The growing tension in the South China Sea poses a number of problems for Australia. We want to ensure that our access through these important waterway and air routes are not impeded but we want to do so without appearing to take sides in a confrontation between China and the USA. We also need to take into account the concerns of other regional countries which are important to us.
We should not lose sight of China’s growing assertiveness nor deny that it can act aggressively but nor should we kid ourselves that the US is very different in its international relations. The bottom line is that we have a contest between the ageing champ and the comeback kid.
When Khrushchev tried to put missiles in Cuba the US almost went to war so why should we be surprised if China sees US actions in its neighbourhood as potentially aggressive. Given the US history in Latin America and elsewhere they are hardly in a position to claim the moral high ground. The Monroe Doctrine proclaimed a sphere of influence in the Americas and China almost certainly has its equivalent of the Monroe Doctrine.
Australia is seen as an American client state by many countries and it is easy to see why. China will probably assume that we will cave in to any pressure mounted by the USA and our history suggests that they are probably right. Is this in our interests? American interests and Australian interests do not always coincide. Australia needs to show more sophistication and more independence than we normally do without descending into some kind of visceral anti-Americanism..
The American Empire may well have begun its decline but it is a long way off its fall and a realistic foreign policy will recognise this. Similarly, a realistic foreign policy will recognise that China sees itself as regaining its proper place in the world after two centuries of humiliation by the West. By identifying ourselves with “the West” we become members of that dubious gang in Chinese eyes. We need to find a path between the competing interests of other countries. What does Australia have to gain by taking sides?
When elephants fight, kangaroos can be trampled beneath them.
Cavan Hogue was formerly Australian Ambassador to USSR and Russia, and Ambassador to Thailand and Mexico, and High Commissioner to Malaysia.