The Armchair Expert
As an Arts and IR student from Melbourne, my column offers a broad perspective on current International affairs. I’m in my first year, draw political cartoons and major in history. Living on campus and keen on politics, my column Armchair Expert hopes to keep you informed for when politics come up in conversation.
Historically, Australian foreign policy drifts somewhere between America and China. We are simultaneously drawn towards China’s economic orbit and America’s seemingly infinite military. But with an editorial in the Chinese state media calling Australia an “ideal target to warn and strike” in the South China Sea, and faced with potential President Trump’s neglect accelerating a U.S. decline, Australia is at a crossroad it has never before had to consider.
Australia is seen by many in the East as a Western outpost on their doorstep, and perhaps with good reason. By 2017, 2500 U.S. Marines will be stationed in Darwin. The elite Marine Rotation is designed for the rapid capture and hold of territory until reinforcements arrive. Not exactly one of Beijing’s Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence.
But this move is not the first in the chess game between East and West. From Chinese donations to Australian politicians, to an attempted purchase of AusGrid, to an attempt by Chinese state investment firms to purchase a cattle station roughly 1% of Australia’s landmass, there do seem to be ulterior motives behind these business ventures.
As the South China Sea (and in the not-too-distant future, the Pacific Ocean) become contested waters, Australia faces a difficult question: should we sign up for an unknown and untested Chinese alliance, or should Australia place its bets with old reliable U.S. hegemony?
A ‘one or the other’ choice is dangerous. If we cosy up to China, short-term economic benefits will come at the cost of a pro-democracy worldview and the withdrawal of American security. However, if we fall in line behind America yet again, China will punish us economically.
But perhaps there is a third choice? Perhaps we have more chips on the table then we think. Perhaps they need us, more than we need them.
Whilst we are admittedly – and sadly – a middle power, we are strong economically, militarily and politically. We have leverage over both the U.S. and China. Yes, if either lost our support they would continue on without so much as a blink, but our allegiance is symbolic for a chain of regional powers that includes South Korea, Japan, India, Indonesia, Thailand and New Zealand. One arrow is weak, many arrows are strong – and the biggest arrow in the region is Australia.
So Australia should have demands of its own. Demands such as free trade without open flow of investment.
Foreign investment in Australian assets such as, let’s say, housing, shoots up demand, making it near impossible for Australians such as myself to live near a city. I don’t want to be paying my rent in Yuan to the CCP when I’m 25. This ought to encourage Australia to invest in industries that aren’t reliant on Chinese demand, such as agriculture.
Above all, do not think that Australia needs a greater power to survive. Australia is the power. Australia’s potential for regional dominance has not been capitalised upon in its 250-year history as a modern nation. Increasing immigration to regional Australia, drawing in big business through tax cuts, capitalising on our competitive advantages of resource and agricultural wealth, boosting our military, and being able to effectively deploy it in the region, would all increase the (already substantial) leverage Australia wields in international politics.
We already spend the twelfth-most on our military globally. Australia hasn’t had a recession for 25 years, while America has had three. Demand for Australian goods is strong. All in all, Malcolm Turnbull put it best when he said “there’s never been a more exciting time to be an Australian.”
Australia ought to throw its weight around on the world stage. This is, after all, the dawn of a multipolar era. The country must take more assertive positions over such issues as the South China Sea dispute, and not be afraid to show leadership with our neighbours over resource management and human rights violations. Between China and America, I choose America. Between America and Australia, I choose Australia.