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Mediating US-China Tensions Through ‘Middle Power Diplomacy’

Grace McClenahan | Australian Foreign Policy Fellow

President Joe Biden meets with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on the margins of the G7 Hiroshima Summit, Saturday, May 20, 2023, at the Grand Prince Hotel in Hiroshima, Japan. Image credit: The White House via Wikimedia Commons.

In the ever-evolving landscape of international relations, ‘middle power diplomacy’ has gained significant traction. This is especially pertinent for nations like Australia which are strategically positioned between global powerhouses – specifically the United States (US) and China. Amid escalating tensions between the two states, there is a growing call for Australia, under the leadership of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, to adopt an activist middle power role to balance power dynamics and mediate conflict.

To understand the significance of Australia's middle power role, it is essential to delve into the dynamics of the US-China relationship. The geopolitical rivalry between these two nations has been a defining feature of the 21st century, with implications for global trade, security, and diplomatic relations between the two superpowers. As a middle power, Australia possesses the ability to influence and mediate, leveraging its diplomatic prowess to foster dialogue and understanding.

In November 2023, Albanese visited Beijing to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, sparking intense scrutiny and speculation about the future of Australian-Chinese relations and the potential reaction from Washington. However, this visit indicated a mutual readiness for diplomatic dialogue, marking a significant milestone in the evolving narrative of Australian-Chinese relations, especially in bolstering their trade ties.

During 2023, troops from the US and Australian militaries continued ‘Exercise Talisman Sabre’, a biennial, multi-national, multi-service initiative involving over 30,000 personnel across 13 states. However, the exercise functioned more than just a practice for future conflict whereby stockpiles of military equipment – large enough “for a future drill, a natural disaster, or in a war” – were left behind in Australia after the drills ended. This, along with the AUKUS deal, is part of the US’s strategy to build its logistics network and its military readiness in the Pacific in preparation for a potential confrontation with China over Taiwan.

China's history with Taiwan is complex and marked by political tensions, historical disputes, and evolving relationships. The Chinese Communist Party has repeatedly refused to rule out the use of force to achieve its long-held goal of ‘reunification’. However, the US and allies, including Australia, have warned against any threat or use of force to change the status quo across the Taiwan Strait.

This rising tension has sparked a recent plea by 50 prominent Australians, including former Foreign Affairs Ministers Bob Carr and Gareth Evans, urging the Albanese government to embrace a more proactive stance. These concerns about the escalating tensions between the US and China emphasise the need for Australia to exploit its unique position on the geopolitical chessboard to play a pivotal role in shaping a more stable and peaceful future. The signatories argue for US and China to enter into a “comprehensive new detente, formally pledging to treat each other as mutually respectful equals, to resolve differences peacefully and to work together to advance global and regional goods like nuclear arms control, the mitigation of global warming, counter-terrorism and cyber-regulation.”

The Albanese government is at a crossroads, faced with the challenge of steering the nation through a turbulent international landscape. The call for Australia to adopt an activist middle power role does not imply choosing sides or compromising its own national security, but rather the assumption of a nuanced and productive approach. As a middle power, Australia can bridge the conflicting interests of the US and China, offering a platform for dialogue and cooperation.

Australia has the opportunity to be a dynamic and adept diplomatic participant by offering constructive solutions. Doing so will involve a delicate balance, ensuring that our alliance with the US, and our substantial economic ties with China, do not unduly sway the course of diplomacy. By actively engaging with both the United States and China, Australia can help de-escalate tensions, encourage multilateralism, and promote dialogue as a means of conflict resolution.

Australia has already taken this approach as detailed in the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper which emphasises our need to “encourage the United States and China to ensure economic tension between them does not fuel strategic rivalry or damage the multilateral trading system”. A key part of this strategy involves facilitating discussions between China and the US to establish a region-wide free trade agreement to help maximise regional economic growth prospects. By highlighting the economic interdependence between the US and China, Australia can encourage the countries to focus on their mutual interest in managing strategic tensions.

This does not mean that Australia needs to appease both sides. Instead, it entails acknowledging that enduring peace is most effectively attained through collaboration rather than opposition. Australia can encourage the US to engage economically and militarily in the Indo-Pacific while simultaneously working to strengthen its strained relationship with China to increase free trade and investment. Although this is not an easy challenge, Australia can take a principled stance on these issues, influencing global narratives and fostering a sense of shared responsibility among nations. Australia’s power in this role should not be underestimated.

The call for Australia to adopt an activist middle power role in the face of escalating tensions between the United States and China is a timely and pragmatic response to the current geopolitical landscape. The current government can position Australia as a constructive mediator, leveraging its diplomatic, economic, and ethical influence to promote stability and prevent the outbreak of war. As the world watches the delicate dance between the US and China, the potential in Australia's unique positioning could be the key to unlocking a more harmonious and cooperative global future.

Grace McClenahan is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

She holds a Bachelor of Laws (Honours) and a Bachelor of Arts (majoring in International Relations) from Macquarie University. Grace has also completed a Graduate Diploma of Legal Practice and was admitted as a lawyer in 2023. She is currently studying a Master of Laws at the Australian National University.


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