25% of Australia’s exports19, and allowing the state to avoid the worst effects of the global financial crisis20. The risk is that Australia has positioned itself to become militarily involved with the United States against a belligerent China – for little or no security gain, risking involvement in “conflicts peripheral to their national security”21. Australia’s current trade relationship with China is an immensely important facet of the Australian economy to be placing in danger.
The United States and their pivot to the Asian region present both an opportunity, and a risk for Australia. Ensuring that the status quo and balance of power in the Asia Pacific region is maintained represents an opportunity for Australia to continue taking advantage of the current global order and the security mechanisms currently in place. The risk, involves Australia becoming involved in hostilities that do not represent strategic or economic benefits to Australia, jeopardising Australia’s trade relationship with China as a result.
1 Hillary Clinton, “America’s Pacific Century,” Foreign Policy, October 11, 2011, accessed May 18, 2014, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/10/11/americas_pacific_century
2 Clinton, “America’s Pacific Century”
3 Clinton, “America’s Pacific Century”
4 Clinton, “America’s Pacific Century”
5 Kevin Rudd, “Beyond the Pivot,” Foreign Affairs, 92 (2013):9.
6 Rudd, “Beyond the Pivot,” 9.
7 Rudd, “Beyond the Pivot,” 10
8 Rudd, “Beyond the Pivot,” 10
9 Alan Beattie, “The Global Order Fractures as American Power Declines,” Financial Times, 14 June, 2011, accessed 18 May, 2014,http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/710032ee-96ae-11e0-baca-00144feab49a.html
10 Joseph Nye Jr., Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1990), 17
11 Rudd, “Beyond the Pivot,” 9.
12 David A. Beitelman, “America’s Pacific Pivot,” International Journal, 67 (2012): 1073-1094.
13 Geoff Miller, “US Pivot is faltering, which might be a good thing,” The Lowy Interpreter, 14 April, 2014, accessed 18 May, 2014, http://www.lowyinterpreter.org/post/2014/04/14/US-pivot-is-faltering-which-might-be-a-good-thing.aspx
14 Miller, “US Pivot is faltering, which might be a good thing.”
15 Robert S. Ross, “The US Pivot to Asia and Implications for Australia,” The Centre of Gravity Series, March 2013, accessed 14 May 2014, http://ips.cap.anu.edu.au/publications/us-pivot-asia-and-implications-australia
16 Ross, “The US Pivot to Asia and Implications for Australia.”
17 Robert S. Ross, “The Problem with the Pivot,” Foreign Affairs, November 2012, accessed 18 May, 2014, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/138211/robert-s-ross/the-problem-with-the-pivot
18 Ross, “The US Pivot to Asia and Implications for Australia.”
19 Australia’s trade with the world, Department of Foerign Affairs and Trade, accessed 18 May, 2014, http://www.dfat.gov.au/tradematters/aus-graph.html
20 Ross, “The US Pivot to Asia and Implications for Australia.”
21 Ross, “The US Pivot to Asia and Implications for Australia.”