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Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A Realist Perspective on Australia’s Indo-Pacific Predicament

Source: Unsplash

Jonathan Adams

The United States has made clear her position on Chinese expansion in the South China Sea. Where does this leave Australia?

In an unexpected statement on July 13th, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made clear the United States’ position on Chinese claims in the South China Sea. As one might have expected, the American position unequivocally opposes any such territorial expansion. This statement represents a shift in American foreign policy, from their de facto neutrality to direct contradiction with China. With economic dependence on China and military dependence on the US, these two opposing sides have left Australia floundering in the middle. Debate has arisen, in recent weeks, as to which side Australia should favour, and, indeed, if we should even commit ourselves to one single alliance. From the outset, one might reasonably think that Australia is in a position to choose - a choice between US military support and Chinese economic support, however this ‘choice’ is an illusion. We have but one choice, and that is to side with the United States.

Put memorably by Congressman John Farnsworth in 1867, “the first duty of the Government is to afford protection to its citizens.” Broadly recognised amongst state actors, this claim leads, in part, to the anarchical nature of the international arena. Since Australia realises the good sense of this realpolitik doctrine, there will be an inevitable fork in the road, a moment when utilitarian convenience must be weighed against the intangibles of public interest. Despite the Morrison Government’s recent shift towards more independent operation, Australia’s defence strategy remains entirely reliant on the United States. In September 2006, the then Defence Minister Brendan Nelson outlined Australia’s military doctrine as one of ‘interoperability’. “Interoperability”, he said, “refers to the structured effort by two or more countries in an alliance to ensure that their forces can operate together seamlessly.” This principle is formalised through the ANZUS treaty, which outlines that, should the situation require, Australian forces would operate as part of a broader US-led coalition. Nelson explains: “In practical terms this means things such as operating procedures, common communications links, common doctrine and standards, and compatible equipment.” Australia’s commitment to US-led interoperability is demonstrated by our 126 million dollar investment in the US-made F-35 Lightning aircraft, our ongoing participation in Exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercises, and the continued presence of US Marines in Darwin. With our eggs so heavily invested in one basket, Australia would be foolish to jeopardise her national security simply in order to pursue a course of Chinese appeasement.

Perhaps the most pertinent statement to come from Mr. Pompeo’s announcement, was that which outlined the United States’ vision for the greater Indo-Pacific,

“In the South China Sea, we [the US] seek to preserve peace and stability, uphold freedom of the seas in a manner consistent with international law, maintain the unimpeded flow of commerce, and oppose any attempt to use coercion or force to settle disputes.”

These aims appear consistent with the long-standing Australian position that all claims in the South China Sea should be in accord with the international law, especially the law as expressed in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Owing to our ‘middle-power’ status, Australia’s reluctance to engage in open opposition to China appears to have been in the hope of a diplomatic resolution. However, as a liberal democracy in the Indo-Pacific, Australia has an obligation to stand up to states that “[use] intimidation to undermine the sovereign rights of Southeast Asian coastal states … bully them out of offshore resources, assert unilateral dominion, and replace international law with “might makes right.” If Australia does not side with the United States, openly and unapologetically opposing Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea, we run the risk of such ‘might makes right’ behaviour becoming a norm within the international arena. If there was ever a time to substantiate our commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific, is it now.

A very real concern is the considerable impact Chinese opposition will have on the Australian economy. Indeed, Australian barley-farmers and meat producers are already bearing the brunt of China’s retaliation to Australia’s support for a COVID inquiry. For many still on the fence, the economic hardship experienced by those tariffed industries suggests that we would benefit from engaging in some sort of concession policy to avoid further economic repercussions. This argument is naïve and ill-considered. Rather, China will use our economic dependence as leverage in international negotiations, and we shall, in the long term, find ourselves in a worse position than if we had chosen to preserve our national security in the first place. This is explained by Yifan Hu, chief economist at Haitong International,

“China’s non-intervention policy has been a successful strategy in an early stage of development, but with increasing interests abroad, this strategy is no longer in China’s interests. Under the new circumstances, it could be an active and better strategy for China to leverage its rising economic power in international affairs to better promote its interests worldwide.”

In a forward thinking proposition, Queensland Senator Matt Canavan painted the choice between the United States and China as an opportunity to diversify our economy. “We must reduce our dependence on one country”, Canavan said. With particular emphasis on the resources industry, “[Australia has] a strategic interest in developing alternative customers for those products”. By choosing the US, the economy will undoubtedly suffer in the short-term, but a secure national defence and plentiful resources make Australia an attractive option for new international investors. This spells out a long-term economic benefit, one which will see us in good stead for the foreseeable future, and which will more than outweigh the repercussions of moving away from Chinese reliance.

Australia must dispel the illusion that we have a choice between the United States and China. Those searching for some kind of compromise do so in vain. This point is illustrated by the father of realism, Niccolò Machiavelli in his magnum opus, The Prince;

“A prince also wins prestige for being a true friend or a true enemy, that is, for revealing himself without any reservation in favour of one side or another. This policy is always more advantageous than neutrality.”

Machiavelli makes an argument for making a choice. For Machiavelli, neutrality was a guarantor of defeat; it was better to be a staunch ally and pick the wrong side, than remain neutral and suffer not only defeat, but humiliation. While the nature of international relations may have changed, Machiavelli’s realpolitik principles stand true today. Australia cannot remain neutral. We must do our bit to uphold those values we hold dear: peace, justice, and the rule of law.


Jonathan Adams intends to begin a Bachelor of Politics, Philosophy and Economics at the Australian National University next year. He has an interest in politics, international relations and international security.