Australia’s Growing Anti-China Military Ties with the United States
or reload the browser
ON November 15, 2022, during the G20 summit in Bali (Indonesia), Australia’s prime minister Anthony Albanese told journalists that his country seeks a ‘stable relationship with China’. The main reason for this, Albanese said, is because China is ‘Australia’s largest trading partner. They are worth more than Japan, the US, and the Republic of Korea together combined’. China is Australia’s largest destination for exports, and it is the largest exporter into Australia. This has been the situation since 2009. When Albanese was asked if China’s president Xi Jinping raised the issue of Australia’s presence in several military pacts against China, Albanese said, issues of strategic rivalry were only discussed in ‘general comments’. For the past six years, China has largely ignored Australia’s requests for meetings due to its close military alignment with the United States. Now, in Bali, Xi Jinping made it clear that the Chinese-Australian relationship is one to be ‘cherished’.
Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd says that the deep freeze between Australia and China was due to the ‘US doctrine of strategic competition’ against China. The US National Security Strategy (2022) says that China is the ‘most consequential geopolitical challenge’ for the United States. At Bali, US president Joe Biden said that the competition with China must be ‘managed responsibly’, which suggested that the United States might take a less belligerent posture towards China including not pressuring China via US military pacts in Asia and through the intensification of a crisis over Taiwan. Rudd suggests that Biden’s shift in tone might have given Albanese the opportunity to ‘reset’ relations between Australia and China.
Before Albanese left for Bali, news broke about a plan to station six US B-52 bombers in northern Australia at the Tindal Air Force Base. These bombers are nuclear weapons capable. Additionally, the Australians will build 11 large storage tanks for jet fuel that will provide the United States with a refuelling capacity closer to China than Hawaii, the main fuel repository in the Pacific sector. The plan is that construction on this ‘squadron operations facility’ will start immediately and will be completed by 2026. Part of the $1 billion upgrade will be new equipment and an upgrade for the US-Australian spy base at Pine Gap.
The announcement about the upgrades to Tindal and Pine Gap is not a surprise. US bombers – including B-52s – have visited the base since the 1980s and have been part of US-Australian training operations since 2005. In 2016, the US commander of its Pacific air forces, General Lori Robinson said that the US would likely add the B-1 bomber – which has a longer range and a larger payload capacity – into these exercises. The US-Australian Enhanced Air Cooperation Initiative (2011) has already allowed for these expansions, although their increase has routinely embarrassed Australian government officials who would prefer that their presence not be too loudly in the public domain (this is partly due to the anti- nuclear sensibility in New Zealand and in many neighbouring Pacific island states who are signatories of the 1986 Treaty of Rarotonga that establishes the region as a nuclear-free zone).
The expansion of Tindal and the upgrades to Pine Gap are part of the overall deepening of the military and strategic ties between the United States and Australia. These ties have a long history, but they were formalised into the Australia, New Zealand, United States (ANZUS) Security Treaty of 1951 and by Australia’s entry into the Five Eyes intelligence network in 1956. Since then, Australia and the United States have tightened their security linkages including freeing up the transfer of military equipment from the US arms industry to Australia. In 2011, US president Barack Obama and Australian prime minister Julia Gillard agreed to position a few thousand US Marines at Tindal and to allow for frequent flights by US bombers to that base. This was part of Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’, which signalled the US pressure campaign against China’s economic advancement.
Two new security alignments – the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad, restarted in 2017) and AUKUS (2021) – further enhanced these ties. The Quad brought together India and Japan with Australia and the United States. Since 2006, Australia has hosted Exercise Pitch Black at Tindal, where various countries have joined in this military project. In 2018, India’s air force joined in and in 2022, Japan participated, so now all the Quad members and AUKUS members participate in this large airborne military training mission. Australian officials say that after the expansion of Tindal, Exercise Pitch Black will increase in size. In October 2022, prime minister Albanese and Japan’s prime minister Fumio Kishida signed a new agreement to update the 2007 security pact between the two countries. The new ‘reciprocal access agreement’ allows the two countries to conduct military exercises with each other. Kishida said that this new agreement was signed in response to ‘an increasingly harsh strategic environment’.
China’s foreign ministry responded to news of the expansion of Tindal and Pine Gap by saying, ‘Such a move by the US and Australia escalates regional tensions, gravely undermines regional peace and security and may trigger an arms race in the region’.
Albanese walked into the meeting with Xi hoping to end the trade restrictions placed by Beijing on Canberra. After he left the room, Albanese said that he hoped that the $20 billion restrictions would be raised soon. ‘It will take a while to see improvement in concrete terms going forward’, he said. There is no word from Beijing about the removal of these restrictions on Australia’s exports of barley, beef, coal, cotton, lobsters, timber, and wine into China that had been put in place in 2020.
The immediate spur for the restrictions was Australian prime minister Scott Morrison’s insinuation that China was responsible for the Covid-19 pandemic. Before that, in 2018, Australia’s government banned two Chinese telecommunications firms (Huawei and ZTE) from operating in its jurisdiction. The Australian ban and Morrison’s cavalier comments provoked the trade restrictions from Beijing. This was not a trivial policy change, since it meant a drop from $19 billion in Australia’s China trade in July 2021 to $13 billion in March 2022.
During the Albanese-Xi meeting, it was the Australian side that put forward a list of grievances, including ending Beijing’s restrictions on trade and asking Beijing to answer Australia’s concerns about human rights and democracy. Xi did not put anything on the table. He merely listened, shook hands, and left with the assurance that the two sides would continue to talk. This is a great advance from the ugly rhetoric during Scott Morrison’s prime ministership.
Australia wanted to normalise relations in terms of trade, but it wanted to maintain its expanded military ties with the United States. In October 2022, China’s ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian gave an address in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of Australia-China relations to be celebrated on 21 December. During this talk, ambassador Qian asked his Australian counterparts if they saw China as ‘a champion or a challenger’ of the international order. Australia’s government and press, he suggested, see China as a ‘challenger’, as a power that challenges the UN Charter and the multilateral system. However, ambassador Qian said, China sees itself as a ‘champion’ of greater collaboration between countries to address common problems. Albanese’s list of concerns placed before Xi signals that Australia, like the US, continues to treat China as a threat rather than as a partner. This general outlook towards China makes any possibility of genuine normalisation difficult. That is why ambassador Qian called for Australia to have ‘an objective and rational perception’ of China and for Canberra to develop ‘a positive and pragmatic policy towards China’.
The growth of anti-Chinese sentiment within Australia poses a serious problem for any move to normalisation. In May 2022, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi said that Australia would have to ‘correct’ several of its views on China before any advancement of relations. A recent poll shows that three-quarters of Australia’s population believes that China might be a military threat within the next two decades. This same survey showed that nearly 90 per cent of those polled said that the US-Australia military alliance is either very or fairly important. At the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore earlier this year, Australia’s deputy prime minister and defence minister Richard Marles said that countries need to engage each other through dialogue and diplomacy. ‘That includes the way we relate to China as well’, Marles said. That Albanese and Xi met in Bali is a sign of the importance of diplomacy and dialogue. However, even at that meeting, the attitude showed disregard for the ’way we relate to China’, as Marles said. Albanese will not be able to get the trade benefits that Australia would like unless there is a reversal in these attitudes and in the US-Australia military posture towards China.
or reload the browser
or reload the browser