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Australia looks to US to counter China strength

Australia should strengthen its alliance with the US to counter growing Chinese power in the Indo-Pacific region amid tensions over maritime disputes, according to a new government report.

Australia’s first foreign policy white paper in more than a decade, released on Thursday, recommends that Canberra take a more active role in the region and adopt a tougher stance against Beijing’s territorial ambitions.

It criticises the “unprecedented pace” of Beijing’s island-building projects in the South China Sea, saying Australia was opposed to the building of “artificial structures” for military purposes.

The paper also expresses concern about the potential use of force or coercion in the East China Sea and Taiwan Strait, and calls on those concerned to act with restraint. It also warns that without strong US engagement in the region, power is likely to shift more quickly, thereby denting Australia’s interests.

“We will never agree that might is right,” said Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s prime minister, at the launch of the paper.

However, he described Australia’s relationship with China — the country’s largest trading partner — as warm, strong and positive, and denied Canberra was joining US efforts to contain Chinese regional interests.

The launch of the white paper follows a toughening in rhetoric from Canberra towards Beijing over recent months, with Mr Turnbull warning China in June to respect the “sovereignty of other nations”.

Earlier this month it joined the US, India and Japan in a revived diplomatic initiative titled the “quad”, which seeks to counterbalance China’s growing power in the region. 

Michael Fullilove, executive director of the Lowy Institute think-tank, said the white paper represented a change in tone from the Asian Century report published by the previous Labor-led government, which saw China’s rise in an almost exclusively positive context.

“The white paper is a way of saying that no one wants to live in China’s shadow and Beijing should stick to the rules-based system,” he said.

“It is also a bid to persuade the US under Donald Trump to stick with multilateralism, free trade and remain engaged in the region.”

The paper says Canberra should expand its existing military co-operation with the US, which sees thousands of marines rotate through bases in Australia’s north. It says Australia should promote open markets in an era when protectionism is spreading and floats the possibility of engaging the US in a future regional free trade deal, which includes China.

“Over time, bringing the US and China together in a region-wide free trade agreement would reduce economic tension and help maximise regional economic growth prospects,” said the paper.

The white paper is intended to provide a framework for the development of Australian foreign policy over the next decade. However, analysts said that would depend on whether any future Labor government adopted its recommendations.

Penny Wong, Labor’s foreign affairs spokeswoman, gave the paper a cautious welcome on Thursday, urging the government to build on the recommendations and set a clear vision of Australia for the region.

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