Australia and diplomacy, more trouble than its worth?
Australia and diplomacy, more trouble than its worth?

Australia finds itself walking a fine line between the regional interests of its partners, China, the United States, Japan, and others. Efforts to assuage tensions with one lead to tensions with another. What does this look like and where do the efforts of maintaining this delicate balance leave Australia?

Swirl paw

Canberra, Australia – Sunday 8 November 2015

Australia's experience is quite diverse when it comes to utilising diplomacy for the countries maximum benefit. As it stands, the simple reduction of Australia's security situation is that it is placed between two great powers. Those powers being China and the United States. The heart of the matter is that both countries provide a different security good for Australia, and both countries have, at times, contradicting stances on matters. This places Australia at odds, and as one professor at the Australian University described it - the "China choice". For Australia, diplomacy surely does solve problems but also aggravate them in this context.

There are numerous cases of this phenomena. These range from strategic issues, to economic issues, to actual displays of diplomacy. On the count of strategic issues, a renowned example is when Australia declared that it would facilitate upwards of 2,500 United States Marine soldiers in the Northern Territory in support of the United States' "pivot" to Asia. One the one hand, the diplomacy that went into this arrangement meant that the United States was assured of Australia's commitment to regional order, the Australia, New Zealand, United States alliance, as well as to the United States and its regional agenda. This was surely a positive step in terms of strengthening the security partnership, and in general providing more breadth to the diplomatic terms in which Australia could negotiate with vis-à-vis the United States. However, the unforeseen outcome, or perhaps it was foreseen however apathy ensued, was that China became deeply unimpressed with Australia's actions. What this entire event had done for Australia was cement Australia's position in terms of defence matters, and that was that it stood alongside with the United States. This was the type of division which was unrecognisable with China, which has ambitions of not only being able to secure its own sovereign borders, but the wider region and potentially global aspirations or contributions. As the crux of the matter is not necessarily in the on goings of the security matters at hand today, but more so on what can happen in the unpredictable future, Australia has placed itself on a now set trajectory.

Port of Darwin
Port of Darwin

Australia however, was very good at serving this type of aggravation to both of its security and economic partners. The Darwin government recently signed a sale of Australia's only strategically viable port in Northern Australia to a Chinese company. This sale drew criticisms from certain conservative parts of government, and in essence placed a strain on the strategic relationship with the United States. At least in the short term. Such short term prospects, which have been strained, have also had diplomatic solutions found for them, however long term solutions will require greater effort on behalf of the Australian government to sooth the United States' anxieties for the effectiveness of the military assets in Australia. For example, the Australian government had negotiated that defence could use the port for at least fifteen years before they had to find other means of operational deployment. However, as the port sold for half a billion dollars, and was the only port in the North which could facilitate Australia's new HMAS Canberra class vessels, it seems unlikely that Australia will be able to genuinely recuperate the strategic loss. After all, if Australia did have half a billion dollars to invest in strategic assets in the North, then the Federal government would have acquired the port, not a Chinese corporation. Nevertheless, the short term prospects seem to not be that significant. However, the act of territory level diplomacy has, in effect, made the wider Federal state and defence level diplomatic situation tenderer. Therefore, in this instance, Australia had proven that its diplomatic activities had soothed China, yet aggravated the United States.

Another example which Australia has to offer in terms of diplomacy being a solution and a problem, is that of when Australia signed a security partnership with the Japanese government. The security partnership was a clever solution to the pressing needs to the security situation in the Asia-Pacific. The partnership has much of the benefits of an alliance framework, without the downfalls nor the obligations. The partnership was a diplomatic affirmation of Australia's support for a United States led regional order, and an understanding of Japans significance and capability in the region to be a security provider. This again aggravated China. Although no serious economic nor political ramifications have occurred, these stains nevertheless have a cumulative effect on the diplomatic situation. At the least, these issues continue to push strategic issues toward ones in which Australia and China cannot closely negotiate nor cooperate over, despite recent military visiting from Beijing to Canberra.

Subsequently, Australia has again managed to aggravate its relationship with its primary security provider, the United States, in an attempt to cool tensions with China. This time, it is on the subject of the Australian contribution to the South China Sea, and Australia sending vessels to conduct maritime patrols. Australia, despite signing security agreements, strengthening its alliance, and supporting United States led military operations globally, has shown ambiguity over the South China Sea in terms of what it will contribute to freedom of navigation exercises in that region. For the United States, Australia's caution as to not draw criticism from China, that is, Australia's dual wielding of both countries, is straining both of them simultaneously.

In conclusion, at least on the matter of Australia's diplomatic handling of the United States-China-Australia security relationship, Australia as a case study has shown that diplomacy can both solve issues while, at the same time, aggravating them. For Australia, no amount of rapid shuffling between its partners will solve anything, as the issue at hand is inherently one of tensions between the two parties themselves, with Australia simply being an expression of that matter.

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