It’s a headache-inducing decision that’s been looming over Canberra for many years, but as an intensifying trade war between the US and China sends shockwaves through the global economy, Australia may soon have to make its mind up.
On one side there’s our biggest trading partner China, helping us rack up more than 28 years of economic growth and stopping us falling victim to the Global Financial Crisis that caused so much despair across Europe and the US in 2008.
On the other there’s Donald Trump’s United States, which is still the world’s biggest superpower — and to whom we share close ties over culture, language and politics.
More importantly, they’re also our biggest security ally in an uncertain world. Australia has fought alongside the US in all of its major military activities in the past century.
Professor John Mearsheimer — author of five books and an influential professor at the University of Chicago — says Australia will have no choice but to ultimately choose United States over China.
Speaking at a Centre of Independent Studies event on Thursday, he said there’s going to be an “intense security competition” between the US and China in the coming years — leaving the possibility of war on the table.
He said this is because there’s only room for one ruling superpower in the world and the US spent the entire 20th century knocking down threats to its domination, from Imperial Germany in WWI through to the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1989.
“The United States does not tolerate peer competitors,” he said. “Now, the Chinese are going to imitate the United States.”
Having endured a “century of humiliation” at the hands of Western powers and Japan between 1839 and 1949, China is “going to want to dominate Asia the way the US dominates the Western Hemisphere”.
“Why? Because it’s the best way to survive,” Prof Mearsheimer said. “You want to be big. You want to be powerful and I don’t blame them.”
To achieve this, Prof Mearsheimer says China has bolstered its military power in a way it sees as defensive — but the US sees as offensive in nature.
Vice versa, when the US talks about putting intermediate-range ballistic missiles in places like Australia, Guam and South Korea, China sees it as an offensive move.
“You can see the arms race happening already,” Prof Mearsheimer said. “The end result is that everything the Chinese do to defend themselves, we see as evidence that they’re offensively oriented and vice versa and this exacerbates the situation. So there’s big trouble ahead.”
Australia is caught in the middle of this and the choice it faces between the two superpowers is one that many Asian nations, like South Korea and the Philippines, are confronted with.
“My view is that Australia has no choice to side with the Americans,” Prof Mearsheimer said. “This is not to say that Australia will stop all trade with China, because I don’t believe that will happen.
“But security concerns always trump prosperity or economic concerns because survival is the highest goal any state can have. Security matters the most.
“So from Australia’s point of view it makes eminently more sense to align with the United States.”
As an intensifying trade war continues to rattle the global economy — sending the Aussie dollar to a 10-year low last week — Labor is trying to put the spotlight on divisions within the coalition government on how to deal with China.
Overnight, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said Australia and the United States need to work together now more than ever before.
He told an American-Australian Leadership Dialogue dinner in Perth that Australia had a duty to stand with the US in times of global uncertainty.
“It’s not only our privilege to be strong, it’s our duty to be strong and this is where America’s place in the world is so important,” he said, according to The Australian.
“It’s more important than ever that our two great nations, the United States and Australia, work more closely than ever.
“We need to work together in an unprecedented way across the economic, the strategic and the political realms, and to do so consistent with our values, consistent with our objectives, and faithful to our history.”
Liberal backbencher Andrew Hastie was criticised last week for comparing the rise of China to Nazi Germany in the 1940s, drawing a mixed reaction from his coalition colleagues and condemnation from Beijing.
Labor says there must be consistency when it comes to foreign policy, pointing to mixed reactions to Mr Hastie’s comments as evidence of divisions within the government ranks.
“I think where we’ve landed at the present period of time is a sense of confusion, about what is one of the most important issues that Australians (will) have to grapple with for the next 25 to 50 years,” Labor’s Anthony Byrne told ABC’s Radio National.
“It would be good to have a cohesive conversation about this, a measured conversation about this, a calm conversation about this.”
Trade Minister Simon Birmingham on Sunday urged his colleagues to think before they speak on sensitive foreign policy matters.
Meanwhile, President Trump announced on Friday from Washington D.C. that he wasn’t ready to finalise a trade deal with Beijing.
“We’re not ready to make a deal,” Mr Trump told reporters at the White House before heading out on vacation at his New Jersey golf resort.
“China wants to do something, but I’m not ready to do anything yet. Twenty-five years of abuse — I’m not ready so fast, so we’ll see how that works out.”
Originally published as Australia’s impossible China dilemma