Australian Prime Minister John Howard arrives in Washington Friday, beginning a five-day US swing with a visit to one of his closet allies, President Bush. The trip comes at a time when Australia's ever-closer relationship with China is causing no small discomfort at the White House.
Australia has recently inked multibillion dollar gas and coal deals with the Asian giant, and negotiations for a free-trade deal are under way. Experts say the warming ties could compromise Australia's foreign-policy decisions - especially in matters relating to Taiwan's independence from China.
This concern was first borne out in 2004, when Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer commented at a press briefing in Beijing regarding the Taiwan situation. He said that under the ANZUS treaty, an alliance between the US and Australia that determines when each country would go to war on behalf of the other, Australia was obliged to invoke the treaty only if there was a direct attack on either member's soil.
This statement was countered in Washington by a US State Department aide who clarified that according to the treaty, an armed attack on either of the treaty partners ships in the Pacific would obligate them act against the common danger. So, for example, if US ships were under assault while defending Taiwan, Australia must come to America's defense. Mr. Downer immediately retreated from his statement.
In March, when China passed its anti-secession law allowing for an armed attack on Taiwan, Downer once again sat on the fence when he was quoted as saying that the ANZUS treaty could be invoked if war broke out, "But that's very different from saying we would make a decision to go to war."
This is a sharp shift in diplomacy since 1996, when Australia supported the dispatch of two US carrier groups to the Taiwan Straits in response to Chinese missile tests near the Taiwanese shore.
"China is an extraordinary market for Australia, but it's also Howard's biggest nightmare," says Michael McKinley, professor of social sciences at the Australian National University in Canberra. "For Australia to have to make a choice between the US and Beijing over Taiwan is something that Canberra hopes will never happen ... and Howard will make the point with Bush that there is no contradiction between Australia's economic security being tied to China and its military security being linked to the US."
There are other divisive issues that have recently come to the surface. While the US and Japan oppose the European Union's decision to resume arms sales to China, Australia is not against the decision if it does not upset the balance of power in the region.
And then there's the free-trade agreement. Malcolm Cook, a China watcher at the Lowy Institute, a strategic think tank in Sydney, says the move to increase trade between the two countries was inevitable.
"New Zealand has been crowing for some time about how advanced their [free-trade] negotiations are with Beijing compared with Canberra, which was one of the last movers on this in the region. Canberra was in danger of being left out," Mr. Cook says.
One issue that will be off the table is that of Chinese defector Chen Yonglin, who left his job at the Chinese consulate six weeks ago and was granted asylum July 8. Initially his visa request was denied, and Mr. Howard was criticized for kowtowing to Beijing's pressure to return Mr. Chen to China.
Some experts here say that the friction with Washington over China stems from a lack of understanding on the part of officials in Australia about America's complex relationship with China. Mr. McKinley says that the US looks at China the way it used to look at the Soviet Union - "as a strategic rival," and a "genuine regional superpower" that is making demands on the world's energy markets and buying US treasury bonds. But it is also providing US companies like Wal-Mart 80 percent of its foreign goods.
If there is confusion in Canberra, another expert says, it's really the fault of Washington.
"They speak in too many voices and don't make it clear what they want of the relationship with China," says Aldo Borgu, director at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra.