Once lock-step Australia tunes out US drumbeat on China

Condoleezza Rice is focusing on China's military growth ahead of a Saturday summit.

In one of his more famous moments of talking Texas, President Bush described Australian leader John Howard as his deputy sheriff in the war on terror. But as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice heads into East Asia security talks here, she's finding there's another sheriff in these parts.

Chinese officials are working closely with Canberra to hammer out an agreement that would recognize China as an open market and bring billions of dollars of business to resource-rich Australia. And Australia is doing everything it can to accentuate China's positives. Last year, the country's former defense minister, Robert Hill, went so far as to describe the communist country as a kind of democracy.

China's economic lure has dampened Australian enthusiasm for US efforts to sound the alarm on Beijing's military spending - just upped another 14 percent. The topic is expected to be the focus of Saturday's trilateral security talks between the US, Japan, and Australia in Sydney.

As Australia's economy gravitates more toward integration with Asia, the once lock-step foreign policies of Washington and Canberra are beginning to march to different drum beats.

"Australia is a medium-sized country which has political, strategic, as well as trade interests with China, and it is in its interest not to get caught in a 'bun fight' between the two big powers," says Alan Dupont, a China expert at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.

Two big trading partners

Both countries are major trading partners for Australia, allowing the antipodean continent to avoid putting all its marbles in one market. China's importance to Australia has grown rapidly in recent years by keeping the cost of manufactured goods low and driving up prices for commodities needed to feed its factories.

Australia happens to sit on many of the key resources China needs, including, for instance, 30 percent of the world's known uranium reserves. Negotiations between the two countries are under way for the sale of uranium for Chinese civilian energy.

Differences over China could be seen Thursday, the first day of Ms. Rice's first visit here - twice cancelled in recent months due to more pressing engagements. After private talks with her counterpart Alexander Downer, Rice reiterated Washington's unease over China at a press conference. "We have concerns about the Chinese military buildup. We told the Chinese that they need to be transparent," she said.

But Mr. Downer was quick to point out that Australia has its own China policy, different from the US. "We feel comfortable with where the United States is in terms of its relationship with China. Our relationship has its own dynamics," he said.

Earlier, Downer told Sky News, "I think a policy of containment of China would be a very big mistake."

These statements are seen to be an effort to placate Beijing, which is watching developments in the region with some suspicion.

One reason for that wariness was the elevation of these security talks from a junior level to a ministerial level, says Mr. Dupont. Beijing, he says, is concerned about the creation of a new kind of alliance aimed solely at keeping the Chinese in check.

US, Japan pressure on Oz

Some analysts here believe that it was a combination of efforts by the US and Japan, which has constant friction with Beijing over Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's repeated visits to Yasukuni war shrine, that convinced Australia to raise the trilateral meeting to a ministerial level.

By taking a strong but obviously more positive attitude towards China, Prime Minister Howard, is coming across less as the willing deputy of American foreign policy, and more as an independent strategic planner in the Asian region.

"This is a very significant moment, when both Japan and the US, our most important trading partners, are coming here, specifically with the intention of changing our views on China," says Hugh White, professor of strategic affairs at the Australian National University in Canberra. "To be fair to Howard, his administration appears to be coming across rather robustly in favor of China - which of course is in our interest to do so."

Pursuing that interest marks an important moment in relations with America, he adds.

"This is the single largest divergence in perception we have had with the US ever since we became allies - while me might see the dangers of the growing power of China somewhere far in the distance, the US appears see it as a more immediate threat," says Mr. White.

Australian objections to America's tone

While Alan Dupont agrees that there is a case for discussing China as a potential threat in the future, he objects to the "hectoring and didactic tone that Washington takes" on the subject.

"The fact that Ms. Rice chose to very publicly make it an issue, even before she landed in Australia, made sure that the trilateral talks will have a dissonance even before they have begun," he says.

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