Australia should defend the US-led order in Asia

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Australia and the United States clearly differs on strategy, tactics, and even interests in the Chinese position and the order of alliance in the multilateral architecture. I would advise Washington to be aware of Australia diverging from US policy priorities, to ensure the focus of the alliance remain in the Asia-Pacific as the central hub for Asian regional order, and to view China as a chance to leverage resources to accomplish shared objectives by maximizing strategic cooperation in Southeast Asia.

Washington and Australia need to better share the outlook and orientation in dividing responsibilities for a more stable global order. America’s relationship with China is marked by competition and cooperation, a vie for influence in Asia, whereas Australia is more willing than the United States to accept a multipolar order conceiving the Chinese presence as a “new status quo” in the Asia Pacific. Beijing has been able to alter the status quo in the South China Sea while avoiding a strong US response, and Australia interacts with China on economic forums, such as the regional cooperative economic partnerships or China’s Asian Infrastructure Bank, to which US is not a party.

Perhaps this explains Australia’s position with Japan in the recent 2016 Defense White Paper, as it cites “incremental iterations” of the security relationship putting Japan in a different category than Australia’s allies, such as the US and New Zealand. Australia is less determined than Japan to lock-in the existing US-led regional order knowing Chinese increasing influence in the region.

Australia is also fully aware there is no guarantee for Washington to side with Canberra on its regional priorities. With the increasing economic rise of Indonesia, Washington may choose to actively collaborate with Indonesia rather than Australia as a bulwark against China. Australia’s strategic culture and support system come from regional allies, and it is increasingly taking the role of its own “pivot” in an ascending Asia. The growing consensus, especially in the younger generation, is to stay out of the East China Sea conflict. Washington should be wary of “taking Australia for granted.” Australia often views Washington as using “its strategic geographic location and military capability as a force multiplier for its own military in Asia.”

Australia acknowledges its strategic partnership with the US facilitates US military asset access in Darwin and as a hub for training with other allies. US and Australian security coordination on regional challenges, especially with the Southeast Asian partners, will be vital in providing and expanding maritime capabilities and underwriting its regional security nexus.  Australian participation does not need to occur within the disputed regions within the South China Sea, but it can leverage its own military capabilities to the interests of regional states and multilateral operations in the Indian Ocean or the Coral Sea. Australia’s ability to police the maritime environment in the Indian Ocean along the Silk Road will require closer cooperation with Indonesia, Singapore, and other regional militaries. Australia’s regional maritime security requirements will have to grow US-Australian alliances in facilities where the US is not able to provide constant watch.

Australia is more comfortable in allowing Beijing into an international order and a leadership role, but also optimistic of America’s willingness to uphold the regional global order. For Australia to maintain its role, it needs to preserve the US-led order in Asia. While Australia remains confident in the US capability and intent to maintain the current rules-based global order, Australia seeks to play an “assistant” role to and refrains from challenging the existing order. Therefore, it is interested in a model that gives an explicit role to the United States and somewhat overstates US intent and capability in defending the order.

Australia and US should continue to collaborate on tailored maritime, air, and land forces in regional stability and Southeast Asian partners with capacity building, but Australia looks to participate under a framework with the focus on primary operational areas, such as the Southeast Asia. The United States and Australia should look into broadening the bilateral tie to a regional cooperation with security cooperation efforts, at times, including China.

Grace Kim
Grace Kim is a policy pioneer with published research on human rights, cross-culturalism, and maritime security. Currently employed at the Office of the Secretary, State Department, she provides research support and strategic guidance to Secretary's current and long-term foreign policy priorities.
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