A top US military official has said that Australia should choose between stronger ties with Washington or Beijing, stressing that there has to be “a decision as to which one is more of a vital national interest.”
“I think the Australians need to make a choice … it’s very difficult to walk this fine line between balancing the alliance with the United States and the economic engagement with China,” US Army Assistant Chief of Staff Colonel Tom Hanson said on radio station Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
“There’s going to have to be a decision as to which one is more of a vital national interest for Australia,” he added.
Hanson blasted the lack of protest by Australia against Chinese maneuvers in the South Sea, saying that Beijing “clearly … believes that they have an opportunity and they feel empowered to flout that.”
“A demonstration by Australia would be welcome,” also said.
The official hurried to mention, though, that the views were his own, and not those of the US government.
Hanson’s statement came after the publication of a 205-page parliamentary briefing book on Tuesday which warned Australian MPs to treat China’s pursuit of “legitimate interests” with caution.
“Australia needs to adopt a more economically and strategically prudent attitude in determining how the Australia-China economic relationship is to further develop,” the booklet read.
Meanwhile, the country’s former PM Paul Keating has accused Canberra of lacking a strong foreign policy position with regards to the China-US battle for influence in the region.
“Australia needs a foreign policy, and it needs it urgently. Australia does not have a foreign policy,” he said talking in Sydney on Tuesday.
“We both need and deserve a nuanced foreign policy which does take account of these big seismic shifts in the world. And we can’t ever be caught up in some containment policy of China … to assist the Americans in trying to preserve strategic hegemony in Asia and the Pacific.”
In response, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said that the US role in the Indo-Pacific region is as essential as ever and Australia is committed to the primacy of the US alliance.
“We are balancing relationships between our largest strategic ally and our largest trading partner with deft diplomacy, consistency and pragmatism,” Bishop said.
Currently China is Australia’s largest two-way trading partner in goods and services valued at $155.5 billion in 2015, according to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The two countries signed a free trade agreement which entered into force in December 2015 boosting growing trade and enhancing an investment relationship. Increasing numbers of Australian businesses have been entering the Chinese market in the past years with great success.
Left wing political forces in Australia “used to stick to the position that Australia should take a mid-course between the US and China,” Gregory Clark, a former Australian diplomat, told RT, adding that the former prime minister, Kevin Rudd, had been “the chief proponent of that idea.”
However, “the US used its influence to have him pushed out of the office and then replaced him with the one, who is strongly pro-US on this question with China,” Clark added, emphasizing that public opinion in Australia is now strongly pro-US.
He also stressed that “this move by a US official … signifies the beginning of a fairly intense struggle to push Australia in one direction or another,” adding at the same time that “Australia will continue its current policy – it will join America in these provocative Freedom of Navigation Exercises but probably will refrain from doing it by itself.”
“Until China imposes economic sanctions against Australia, Australia will not move in a pro-Chinese direction,” he said.