Trilateral alliance or limited hedge?

With Australian Prime Minister John Howard set to arrive in Japan today for a four-day visit, Australia and Japan have reportedly agreed to a new security declaration that will likely (I say likely because it hasn’t been released to the public yet) enhance bilateral cooperation on a range of defense issues, including intelligence sharing, PKO, and humanitarian relief. Prime Ministers Abe and Howard will meet on Tuesday.

It is probably a mistake — for both Beijing and Washington — to overestimate the value of this agreement, because Australia is especially trapped between the prospect of an antagonistic China and a cooperative China.

On the one hand, relations between China and Australia have enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years (see this speech from 2004 by Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer). The economic relationship has been particularly strong, with China hungrily importing a range of primary products and services from Australia, as this overview of the relationship provided by the Australian government as background to a China-Australia FTA attests.

At the same time though, under Prime Minister Howard, Australia has strengthened its alliance with the US, acting as the third partner in a kind of global Anglosphere posse (the activities of which are, to say the least, distinctly at odds with China’s vision of the global order).

Howard captured Australia’s unenviable position in this mealy-mouthed comment in a joint press conference with Vice President Cheney during the latter’s recent visit to Australia:

In relation to China, Australia, as you know, has striven over the last decade to build a very close relationship with China. But we’ve always done it against a background of being realistic about the nature of political society in that country. We have no illusions that China remains an authoritarian country. We have sought to emphasize in our relations with China those practical things that we have in common. And we do, I hope, with appropriate modesty regard it as one of the foreign policy successes of this country over the last decade that we have simultaneously become ever closer in our relationship with our great ally the United States, but at the same time built a very constructive, understandable relationship with China.

But we always look at these things from a practical standpoint. We have no false illusions about the nature of China’s society. But we see positive signs in the way in which China and the United States have worked together, particularly in relation to North Korea. And nothing is more important to the stability of our own region at the present time than resolving the North Korean nuclear situation. And I think the way in which China and the United States have worked together on that is wholly positive and is obviously to the credit of both of those countries.

So to view this agreement — together with last year’s US-Japan-Australia Trilateral Strategic Dialogue — as anything more than a slight hedging option in the midst of very real cooperation between all three countries and China is overblown. Each is trapped in its own way by mutual interdependence with China.

As overblown responses go, that includes China’s, which, according to The Australian, has voiced reservations of the Australia-Japan declaration. If Australia, Japan, and the US are bolstering their hedge against Chinese belligerence, it’s because China has given them enough reason for concern: hedging by these countries is a sign of Chinese policy failure, not belligerence on the part of the trilateral partners. If China were to sound slightly more conciliatory and look slightly less like a country eager for regional hegemony buttressed by military power, each party to the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue would be less likely to push for a hard hedge.

I can’t help but wonder what post-Howard Australia will look like in terms of its Asia-Pacific policy. Will Australia, in some sense like post-Koizumi Japan, compensate for Howard’s emphasis on strong ties with Washington by reorienting to continental Asia and placing less emphasis on the nascent tripartite maritime hedge?

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