China’s growing challenge to U.S. primacy in Asia is placing the traditional relationship between Canberra and Washington under stress. As long as Beijing behaves well, many in Australia seem willing to accept a major role for China. Accordingly, there is the potential for a volte-face for Australia’s historical grand strategy as a dependable and strong U.S. alliance partner — a development that would upend Washington’s own strategy in the Asia-Pacific region. That one of America’s closest allies is feeling so pressured by Chinese power is surely a sign that many U.S. assumptions about its role in the region need to be closely examined.
The rise of China is the most profound challenge to Australia’s strategic outlook since the defeat of Japan in World War II. The East Asian giant is Australia’s largest trading partner, absorbing one-quarter of its exports and largely powering an unbroken era of economic growth. The almost complete complementarity between the two economies means that this economic symbiosis will only grow.
Yet China also represents the most profound threat to the Asia-Pacific order that has so greatly benefited Australia. Beijing’s challenge to U.S. primacy in the region, its pressure on U.S. alliances, and its unilateral challenge to liberal order rules deeply challenge the sense of security of this mid-sized, liberal democratic trading state. Revelations of Chinese meddling in Australia’s domestic politics, and a regular drumbeat of Australians falling afoul of China’s arbitrary legal system have attitudes towards China shifting in Australia.
Canberra’s policy for the past two decades has been to invest in its alliance with the United States, in the belief that the American alliance network is the best way to face down China’s challenge to regional order. More recently, Australia has been investing in other security partnerships — for example, with Japan and Singapore — to strengthen this network and bolster regional resolve. Canberra’s intent has been to help anchor the U.S. presence in the Western Pacific, bolster Washington’s own resolve against China’s challenge, and preserve for itself a significant voice in regional security affairs.
The problem is that these policies have failed to stem China’s bid for regional primacy. Far from being deterred by American, Australian, and other regional allies’ shows of resolve, Beijing has doubled down on its challenge to the status quo. The complex dynamics of the stand-offs in the East and South China Seas have raised concerns that U.S. resistance and Chinese insistence will ultimately escalate into war.
So Canberra faces a paradox. Fearful of the consequences of unchecked Chinese primacy, it continues to cleave to the U.S. alliance. Yet it is increasingly wary that the alliance will force Australia to damage its relationship with its largest trading partner or even embolden the United States to face down China’s challenge with military force.
Australian decision-makers would prefer that the U.S. remain dominant in the foreseeable future, and they also believe this is more likely than not. But as China grows more powerful, Canberra will increasingly want the United States to seek to balance, not dominate, Beijing. From the Australian perspective, confrontation would entail unacceptable risks and costs. Put another way: for Australia, getting along with China is not optional, it is essential.
Moreover, Australians have long harbored some doubt that the United States will honor its commitments to its allies as China’s military might grows. One reason is geography; Australia lives in the neighborhood and the United States does not. Despite proclaiming itself a “Pacific power,” the U.S. is not really a Pacific state, certainly not a Western Pacific state, and so could “cut and run” to avoid a conflict with China. Whether the United States actually would do so is less material than the perception that it could. Moreover, U.S. force structure in the Asia-Pacific is insufficient to provide a convincing conventional deterrent, despite ongoing efforts to “rebalance.” This major impediment to the credibility of the United States undermines strategic stability in the region, which is an essential Australian strategic objective.
Yet from Washington’s perspective, Australia should remain committed to U.S. dominance. Canberra will be expected to increase its support for Japan and other U.S. allies and to employ and support a greater conventional and nuclear force posture in the region. Any reluctance may be viewed as evidence that Australia wants to enjoy the benefits of U.S. primacy without its costs and risks.
Much depends on China. The seminal question is: will Beijing choose to confront the United States and its allies in an increasingly bold, vocal, and demonstrative manner — or will they adopt a more subtle approach that will slowly push the United States out of the region while not threatening Australia. In essence, the greater the rivalry in the Sino-American relationship, the greater the risks for Australia. Given the scale of these risks, it is likely that Australia will seek to restrain the United States, to the extent it is able, to keep conflict from commencing or from escalating.
All this compels the conclusion that Australia and the United States have an unequal interest in and divergent strategic preferences about confronting China’s ambition. To help resolve this strategic conundrum, we make recommendations to advance their alliance in the face of China’s rise.
First, the United States needs to be more persuasive in its alliance relationships in the Asia-Pacific. It needs to labor as hard as it did in the Cold War in Europe to convince its Australian ally that, first, it will oppose China’s challenge to regional order in a manner sophisticated enough to convey resolve but avoid unnecessary conflict; second, it must be firm and resolute in convincing Australia that it will incur the risks associated with conventional and nuclear extended deterrence, including the risk of nuclear escalation; and third, it will not retreat from its commitments to Australia as it is challenged by an increasingly aggressive China. Its declaratory policy, doctrines, and force posture should address these three subjects.
With regard to force structure, the United States should expand its conventional capabilities in the region and strengthen its nuclear forces. Viewed from Beijing, or Canberra, U.S. and alliance military bases in the region and U.S. aircraft carriers and other warships are inviting targets for China. U.S. nuclear capabilities play an important role in deterring such attacks, and will only become more important as China continues to develop its strategic, cyber, and conventional capabilities.
Next, the U.S. and Australia should deepen their alliance by further institutionalizing it. The U.S. should start by regularizing its deployments, exercises, and use of Australia’s ranges. The governments should also update the 1951 Radford-Collins Agreement to delineate Australia’s military contribution. Most crucially, the two states — and possibly New Zealand as well — should create a Joint Strategic Concept. Modeled on the U.S.-Japan relationship, this JSC would be a mechanism through which the partners and other regional allies can address security challenges and develop integrated responses to them. For example, they should use the JSC to define a “deterrent perimeter” for the region that China will only challenge at considerable cost and peril. Critical issues to address include whether the South China Sea falls within the perimeter. This JSC should be forged and maintained by a new equivalent to NATO’s North Atlantic Cooperation Council, which would help give Australian decision-makers needed insight into U.S. strategic thinking, and bolster their confidence in U.S. strategic leadership.
In conclusion, the contemporary relationship is not what was during the Cold War where Australian support could be assumed. The Soviets were very threatening—a revolutionary superpower that sought to overturn every aspect of the established order. But China is not the Soviet Union. There is no economic radicalization and no revolutionary ideology it seeks to spread by force. Nonetheless, China is threatening the dominant position of the United States in international politics. Thus, a common belief in Canberra is that a larger leadership role by China in the Asia-Pacific region is acceptable if unwelcome, and will have to be accommodated by United States. That belief must be addressed directly by the United States.
Australia must be confident in the U.S. presence and force posture in the Asia-Pacific, and this confidence must be based on mutual strategic interest. At present, U.S. forces in the region are insufficient, and the two allies do not have strong and mutual interests in confronting China. The U.S. must take steps, including those suggested above, to persuade the Australians of this necessity. If the United States seeks a tighter alliance relationship with Australia, it must explain — more convincingly than it has to date — why American plans for contesting China’s bid for primacy are not more dangerous than China’s challenge itself.