During his brief visit to Australia, President Barack Obama announced the basing of 2500 American Marines in Darwin and, in the next breath, said this was not aimed at China. Nobody bought the line, least of all the Chinese. They saw it as a clear sign of a more belligerent United States stance in the Asia-Pacific region. They also asked why Australia, much of whose prosperity flows from mining exports to China, would allow itself to be part of such a policy. It was a reasonable question, and one that poses potentially serious ramifications for Australia and, conceivably, this country.
Julia Gillard, the Australian Prime Minister, believes her country can cultivate good relations with both the US and China. If the latter has become of prime importance economically, and never more so than during a time of global tumult, the other is a long-term ally that stood by Australia when Darwin itself was bombed. "I think it is well and truly possible for us, in this growing region of the world, to have an ally in the United States and to have deep friendships in our region, including China," she said.
But the cultivation of good relations with both countries will become more difficult if the Chinese become increasingly distrustful of America's military build-up and deem that this activity is designed to isolate them. They have certainly been handed grounds for suspicion. First, President Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, went to considerable lengths to cement closer ties with previously non-aligned India. Now, the US is not only placing Marines on Australian soil but plans to increase ship visits and training in the Philippines and Singapore and to boost co-operation with Vietnam and Cambodia.
Speaking in Canberra, President Obama made it clear that America's chief strategic priority was now the Asia-Pacific region. It would, he said, "largely define whether the century ahead will be marked by conflict or co-operation, needless suffering or human progress". He talked about regional stability but, above all, made it plain the US had no intention of relinquishing its power in the area. Alliances such as that with Australia would play a pivotal role in this. A rising and peaceful China was welcome, said the President, but Beijing had to "play by the rules of the road" in terms of international norms and respecting universal human rights.
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Those wary of China point to its growing military strength and territorial claims in the South China Sea, many of them of a long-standing historical nature. But the Chinese can hardly be accused of demonstrating overly aggressive tendencies. Therefore, it is valid to question whether the US military build-up is either warranted or represents the correct approach and, equally, whether Australia should have involved itself.
Just as the interests of Australia and this country do not always coincide, neither do those of Australia and the US. In trading interests at least, there is a glaring disconnect between Canberra and Washington. And if Australia's trade with China presents no problem to the US, that cannot necessarily be said of Beijing's view of the military ties between Australia and the US.
Additionally, sabre rattling is not guaranteed to cajole China into playing by the "rules of the road". Indeed, it could breed greater hostility and aggression. For that very reason, President Obama has eschewed the tactic in his dealings with, for example, Iran. It may be that he sees China's growth as posing a far greater threat, not least to America's previously unchallenged international hegemony. Either way, Australia has become embroiled in a strategy that could rebound on not only itself but any neighbour wanting good relations with China.