Author: Zhiqun Zhu, Bucknell University
US–China competition is a defining challenge of the present. Much attention has focussed on the behaviour of these two great powers and their impact on global affairs. But as the US–China rivalry persists, an important question is what third parties can do — especially countries like Australia that have huge stakes in maintaining productive relations with both powers.
The challenges facing third parties and their policy options are understudied. These countries have their own interests and agency. Their decisions will not only affect themselves but may also shape the course and outcome of US–China competition. While the United States provides security protection to its allies, China is the largest trading partner of over 120 countries, including most US allies and partners. This tension between their political and economic interests will not change any time soon.
Instead of siding with either the United States or China in their great power competition, third parties can play a mediatory role. Singapore has repeatedly told the United States and China that it will not take sides and has encouraged the two powers to resolve their disputes peacefully. But can Australia, a respected middle power that has critical interests in maintaining strong relations with both Washington and Beijing, help ease tensions between the two nations?
Australia–China relations have started to improve since Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese took office in May 2022. Defence and foreign ministers from Australia and China have met and the two governments may be ready to reset the currently tense relationship.
Australia can help bridge the gap between the United States and China. For example, Australia’s official reaction to both US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit and China’s subsequent response was moderate and nuanced. Australia can counsel both Washington and Beijing to reduce tensions in the Taiwan Strait. In the South Pacific, Australia could urge the United States and China to focus on areas of common interest such as climate change, global health and nuclear non-proliferation, instead of pursuing zero-sum strategic competition.
The South Pacific has become the latest arena of great power contest. The United States and Australia are concerned by China’s growing influence in a region traditionally in their own sphere of influence. While this raises concerns, it is unsurprising that as Chinese power grows, it is expanding its trade and influence to different parts of the world.
Australia, the largest power in the region, needs to discover how it can help lower tensions and focus on eliminating present dangers. As delegates from several countries to the 2022 Shangri-La Dialogue emphasised, the biggest national and regional security threat to the South Pacific is climate change.
Australia has made some independent and wise decisions before. Then opposition leader Gough Whitlam travelled to China in 1971, around the same time as former US national security advisor Henry Kissinger secretly visited Beijing. Whitlam normalised relations with China in December 1972 shortly after taking office, six years ahead of the United States. In 2015, Australia, together with many other US allies, joined the Chinese-initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, despite opposition from the United States.
China already has a legitimate presence in the South Pacific and its influence will grow due to its expanding trade, investment, diasporic community and geostrategic interests. Pacific island nations generally welcome Chinese contributions to promoting regional development and combatting climate change, despite some security concerns.
Australia supports Pacific regionalism through the Pacific Islands Forum, the premier driver of regional decision making. Both China and the United States are dialogue partners of the Pacific Islands Forum. Instead of pushing back against Chinese influence, which may prove futile, Australia can play a leadership role in working with regional countries and external powers, including the United States and China, to promote regional development.
Australia could also help expand the new Partners in the Blue Pacific Initiative to include more countries willing to contribute to regional development. This new partnership was initiated by Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States as a way to achieve more effective and efficient cooperation in support of the Pacific islands’ priorities — particularly climate change and regional development. China could be a valuable addition to this initiative.
Such approaches will not only substantively help South Pacific nations, but will also facilitate positive interactions between the United States and China, while further integrating China into the regional order to advance an inclusive international system. Such a beneficial outcome serves everyone’s interest and is worth Australia’s leadership efforts.
Yet while in theory Australia’s engagement policy has potential benefits in responding to China’s influence in the Pacific, there remains possible strong opposition from the United States and a domestic polity that insists Australia resist at all costs China’s influence in ‘our’ region.
Zhiqun Zhu is Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Bucknell University. He is also a Fulbright Scholar at Griffith University.
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