If the results of the recent poll commissioned by the Australia-China Relations Institute are a reliable guide, the majority of Australians share a ruthlessly pragmatic approach to foreign policy.
Australians are apparently so averse to upsetting all-important diplomatic and trade ties with China that 68 per cent of respondents said Canberra should turn down a US president’s request for assistance in a military conflict over the Japanese-controlled, but Chinese-claimed, Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.
Notwithstanding legitimate concerns about being dragged into North Asia’s volatile great power politics, Australia should leave open the option of going to war with China in the East China Sea.
Of course, as former foreign and defence ministers Bob Carr and David Johnston have emphasised, it would be reckless to pre-emptively commit to providing Australian military support to Japan and the United States in the event of an escalating clash between the Japanese and Chinese militaries over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.
Such a commitment would prompt an angry reaction from Beijing, and would raise further Chinese suspicions that the US-led network of Asian alliances is a tool to contain China’s international ambitions.
Moreover, pre-emptively pledging Australian military support would be premature.
The US-Japanese security treaty commits the United States and Japan to ‘act to meet the common danger’ of ‘an armed attack against either party in the territories under the administration of Japan,’ including the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.
By contrast, the security treaty between Australia and the United States only calls on Australia to act to defend the United States in the event that its territories, armed forces, public vessels or aircraft are attacked.
This means that although a Chinese assault on the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands would prompt US action, it would only require an Australian response if the aggression also constituted an attack on the United States.
Given Australia’s deep diplomatic and political bonds with the United States and post-World War II record of consistently assenting to US requests for military support, there may be an overwhelming expectation in Washington that Canberra should join the fight. Nevertheless, the precise wording of the US-Australian security treaty would not require immediate Australian participation.
This, however, does not mean that Australia should rule out involvement in a US-supported Japanese war with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.
Beijing has a long track record of using border incursions, industrial sabotage, naval brinkmanship, and other aggressive tactics to advance its territorial claims in the East and South China seas and on the Indian subcontinent.
With the Chinese military expected to emerge as the world’s most powerful in the next few decades, and Beijing unlikely to give up its uncompromising stance towards its territorial claims, China’s already provocative tactics are likely to become increasingly aggressive.
In this context, an official Australian policy of neutrality in the East China Sea dispute would amount to a de facto assurance that Canberra will not stand in China’s way if it chooses to militarise the conflict.
This would not only alienate Australia’s numerous Asian friends and partners that are locked in tense territorial disputes with China, but would tacitly encourage Chinese territorial assertiveness.
Instead of playing into China’s revisionist goals with an official statement of neutrality, regional security and Australia’s national interest would be best served by a policy of ‘strategic ambiguity.’
Canberra should neither pre-commit to Australian participation in a US-supported Japanese military response to Chinese actions in the East China Sea, nor rule out going to war with China in the event of a request for assistance from Tokyo and Washington.
By taking a strategically ambiguous stance, Canberra would chasten Beijing’s territorial ambitions by leaving doubts in the mind of the Chinese leadership as to whether key regional powers like Australia will tolerate aggressive tactics.
Strategic ambiguity would also moderate a US-supported Japanese response by making it clear that an Australian military contribution is not assured.
Australians are understandably fearful of becoming entangled in Asia’s bitter territorial disputes, and yet a blanket refusal to take sides would simply benefit the most powerful and determined claimant state.
Canberra should therefore offer no assurances of neutrality and should leave open the option of joining a US-supported Japanese war with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.
Dr Benjamin Herscovitch is a Beijing-based Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.