Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s recent visit to the US came at a time when Canberra’s relations with Washington and Beijing are seeing some strains. Since Trump assumed office, US-Australia ties have been in constant flux. Earlier in 2017, Trump and Turnbull had a robust phone call on the refugee deal, which Trump described as “the worst by far” of calls to world leaders. In May, Turnbull visited the US but met Trump only for 30 minutes after the meeting was postponed by the White House for three hours. While Trump visited Japan, South Korea and other US allies during his one-year term in office, he hasn’t paid an official visit to Australia, and didn’t appoint an ambassador to Canberra until very recently.
In the meantime, Sino-Australian relations have seen cross currents. Turnbull chimed in with Australian media in spreading the China threat theory, which has severely jeopardized Beijing-Canberra ties. Australia’s intervention in the South China Sea issue also affected its relations with China.
Turnbull’s recent Washington visit intended to improve ties and strengthen the alliance with the US. Trump responded positively by tapping US Pacific Commander Harry Harris, known for his friendly exchanges with high-level Australian officials, as ambassador to Canberra ahead of Turnbull’s trip. The visit achieved the desired results and strengthened US-Australia ties.
But meanwhile, Turnbull spoke well of China by publicly declaring that “we do not describe China as a threat.”
In security, Australia closely follows the US. It endeavors to strengthen its alliance with Washington and maintain US-led Asia-Pacific order. Consolidating the US-Australia alliance is a priority for Canberra’s diplomacy. Australia has profited lucratively from the US-dominated Asia-Pacific order since World War II, and thus expects to maintain such order so as to enjoy more benefits from the region’s development. Australia is also worried about a rising China overturning the current order, destabilizing the Asia-Pacific geopolitical environment and preventing it from continuing to benefit from the Asia-Pacific order. Therefore, it is in dire need of strengthening its alliance with the US in an attempt to counter China’s influence.
Economically, Australia seeks to strengthen cooperation and develop trading relations with China to share dividends from the country’s rise. China has been Australia’s No.1 export market and the largest source of imports for years. The two countries have already established mutually dependent economic ties. The signing of the Free Trade Agreement has expanded and deepened Sino-Australian economic cooperation. Australia attached importance to relations with China in its 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper.
Regionally, Australia pursues stability in the Asia-Pacific, which has become the engine of world economic growth. Canberra is accelerating its integration into the region. A prosperous and stable Asia-Pacific provides a sound exterior environment for Australia to develop as a middle power. Sino-US conflict and regional turbulence are the least Australia wants to see.
Amid drastic changes in the Asia-Pacific region, Australia has strengthened its diplomatic independence. While being a loyal ally of the US, it doesn’t want to give up developing a close trading partnership with China. Unwilling to pick sides between China and the US, Australia seeks to strike a balance between the two, which has also caused contradictions within its diplomacy.