Is Abbott’s Australia Choosing Beijing over Washington?

Is Abbott’s Australia Choosing Beijing over Washington?

The recent election of Tony Abbott as the new Prime Minister of Australia has again raised the issue of Australia’s strategic importance for both Beijing and Washington. Abbott, a conservative with a long and sometimes controversial history in the Liberal Party, defeated Kevin Rudd on 7 September.

The election itself focused on many, largely domestic issues as well as the requisite personal jabs at both Rudd and Abbott. While the ongoing crisis in Syria was used by Rudd to attack Abbott’s comparative inexperience in foreign affairs, foreign policy itself did not play a major role. This is perhaps somewhat odd given that geopolitical and economic realities are giving Australia increasing prominence in the international system.

Growth in Asia, and particularly China, has been an important factor in Australia’s comparative success during the global recession. A fairly successful stimulus package under Rudd’s premiership targeted households, the housing industry, public works, broadband and other sectors, and was described by economist Joseph Stiglitz as “probably the best designed stimulus package of any … advanced industrial country, both in size and in design, and how it was spent.”

Although the stimulus package has received much credit, the commodities boom played a great role in ensuring Australia’s comparative success over the difficult last few years for many industrialised countries. China’s role in that boom certainly helped Australia weather the economic storm.

While Rudd has noted that the boom is now over, it remains undisputed that the linkage between Chinese growth and Australia’s economic success has only increased. As an example of the growing emphasis on ties between the two countries, Rudd is a noted expert on China and fluent in Mandarin, something that did not go unnoticed by the domestic or international media. Given its Anglo traditions and close economic ties to China and other regional powers such as Japan and South Korea, Australia is uniquely positioned to deal with noticeable shifts in the international system occur and China’s continued reemergence and unparalleled growth.

Trade between Australia and China has steadily grown. Bilateral trade increased by 38.8 percent from 2010 to 2013 and Australian exports to China grew by 38.9 percent during the same period. Despite the end of the commodities boom, Australian exports of coal, iron ore and copper have continued at a respectable rate. In addition, Australian exports of meat, wheat and cotton have risen since 2009 by 147 percent, 215 percent and 319 percent, respectively. Australia also continues to be the first destination for many Chinese tourists as cultural and educational exchanges continue to expand rapidly.

Australia has benefited enormously from Chinese growth, but it has also enjoyed strong ties with other notable regional powers. Japan is Australia’s second largest trading partner and maintains long-running economic ties. With free trade agreements on offering, such ties look likely to continue and strengthen.

While ongoing Free Trade Agreement talks with the Republic of Korea have hit some roadblocks since 2009, it nonetheless seems likely that increasing ties between the Seoul and Canberra will continue and an agreement will be reached at some point. While ties between Canberra and Beijing have rightfully received attention, Australia also continues to deepen ties with other neighboring countries.

Australia and the United States have a long and historically close relationship predicated on both economic issues and a shared understanding of security concerns since the ANZUS Treaty of 1951 – a collective security agreement between the U.S., Australia and New Zealand. Despite issues with New Zealand in the 1980s, defense and security ties and commitments between the U.S. and Australia have continued.

However, some distance emerged in U.S.-Australian relations following Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s politically costly support of the Iraq War coupled with the lack of a unifying threat after the Cold War. Increasing economic ties and dependency on China amidst Beijing’s dissatisfaction with the U.S. ‘pivot’ has led to further questioning of both the future and the extent of a U.S.-Australian relationship.

In some respects, Canberra has sought to avoid potentially having to ‘choose’ between the U.S. and China by continuing to increase its ties with other regional powers. Some have sought to discern the new Prime Minister’s position on Canberra’s relations with both the U.S. and China and in so doing have noted Abbott’s talk of an ‘Anglosphere’ and trying to support the United States whenever he can, including in Syria.

Still, such speculation only belabors the fact that Australia, with its growing dependency on China, close ties to regional actors increasingly concerned over the nature of Chinese power and historic relationship with the U.S., is of increasing importance as the international system shifts.


Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Sean Durns

Sean Durns worked as a research assistant to a former high ranking Pentagon official and the Director of National Security Strategies at a DC based think tank. His analysis has been referenced by a variety of media outlets including The Wall Street Journal, Roubini's EconoMonitor, OilPrice, and many more. He holds a M.Sc. in History of International Relations from the London School of Economics where he focused on US foreign policy, security studies, and energy security.