China’s impact on the Australia-US alliance

The recent descent of relations between Australia and China into what appears to be a state of intractable antagonism has so far produced more finger-pointing than scrutiny.

Beijing and Canberra have each given up on accusing the other of being entirely responsible for the current state of affairs – hardly a formula for improving their relationship.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne meets Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in 2019. Photo: Getty Images

There is growing pressure on Canberra to stabilize the Sino-Australian relationship, from business groups, universities and think tanks. Yet the government appears to have few ideas on how to proceed, other than to publicly say it is ready to have conversations with its counterparts in Beijing.

China, meanwhile, seems in no mood to stabilize or improve relations.

He subjected Australia to a deluge of hostile messages, while steadily expanding the Australian export sectors he chose to block. All channels of communication with Australia, whether political or diplomatic, have been firmly closed.

Meanwhile, following Joe Biden’s election as US president, commentary began to speculate about how the altered China-US relationship under Biden could affect China-Australia relations.

While some commentators have argued that improving China-US relations will likely help Australia mend its relationship with Beijing, others have argued that such an improvement in China-US relations could further isolate Australia. .

Rather than focusing on specific events, statements and reactions, or trends in bilateral relations, a deeper understanding must include broader contextual pressures on Australia and China.

Triangulation as a foreign policy strategy

“Triangulation” has different meanings in different contexts.

As a research method, it refers to the use of different forms of measurement or observation to verify the conclusions reached.

At first glance, the Australia-US-China triangle is a triangle of unequal power. Photo: Getty Images

In domestic politics, he has come to be associated with a technique for disarming ideological opponents by appropriating parts of their platforms and merging them with his own in an electorally dominant “third way” position.

In foreign policy, triangulation is most associated with Henry Kissinger, who, as National Security Advisor to US President Richard Nixon, orchestrated the US rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China.

The strategy of triangulation can be defined as the modification by a State of its relations with a State in order to modify the behavior or the incentives of another State.

There seem to be three basic conditions of a triangular relationship that allow a triangulation strategy to work.

The first is importance, or the situation in which each branch of a triangular relationship must engage the significant interests of each of its nodes. A triangular relationship does not necessarily imply three states of equal power; what is required is that each bilateral relationship be of actual or potential importance to the States concerned.

The second is agency, a situation in which each node has the ability to unilaterally alter the bilateral dynamics of each leg of the triangle of which it is a part in a way that will significantly alter the interests and calculations of the other node.

The third condition is balance, referring to the balance between the three bilateral relationships in a triangle.

Chairman Mao Tse-Tung of the People’s Republic of China meets US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1973. Photo: Getty Images

It must be delicate enough that a significant change in one bilateral has significant consequences for at least one other bilateral.

In other words, triangulation will not work if a change in one bilateral leg has little or no effect on the dynamics of the other leg.

My argument is that the Australia-US-China triangle has the required levels of importance, agency and balance to be conducive to triangulation by each of its members.

Arguably, a careful analysis of the triangle offers a much clearer understanding of the evolution of Australia’s bilateral relationship with China since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, and the recent deterioration of that relationship in a relatively short time.

It also offers a new perspective on the prospects for improving Sino-Australian relations in the short to medium term.

The Australia-US-China Triangle

At first glance, the Australia-US-China triangle is a triangle of unequal power.

However, closer examination shows that each node in the triangle has important interests to protect and promote in its bilateral relations with the other two nodes.

The United States and China are arguably the most important bilateral relationship in world politics. Photo: Getty Images

The relationship between the United States and China is arguably the most important bilateral relationship in world politics. As of 2008, they are the two largest economies in the world with the largest trade and investment relationship in the world.

At the same time, the strategic rivalry between China and the United States is significant and intensifying, arguably subjecting the wider Indo-Pacific region to ever more insistent polarization.

Although less important to the rest of the world, the bilateral relationship between the United States and Australia is complex and involves significant interests for both parties.

For Australia, the United States is its ultimate guarantor of security, offering the smallest partner extensive deterrence, intelligence, advanced weapons and a sense of cultural and ideological security for a Western democracy on the periphery of Asia. .

For the United States, Australia is important as the only Western ally in Asia, a member of the “Five Eyes” intelligence partnership providing coverage of the South Pacific and Southeast Asia, and an important geographic location. for the U.S. global presence, housing intelligence facilities. and now rotational and training facilities for US forces.

The Australia-China bilateral relationship is made meaningful to both parties by a powerful economic complementarity, which has seen each provide the other with inputs essential to its prosperity and development for decades.

For Australia, China’s growing centrality in Asia, in trade, investment, manufacturing, infrastructure and geopolitical clout means it is a crucial player in Australia’s evolving relationship with his region. For China, Australia’s role as a close ally of the United States makes it a potential opportunity and risk in its strategic competition with the United States.

The Australia-China bilateral relationship is important to both parties due to strong economic complementarity. Photo: Getty Images

The balance between the three legs of the triangle means that a significant change in one leg will in most cases have significant implications for the other.

The growing strategic rivalry between the United States and China from the 1990s eventually affected how Australia handled its relations with China and the United States.

Likewise, the growing economic interdependence between Australia and China, facilitated by cordial government-to-government relations and initiatives, has had a significant impact on the way the United States has dealt with Australia and has had an influence on American strategy in the Asia-Pacific.

The steady strengthening of the Australian-American alliance from the 1990s played a role in Beijing’s growing concern about the nature and intentions behind the American strategic position in the Pacific, influencing the evolution of grand strategy of China in the region.

The qualities of importance, agency, and balance have evolved over time for each of the three countries, as have their strategies for exploiting or managing triangulation potential. The full version of this article in the Australian Journal of Politics and History traces the influence of triangulation on Australia-China-US relations since 1949.

Sudden changes and big changes

The Australia-US-China case study shows that triangulation deserves much more systematic study in international relations, for both academic and practical reasons.

This shows that triangulation has a powerful logic, requiring deft political savvy to counter it.

For the United States, Australia is important as its only Western ally in Asia. Photo: Getty Images

For Australia, as long as it maintains a strong economic exchange with China and its alliance with the United States, this is likely to be the overarching foreign policy issue.

It also suggests that, however damaged its diplomatic ties with Beijing are and however close its alliance with the United States currently seems, a sudden change in one could precipitate a significant change in the other.

This may not be possible in the short term but can never be ruled out in the medium term.

Understanding the possible permutations of triangulation and their implications for Australian interests should be a central concern for scholars and practitioners of Australian foreign policy.

This is an edited extract from the full article by Professor Michael Wesley The triangulation challenge: China’s impact on the Australian-American alliance published in the Australian Journal of Politics and History.

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