With Washington’s rising focus on Asia, America’s close and longstanding alliance with Australia has taken on new significance. Australia today is boosting its military strength and regional activism, tightening a raft of security partnerships, and enhancing defense and intelligence ties with the U.S.
In many ways the relationship has never been stronger. And yet the alliance hasn’t been tested in the region where it matters most—Asia. It is in Asia where tests are likeliest to arise, and where there is the greatest divergence between Australia’s national-security establishment and public opinion.
Australian and U.S. troops have fought together in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Australia is training Iraqi security forces on the ground today. Pilots from both countries carry out airstrikes on Islamic State positions in Syria while their navies cooperate on maritime security in the Gulf of Aden.
An Australian two-star army general, based in Hawaii, today has direct command of American troops. Australia, along with Canada, New Zealand, the U.K. and the U.S., make up the “five eyes” intelligence-sharing alliance. Add to that Canberra’s purchases of advanced defense capabilities, and the result is a bond that is growing ever stronger.
At the same time, Australia’s economic dependence on China has created worrying vulnerabilities. A third of its exports go to China, a higher percentage than any other G-20 country. This includes more than half of Australia’s exported iron ore.
China’s investment in Australia is also on the rise, and would have included a bid for a major electricity grid in New South Wales had Canberra not recently rejected it on national-security grounds. Nearly 50,000 Chinese students started courses in Australian universities and schools over the past year, boosting the country’s “education export” industry.
Beijing has also been fanning Australia’s fears of becoming trapped between a U.S. enforcing regional rules and a China seeking to flout them. After Canberra called on Beijing to respect the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s judgment on the South China Sea, China’s Global Times newspaper called Australia a “paper cat” and warned that if it “steps into the South China Sea waters, it will be an ideal target for China to warn and strike.”
At the same time, China is employing a variety of soft-power tools to shape domestic attitudes in Australia. Beijing publishes newspaper supplements in leading national papers, and leans on advertisers in Chinese-language media in order to exert message control. It is establishing academic centers to defend Chinese investment and other controversial elements of its engagement, while Australian-based subsidiaries of Chinese companies make political donations.
These efforts appear to have landed on fertile ground. Asked whether the U.S. and China are helping or harming Asia, Australians in a recent U.S. Studies Center poll gave the same grade to both. In the same survey, respondents were considerably more likely to say that they sought a stronger relationship with China than with the U.S.
While support in the abstract for Australia’s alliance with the U.S. remains high, there is a large and growing gap between government policy and popular sentiment. Canberra is increasing defense spending, purchasing weapons systems designed to counter Chinese submarines and defeat Beijing’s arsenal. It is also enhancing security ties with non-China partners across the Indo-Pacific. Yet the public remains largely ambivalent, preferring to avoid having to choose between their ally and their economic benefactor.
Australia can’t avoid the dilemma forever. It may, for example, wish to conduct freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea, as Washington would like, but risk Chinese economic retaliation if it does so. Openness to the Pentagon’s interest in rotating new bombers and tankers through Australian air bases may run squarely into Beijing’s warnings to avoid enlisting in a “containment” strategy.
Both Australia and the U.S. should work to ensure that China doesn’t drive a wedge between them. This means, for the U.S., eschewing the Trumpian talk about the costs of alliances and instead signaling a deep and continuing regional presence. It also means preventing the potential failure of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Australia needs to better understand the economic vulnerabilities and benefits that flow from dependence on China. Canberra should better telegraph to the public the strategic future it envisions and how that is driving Canberra’s defense investments and foreign-policy choices today. And Australians need to talk about how much risk they are willing to assume in order to push back against Chinese actions.
This won’t eliminate the risk of a Chinese wedge. But it would go a long way toward mitigating it. The benefits of the alliance are worth the effort.
Mr. Fontaine is president of the Center for a New American Security in Washington and the inaugural Alliance 21 Fellow at the University of Sydney’s U.S. Studies Center.