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For Australia, Close US, China Ties Require Delicate Diplomacy

  • Phil Mercer

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard speaks during a news conference, November 8, 2012.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard speaks during a news conference, November 8, 2012.

The Australian government says it does not expect any significant changes in its relationship with China under incoming leader Xi Jinping. China is Australia’s biggest trading partner, but Canberra is also a close military ally of the United States. Australian officials hope to maintain good relations with both countries.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard said Xi Jinping, who served as China's vice president for the last five years, was well known to Australian officials who were anticipating a close working relationship with him.

Senior ministers in Canberra insist that China, which is Australia's largest trading partner, is relaxed about Australia's growing defense ties with the United States as it attempts to strike a delicate diplomatic balance with Beijing and Washington.

Earlier this week U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and the Defense Secretary Leon Panetta held talks with their Australian counterparts in Perth, where they discussed closer military cooperation.

Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr says although the security pact with Washington is fundamental to his country’s national security, Canberra must also pursue greater economic ties with China, whose growing population has increasing demand for Australian agricultural and mineral exports.

“It is still useful that China’s legitimate concerns about food security, and resource and energy security are met through a relationship with a reliable partner like Australia. I do not think you can put a price on that,” Carr said.

Some regional observers and former politicians, however, believe that Australia’s close alliance with the United States is detrimental to its prospects in Asia.

Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating has insisted that Canberra should do much more to foster closer ties with Indonesia, its giant Muslim neighbor to the north, rather than become overly submissive to Washington’s policy agenda.

“Our sense of independence has flagged and as it flagged we have rolled back into an easy accommodation with the foreign policy objectives of the United States,” Keating said.

Australia’s view of its place in the world is shaped by three competing influences. Its historic links to Britain, Australia’s former colonial master, remain strong, while the formal security alliance with the United States dates back to 1951. Then there is the booming trade relationship with China, which has insulated Australia from the worst of the global economic slowdown.

Negotiating a sensible diplomatic path is a challenge for Australia’s political leaders as they try to balance the need to recognize the country’s heritage, national security and economic prosperity.