Australia in 21st century global power scramble

Imtiaz A. Hussain | Published: November 19, 2018 20:56:48 | Updated: November 19, 2018 21:13:00

If the 20th century was a history of Down Under Australian exports shifting from wool (one-third of exports until the 1960s) and wheat (over 10 per cent in the 1970s) to minerals and natural gas (from the 1980s continuously), the 21st century might witness how the economic imperative was slowly encroached by the political/military. The turning point may be the export of minerals, like coal, iron-ore, natural gas, and so forth, to China, roughly from the 1980s: as Australia flushed with cash, China's growth chewed away Australia's Anglo-Saxon roots and a 'western civilisation' attachment. Increasing dependence on China's trade sparked this challenge, and the more it drifted from the United States (or the more the United States felt affronted by China), the sharper the Australia-China rift became and the wider the Asia-Australia gap began to sprawl.

Australia's June 2018 National Security Espionage and Foreign Interference Bill indirectly identified Australia's direct threat, nudging it towards well-trodden and more familiar 'Anglosphere' and 'western' directions, alongside Japan, its first dominant Asian trading partner, from the 1970s to barely a decade ago. Clive Hamilton's Silent Invasion: China's Influence in Australia (Hardie Grant Books, 2018) spells out three ways China has been 'usurping' Australia using soft-power: funding think-tanks; facilitating open-ended emigration such that the inflow rate remained faster than the Australian social absorption rate; and monopolising select schools, thus occupying the citadels of thought, innovation, and often policy-making proposals. Though the public support the legislation, many believe it is too late to retrieve Australia.

On another front, Prime Minister Scott Morrison wants to reclaim the Asia-Pacific region under a title first proposed by Shinzo Abe's first (and brief) tenure as Japan's prime minister in 2007: the Indo-Pacific Region (IPR), Indo to bring India into the emerging panoply so as to monitor China's Indian Ocean transaction volumes and destination, and Pacific to pre-empt this frontier from eventually passing into Chinese control as the Indian Ocean seems to be.

Central to the IPR region are Australia, Japan, and New Zealand, although many other countries claim ownership or priority of sorts, including the United States (already discussed in this Scopus series), and France (to be discussed in the next Scopus piece), and Indonesia's Global Maritime Fulcrum thesis. China and India were not part of a previous Australian Prime Minister's, Kevin Rudd's (2007-10, 2013) 'Asia-Pacific Community (APC), but the country's shift to an Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) was described by Peter Wilkins in June 2018 as an effort to  (a) include India to 'counterweigh' China; and (b) relocate Australia in the region rather than relocated the region to Australia, in other words, letting Australia take greater charge of the region than be dictated by its terms (Australia and the Indo-Pacific: A region in search of a strategy, en/publicazone/australia-and-india-paci...).

Earlier this month, Morrison proposed $2.18 billion of loans and grants to build infrastructure in the many islands across the oceans, and expand diplomatic relations in the French Polynesia, Marshall Islands, Palau, as well as Niue and Cook Islands. Clearly this was another direct counter-offer to China's $1.3 billion of loans to the same region (see Australia plans $1.5b Pacific fund to counter China's influence, Financial Express, November 08, 2018).

One can see the various diplomatic initiatives in and across the region getting into an anti-China flank, yet without any particular country going out directly to say so. Shinzo Abe's 2007 proposal of an arrangement wherefrom the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD, or often QUAD), emerged tells us a lot more of the players and their fragmented efforts. Its four members (Australia, India, Japan, and the United States) have been in plenty of bilateral negotiations directly within the context of the other two QSD partners, what has been referenced in the media as '2+2' engagements over the IPR fate.

Through an ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, and United States, from a 1951 treaty) bonding, Australia and the United States have long-standing political and military ties. Similarly, through the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), Australia has had growing deliberations with India, so much so that when the IPS concept was first mentioned in Australia's 2016 Defence White Paper and its 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, the QSD framework was already advanced (Australia's transcontinental railway was also named India-Pacific), but only from December 2017 did more meaningful Australia-India '2+2' dialogue begin. It succeeds the India-Japan '2+2' talks in 2007, 2009, 2014, and the opening of an aptly named 'Freedom Corridor' to monitor China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the Indian Ocean. It also preceded the India-U.S. '2+2' talks from 2018.

In short, many pieces may be falling into place for Australia to slough off its China-dependence, Asia-proximity, and receiving-end positioning by mixing old ties (the 'Anglosphere' and 'West European' connections), US shoulders, and a New Zealand camaraderie with new geopolitical patterns in which any Chinese threat can be more effectively balanced locally by upgrading India to the level of Japan in warmth and ideology, then to rekindle Southeast Asian countries, one by one. Australia was already doing so, using soft-power resources while China was building its BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) tracks: quenching forest-fires in Indonesia, indeed quickly coming to the rescue of that country after the 2004 tsunami; searching Malaysia's lost MH370 flight plane in the Indian Ocean; salvaging the Philippines from the 2013 Typhoon Yolanda, and even the ongoing joint naval facility proposal with the United States in Papua New Guinea

More strategically, even as Australia falls more in debt to China over trade and requires markets in China for its minerals, it is stoutly standing behind the United States: it has been resolutely supporting the United States in Afghanistan and against Muslim terrorists, and as recently as October 2018, when the United Nations voted whether Palestine could chair the G77 (as a normal UN member would), it was the only country to join Israel and the United States in opposition (while 146 countries favoured that motion), even promising Israel to follow the United States by shifting its embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.

We can expect similar Australian trade and security ties galloping with India, Japan, and South Korea, all indicative of a country forging a new identity in which leadership matters immensely. Like Japan (as discussed in the last Scopus piece), and India (Scopus discussion on November 08, 2018), Australia, too, needs a heavyweight partner, but building up a network of middle-powers does not hurt at all, especially since China seems to be paying two hoots to dalliances of the kind.

With the United States deep in its calculations, Australia cannot but reinvigorate links with its parent country, Great Britain. Given Brexit, Britain could not have been wanting a more reinvigorated Australia than what lies before it right at this very moment, especially as it comes laced with familiar Asian power-house linkages that Britain could also tap into more fruitfully henceforth: India, Japan, and possibly other Southeast Asian countries.

Reinforcing an earlier observation, since checking China necessitates an entire tag team, the previous multi-polar balance system cannot but be revived to replace the ineffectual bipolar and superpower post-World War II configurations. The next piece, discussing France, only reiterates this eventuality.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

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