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Australia seeks own position in Indo-Pacific region amidst US, China expansion

U.S. State Secretary Mike Pompeo, right, poses with Japan's Foreign Minister Taro Kono, left, and Australia's Foreign Minister Julie Bishop before a trilateral meeting on the sidelines of the 51st ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in Singapore on Aug. 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Yong Teck Lim)
Rory Medcalf (Mainichi)
Peter Jennings (Mainichi)

CANBERRA, Australia -- Amid the increasing influence of the United States and China in the Indo-Pacific region and their developing trade war, the Australian government is trying to build its own position as it strives to keep a balance between the two giants. But Australian experts on the region have differing views on the direction they think Canberra should aim for.

Earlier this year, Australia tried to get closer to the United States. In June, a meeting was held in Singapore between Australian Minister for Defense Marise Payne, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Japan Minister of Defense Itsunori Onodera, and the defense chiefs agreed to create guidelines to keep maritime order in the region amid China's increasing influence. In addition, the three countries created a partnership at the end of July to invest in infrastructure projects in the Indo-Pacific region that ranges from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.

Behind such moves is the Australian government's worry about China's infrastructure building in the South China Sea for military purposes, and the growing tension between Washington and Beijing over trade and other economic issues. These concerns are evident in Australia's latest Foreign Policy White Paper, the first of its kind published in 14 years.

However, on Aug, 7, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull made what the local media called a "conciliatory speech" toward Beijing. "It is a mistake to assume that China will assume vis-a-vis the United States the role of the Soviet Union in the Cold War, or for that matter, the United States and its allies would or should seek to contain China," said the premier at the University of New South Wales. The speech, reportedly delivered in front of a large Chinese delegation including China's Ambassador Cheng Jingye, was construed by some as an apparent balancing act by the prime minister following his government's earlier tilt toward Washington.

Rory Medcalf, a professor at the Australian National University College of Asia and the Pacific, sounded critical about China's strong-arm tactic toward the Indo-Pacific region in his exchange with a group of foreign reporters invited by the Australian government in Canberra on July 20. "Countries really cannot achieve their goals in the world through force. We can achieve things through rules, compromise, negotiations and networks," emphasized Medcalf, a specialist in the Indo-Pacific region and a former senior analyst at the Office of National Assessments under the Australian prime minister.

Similarly concerned about China's influence getting closer to Australia was Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute who was deputy secretary for strategy in the defense department until 2012.

According to local media, some companies connected to the Chinese government have attempted to invest in gas and telecommunication infrastructure in Australia, triggering fears that the move could undermine the nation's security. "These are very serious national security concerns." Jennings said in a joint interview with the visiting foreign reporters on July 20 in the Australian capital.

Meanwhile, some Australian experts have negative views about recent U.S. moves, such as withdrawing from Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement promoted by Tokyo and Canberra among other capitals.

Former Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Gareth Evans, now the chancellor at Australian National University, said in a speech on July 19 in Canberra that global alliances need to change their approach, and the perfect response "should be less America, more self-reliance in Asia."

In any case, the Indo-Pacific region will remain an area of "primary importance to Australia" for the coming years, according to the government foreign policy white paper that came out in November 2017.

One of the objectives for Australia's security and prosperity is to promote the region as one in which the rights of all countries are respected, the report said, adding that the United States and China are "two of Australia's most important partners."

The "Indo-Pacific Strategy" of establishing order based on democracy and laws was originally advocated by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. U.S. President Donald Trump has since repeatedly claimed it as his own Asian central policy, while apparently aiming to control China as it expands its presence through the "One Belt, One Road" infrastructure investment program.

(By Richi Tanaka, The Mainichi staff writer)

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