JAYA PRAKASH's picture
Focus Down Under
Posted on Dec 10, 2017

With tensions between China and India over the Doklam stand-off receding, the focus has shifted to Down Under. Australia is now in a very uncomfortable situation of whether to choose between Beijing, with whom it runs a roaring trade, and United States, which has provided its security umbrella since the end of World War II.

It perhaps is one the most awkward of situations any nation can find itself in.

On the one hand, China is bankrolling its economy through trade. On the other, is an American-led security architecture to which Canberra has committed itself to (considering it vital for its survival).

Not since the end of World War II, when Washington came to Australia’s rescue from the horrifying prospect of a Japanese conquest, have matters of state looked as dreary as they now do now.

For years, Canberra had worried that Indonesia – with its vast expanse, close proximity, porous borders and disarrayed security apparatus – would stealthily land troops and orchestrate an intrusion in Australia!

With that fear now long gone (following the introduction of democracy in 1998), the turnaround in dynamics in the region, coupled with China’s recent 73-day confrontation with India, have unnerved both Australia and New Zealand. Spy chiefs in the country have warned of greater vigilance after a spate of spying incidents on the back of Beijing’s attempts to influence Australia’s growing Chinese community.

Yet if there was anything significant, it was in the calls behind a recently concluded security summit among India, Japan, the U.S and Australia in Manila that Canberra had to understandably distance itself from. Relations between Australia and China careened off track when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull – in solidarity with the leading Asian democratic heavyweights – expressed concern over Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea and the latter’s dare to the Philippines when the International Court of Justice (ICJ) awarded Manila its right of claim over the Scarborough Shoal.

In June, he said that China should respect the territorial integrity of other nations; in a pointed jibe at Beijing’s intransigence.
When the summit was first proposed by Japan in 2007, India and Australia balked at the idea (worried that it might anger China). But since then, with the rapidly changing security environment (over and above the North Korean ‘question’), what has not been lost is the need to confront China by whatever means possible.

Relations between Australia and Beijing have been steadily souring as large numbers of Chinese continue to buy up Australian property. Even on the educational front, media reports have held broadsides against Chinese students and Chinese living in the country. China’s Global Times newspaper echoed official state communications to say that Australia’s foreign policy was ‘speculative’.

But the question of whether to contain China or not has thrown up some interesting proposals. Australia media reported that Asian democracies might have to consider bolstering infrastructure spending to combat China’s rising influence; something that India just did by offering an economic sop of an U$1 billion to fire up connectivity in the Association of South-East Asian nations (ASEAN).

Jaya Prakash is a security analyst based in Singapore