Re­gional com­pe­ti­tion a bal­anc­ing of in­ter­ests, but not a new Cold War

Pakistan Observer - - INTERNATIONAL - [The au­thor is a pro­fes­sor and inau­gu­ral di­rec­tor of the Soft Power Anal­y­sis and Re­source Cen­tre at Mac­quarie Univer­sity]

NAREN CHITTY A.M HE United States is find­ing its re­gional hege mony in the Asia-Pa­cific con­tested as China whit­tles away the US’ in­flu­ence in its neigh­bor­hood.

The most re­cent ex­am­ple of the ex­pan­sion of Chi­nese in­flu­ence re­lates to the sea bound­ary dis­putes with Brunei, Cam­bo­dia and Laos. Chi­nese For­eign Min­is­ter Wang Yi re­ported on April 24 that these mem­bers of the As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east Asian Na­tions had agreed to fol­low in­di­vid­ual paths of bi­lat­eral ne­go­ti­a­tion with China. This de­spite US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama urg­ing ASEAN mem­ber states to stand to­gether in deal­ing with China’s South China Sea po­si­tion only two months ear­lier.

Aus­tralia, too, has op­posed Chi­nese ac­tions in the South China Sea, prompt­ing Chi­nese De­fense Min­istry spokesman Colonel Wu Qian to call on Aus­tralia to “cher­ish the hard-won good mo­men­tum of de­vel­op­ment in bi­lat­eral re­la­tions”.

Many Chi­nese seem puz­zled about Aus­tralia’s po­si­tion on the South China Sea and why it is not con­gru­ent with that of China. Aus­tralia and China al­ready have good re­la­tions so they do not un­der­stand why the two coun­tries can­not see eye-to-eye on se­cu­rity mat­ters such as this?

THow­ever, the Aus­tralian part­ner­ship with the US is a long-stand­ing one, and one it is un­likely to give up. Aus­tralian pol­i­cy­mak­ers will no doubt be watch­ing ner­vously, as will their Euro­pean coun­ter­parts, to see if Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign pro­nounce­ments to re­visit the US’ strate­gic ar­chi­tec­ture, might trans­late into pol­icy if he ends up oc­cu­py­ing the White House.

Yet Aus­tralia’s po­si­tion vis-à-vis the South China Sea is one taken by a friend of China, not a foe. Coun­tries con­tin­u­ally seek to de­velop their de­fense ca­pa­bil­i­ties, this in­cludes form­ing al­liances. But such moves should not be mis­read as con­fronta­tional. The ac­tions must be seen in the con­text of other bal­anc­ing ac­tions, no­tably eco­nomic and soft power ac­tions.

The proof of the pud­ding with re­gard Aus­tralia is in the con­trasts seen rel­a­tive to its se­cu­rity and eco­nomic in­ter­ests. While Aus­tralia is a ma­jor share­holder in the Asian In­fra­struc­ture In­vest­ment Bank its ally, the US, has fought shy of join­ing the AIIB. Aus­tralian na­tional se­cu­rity in­ter­ests have led to a ro­ta­tional sys­tem of marines at the US base in Dar­win. But the North­ern Ter­ri­tory’s eco­nomic in­ter­ests have led to Land­bridge, a Chi­nese com­pany, win­ning a 99-year lease val­ued at $506 mil­lion, to op­er­ate the Port of Dar­win.

It must be said here that Aus­tralian public opin­ion is far from mono­lithic. Groups have come out for and against the eco­nomic and se­cu­rity ac­tions in Dar­win. But as friends, China and Aus­tralia can in­flu­ence each other, not only re­gard­ing the South China Sea, but also on other mat­ters of mu­tual in­ter­est-such as cy­ber se­cu­rity and ter­ror­ism. Aus­tralia can­not co­erce China to ac­qui­esce to its stance, nor has it the in­ten­tion to do so. Like­wise, China can­not and does not seek to co­erce Aus­tralia to ac­cept its stance.

Un­der­tak­ing co­op­er­a­tive projects, whether mil­i­tary, eco­nomic or cul­tural, is a way of grow­ing re­cip­ro­cal pos­i­tive im­ages. So far there have been 18 De­fence Strate­gic Di­a­logue meet­ings be­tween Aus­tralia and China. The di­a­logue was re­ported to have been up­graded at the end of 2015 in ar­eas of coun­tert­er­ror­ism, peace­keep­ing and se­nior per­son­nel ex­changes.

We also know that Royal Aus­tralian Navy frigates en­gaged in “live fir­ing” train­ing ex­er­cises with Chi­nese naval ves­sels in Oc­to­ber 2015. And China will join the US-led multi­na­tional naval Rim of the Pa­cific ex­er­cises off Hawaii in June and July 2016.

These are signs that this is not a Cold War type sit­u­a­tion, but rather a more com­plex bal­anc­ing of in­ter­ests-eco­nomic and se­cu­rity-in the con­tem­po­rary geopo­lit­i­cal con­text.

Aus­tralia, China and the US can co­op­er­ate in a tri­adic re­la­tion­ship to their mu­tual ben­e­fit with­out pre­clud­ing other part­ner­ships. —Courtesy: CD.

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