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American pivot transforming Australia's regional relations

Author: Han FengSilver Editor Source: Global TimesTime :2014-10-27 13:35:55

The US has been playing an important part in East Asia, especially after its pivot, or rebalance, policy toward the region. The US rebalance has two implications: American strategic readjustment and regional accommodation. 

Apart from the implications for relations in the region, the rebalance is aimed at reshaping US engagement in order to deal with changes in the world, particularly with East Asia gaining new importance politically and economically. 

This rebalance is in fact shaping the regional structure at the same time. The US tried to reform the East Asia Summit (EAS) from being based solely on economic cooperation to being more focused on regional security, while it is pushing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to establish US-dominated regional economic integration. With its new roles, the US has to deal with relations among regional leaders.

Australia's foreign relations have been characterized by its alliance with the US since the 1950s, and this affects its security cooperation and its economic integration with the East Asian area, with China, Japan, South Korea, and Indonesia as the most important trade partners in addition to its traditional partners, such as the US, UK and New Zealand. 

Therefore, while Australia's current national interests are now much more diverse, its cultural and political value system is still quite West-oriented. Its security is in line with the US while its economic engagement is more with East Asia. 

This means Australian regional policy has to balance its national interests between the East and the West. 

Strategically, it feels that territorial safety and the Pacific area are of fundamental importance. The priority is East Asia together with four key relations: the US, Japan, China and Indonesia. Among them, the US is the most crucial allied partner, followed by Japan. Indonesia is Australia's large neighbor, so it is always a key relationship, and China, as Australia's top trade partner, has become the second largest economy in the world and has been playing a critical part in the region. Australia is benefiting from China's growth, but it remains unsure of China's regional role due to differences in political systems and Australia's relations with the US.

Australia has supported the US pivot to East Asia to keep the region within the traditional power framework, under which Australia has enjoyed stable development. Australia is a member of both the EAS and TPP. At the same time, East Asia is so important for the Australian economy that consistent regional stability and growth will be extremely critical for Australia's long-term interests. In this way, the US rebalance should well accommodate regional cooperation and dynamics. 

Recently, ASEAN also put forward the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) to spur increased regional cooperation and free trade. Australia is also one of the plus members of ASEAN.

In short, the US rebalance policy has complicated implications for Australia. On the one hand, the US readjustment of its strategy toward East Asia makes Australia's alliances from political and security perspectives make sense. On the other hand, US regional engagement is actually competing with existing regional cooperation mechanisms and challenging ASEAN's regional position, as well as complicating power relations with fast growing China. 

Though the US is trying to expand its rebalance strategy from a military priority to a more comprehensive one, for example, more economic, social and political effort and engagement during President Barack Obama's second term, it still has problems for US strategies at present. The consequences have often been under discussion within Australia in recent years.

The author is deputy director of National Institute of International Strategy, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
American pivot transforming Australia's regional relations