BRISBANE, Australia – Over the past century, U.S. and Australian military forces have fought together in nearly every major global conflict, including both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, the first Gulf War and now in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“Australians have been at the pointy end of the spear in both Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Michael J. Green, the former head of Asian affairs at the National Security Council in Washington.
So it may come as a surprise that a recent poll found that Australians feel about as warmly toward a new suitor in the region – China – as they do toward longtime ally America. Moreover, the poll found that Australians think China is the strongest power in Asia, eclipsing the United States.
The results of the poll, conducted for the Lowy Institute, a think tank in Sydney, and released in October, underscore the intensifying ties between Australia and China. Australia increasingly feels the gravitational pull of China’s rise as a global power, and the trend is leaving ripples in its traditionally warm relations with Washington.
A trickle of Chinese students enrolling in Australian schools has turned into a tide, and trade between the two countries has skyrocketed, turning Australian views of China rosier and making some U.S. policymakers uneasy.
Australians generally see China’s rise as unambiguously good for them and for Asia, and they’re indifferent to nervousness elsewhere.
“Look, a majority of Australians are sensitive and aware that we have a dynamic and powerful neighbor,” said Richard Gibbs, chief economist at Macquarie Bank. “People do see the ships leaving the ports, and they hear about the iron ore mines opening up.”
Canberra has rebuffed U.S. appeals to criticize Beijing publicly on issues that include its defense spending and currency policy.
“There’s bipartisan support in Australia to try to counsel the Americans on taking a cooperative view of China’s rise,” said Malcolm Cook, an East Asia expert at the Lowy Institute.
Those attitudes are likely to deepen amid new contacts, including more direct flights between the two countries and the growing number of Chinese students. Following the 2001 terror attacks in the United States, many Chinese enrolled in Australian schools when they were denied U.S. visas. Some 89,000 now study here.
“In my accounting class, about 85 percent of the students are Chinese,” said Yan Jie, 25, a graduate student at the University of Queensland.
The number of Chinese tourists arriving annually in this nation of some 20 million people is forecast to hit 1 million by 2010, a fourfold increase from 2004.
Trade with China is likely to keep soaring. Last year, Australia began a $25 billion long-term contract to export liquid natural gas to China. This year, Australia, which holds 40 percent of the world’s uranium deposits, will begin exporting uranium to China, an energy-hungry nation that plans to build 63 nuclear reactors by 2020.
China values its trade relations with Australia, which aren’t freighted with the political and moral questions of its reliance on resource-rich but repressive nations, such as Iran and Sudan. Australia, too, sees little downside in fueling China’s rise as a power.
“This has come as a surprise to some people in Washington,” said White, adding that some U.S. officials are “concerned that Australia is becoming too comfortable with China’s role in the region.”
Public deference toward China began in 2003, when visiting President Hu Jintao was allowed to address Australia’s parliament, an honor previously given only to visiting U.S. presidents.
Even as Australia’s relations with China have strengthened, U.S.-Australian relations arguably are as robust as ever.
“I saw zero difference between President Bush and Prime Minister (John) Howard on China policy,” said Green, the former National Security Council adviser to Bush.
Global security interests tie the United States and Australia together, Green said, and the soaring Sino-Australian trade relationship doesn’t automatically threaten that. Both nations, he said, share an approach to China: “You engage them, you get rich off of them, and you encourage them in areas where you want changes.”