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  • Steering between Primacies:Challenges to the Australia-U.S. Alliance
  • Michael Wesley (bio)

The Australia-U.S. alliance has experienced three straight decades of tightening and deepening, driven by a range of factors. The advent of the "unipolar moment" provided a strong incentive for Australia to make a sustained diplomatic effort to reinforce and renovate its alliance with the United States after the Cold War, rather than to attenuate it as Thailand and the Philippines did. The tech-driven surge in the U.S. economy, coupled with the revolution in military affairs, convinced successive Australian governments that the United States was an indispensable security partner for the foreseeable future.

Regional and global security dynamics further drove a convergence in strategic interests. Post-Tiananmen China had stabilized Communist rule and inaugurated a sustained period of economic growth through the 1990s. Its insistence on the retrocession of Hong Kong and Macao and its "missile diplomacy" against Taiwan in 1996 underlined for many the arrival of a wealthy and assertive power in Asia. And by the end of the 1990s, the region's strategy of socializing China through regional organizations had clearly not worked. The September 11 attacks, followed by the Bali bombings on Australia's doorstep, focused Australian and U.S. concerns on terrorism and weak states for the decade that followed. Australia's strong support for U.S.-led campaigns in Central Asia and the Middle East, and its willingness to contribute to the controversial invasion of Iraq, provided ample opportunities to co-embed Australian and U.S. forces, integrate intelligence cooperation to unprecedented levels, and press forward with a range of interoperability initiatives. The alliance gained an economic pillar with the signing of a free trade agreement in 2005.

The following discussion examines the challenges to the Australia-U.S. alliance that have emerged over the last decade. The essay then assesses Australia's strategic options and concludes by arguing that the allies need to develop a common strategy to balance China's rise. [End Page 59]

Challenges for the Australia-U.S. Alliance

Over the past decade, several trends have emerged to complicate the seemingly inexorable push by Australia to build ever-closer strategic ties with the United States. The first decade of the 21st century saw the remarkable complementarity between the Australian and Chinese economies become manifest. China became a massive importer of Australia's primary commodities, driving a trade boom that was unprecedented in Australian history, while China's own surge of manufacturing exports did not threaten Australia's small industrial sector. While Americans came to see China as an economic threat, Australians were seeing it as an economic opportunity. Toward the end of the decade, the global financial crisis opened up a real gap between the United States' and China's economic performance, as the latter country's strong economic growth placed it even more firmly at the center of regional trade dynamics. China's arms spending continued to spiral upward as the United States slashed its own military budget, a contrast that undermined the credibility of the commitment to "rebalance" U.S. forces to the Asia-Pacific, which President Barack Obama unveiled in a speech to the Australian Parliament in 2011.

Rather than being cowed, China answered the rebalance with a more assertive challenge to U.S. primacy in the Pacific. In the South China Sea, it began to back its territorial claims more aggressively and declared an air defense identification zone over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Beijing began building and weaponizing artificial islands in the Spratly Islands, while also doubling down on its investments in anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) weapon systems, aimed at raising the risk to U.S. naval operations in the western Pacific. In both arenas, China challenged U.S. primacy materially, as well as testing the credibility of U.S. alliance commitments to the Philippines and Japan. To most observers in Australia, the United States' alliance credibility was enhanced through its strong support for Japan but damaged in relation to the Philippines. Meanwhile, China's assertiveness brought none of the diplomatic costs that analysts had expected. Trade, investment, and positive diplomatic ties continued with even those countries in...


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