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Re-imagining Australia’s relationships with its neighbours poses no small challenge.
Yet, a panel of academics from the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre took up just that question at the Australian National University’s annual Australia 360 event last Tuesday.
“There are a lot of anxieties about China’s rise, about the US presence or commitment to the region or not,” said Dr Huong Le Thu.
According to Dr Le Thu, Australia was a relative oasis of stability, with a consistent foreign policy and regional image.
“In this time of uncertainty, especially for its regional neighbours, that stability is really important,” she said.
Professor Hugh White referred to the Gillard Government’s Australia in the Asian Century white paper to argue Australian politicians couldn’t walk away from a changing Asia.
He also said the often-touted claim that Australia had to choose between its US or China relationships was not yet true.
“But although we don’t have to make that fundamental binary choice, we are making smaller choices all the time,” he said.
Professor White said he was less optimistic than some of his colleagues about the regional aspirations of China and its president Xi Jinping.
“I think if [Xi Jinping] had his druthers, he’d like to be the only leading power in Asia,” Professor White said.
While he wasn’t confident the US would remain the only dominant power in Asia, it could sustain some dominance as long as it was both willing and able to use its power effectively.
“And that would be a very tough ask, whoever was in the White House,” he said.
Professor John Blaxland argued, in the eyes of its neighbours, Australia sets a regional benchmark.
“Where Australia goes, others in the neighbour are prepared to go just short of, because then you won’t quite invoke the ire of China,” he said.
“Our actions, our thoughts, our speeches have repercussions in the neighbourhood.”
Professor Blaxland said, representing 629 million people and a $2.5 trillion economy, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations could counter-balance an ascendant China.
“It is a proto-great power,” he said.
Australia needs to think of itself as having regional influence and, while remaining dependent on the US, be confident that the superpower’s interest in Asia would endure.
“We’re a middle power with small power pretensions,” he said.
“America still has an interest in Australia and in that maritime fulcrum.”
Moving further north, Dr Le Thu said it wasn’t just China and the USA that had a responsibility to address the escalating crisis posed by North Korea.
“It should be addressed multilaterally,” she said. “I think every state should have a responsibility.”
Professor White argued China effectively had the military capacity to turn North Korea off like a switch.
“But what they don’t have is a joystick to control what North Korea does day by day,” he said.
A nuclear warhead-armed North Korea might be something Australia has to live with, Professor White said.
North Korea wasn’t an issue China wanted to deal with, in part because if the pariah state had nuclear strike capabilities it would complicate the situation for the US in the region.
“They’d rather just kick it down the road,” Professor White said.
By Pat Griffiths