Australia threatens China with agreement to host US troops

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Australia may lose more than it gains with its agreement to host US troops. Greg Barns says it couldjeopardise Australia's massive trade with China.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard will no doubt get a useful domestic political boost from her hosting of US President Barak Obama for 48 hours last week, but the longer term ramifications of her linking Australia to President Obama’s China military containment strategy might not be as positive.

Ms Gillard used US President Barak Obama’s visit on Wednesday this week to announce that Australia has agreed with a US request to station 2,500 US military personnel in the northern port city of Darwin, and to increase the number of US warships and aircraft coming through Australian facilities. And President Obama followed up 24 hours later with a provocative speech to the Australian Parliament in which he flagged that the US will “continue to speak candidly to Beijing about the importance of upholding international norms and respecting the universal human rights of the Chinese people".

Ms Gillard’s preparedness to link Australia so closely to a US containment of China strategy is a risky one if Beijing decides to get prickly with Canberra. Over the past eighteen months Australia has exported around $A70 billion worth of iron ore, coal and other products to China. In fact, it is China’s thirst for Australian commodities that has enabled Ms Gillard and her government to trumpet the fact that the Australian economy is still buoyant despite the meltdown in Europe and the recession ridden US.

From Beijing’s perspective, the message that Ms Gillard sent during President Obama’s visit was that Australia is prepared to play an active role in helping the US hang on to its influence in the Asia Pacific region — and to do so through military means if necessary.

President Obama and Ms Gillard’s defence announcement on Wednesday spoke of it being

 “…part of an ongoing review of U.S. force posture in the Asia-Pacific region intended to pursue a more geographically distributed, operationally resilient and politically sustainable military presence in this region.” 

China’s response to Ms Gillard’s tilt towards the US has been, as expected, a critical one. The People’s Daily website warned that if ''Australia uses its military bases to help the US harm Chinese interests, then Australia itself will be caught in the crossfire,” and that "Australia surely cannot play China for a fool. It is impossible for China to remain detached, no matter what Australia does to undermine its security".

These are stern warnings and the Australian government would be foolish not to take them seriously, given the fact that China’s continuing prosperity and high economic growth rates are critical to Australia’s economic fortunes.

While no one expects China to immediately snub Australian exports because of Ms Gillard’s love-in with President Obama this week, there is no doubt that, as leading Australian foreign policy commentator Hugh White observed, the joint military initiatives announcement, “is a very significant and potentially very risky move for Australia”.  Ms Gillard could do worse than head to Beijing sooner, rather than later, to reassure China that Australia is not turning its back on China.

(Greg Barns is a writer and former political adviser. This story was originally published in the South China Morning Post on Monday 21 November, 2011, and has been republished with the author’s permission.)

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