Australia’s awkward pirouette between the United States and China was tested at the recently concluded East Asian Summit (EAS) in Manila, as US President Donald’s Trump’s truncated visit raised fresh questions about American commitments to the region.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull held talks with both Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, which apparently focused mostly on security – the ticklish issue that could one day force Australia to choose between its most important security ally and its biggest economic partner.

Staunchly pro-American but dependent on Asian markets, Australia has not taken sides in the dispute over Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea. Canberra has, however, echoed Washington’s call for guarantees that the vital seaway will be kept open, backing up the US with periodic naval patrols.

Theoretically, Australia could be drawn into any conflict between China and the US through the Australia-New Zealand-US (Anzus) Treaty, though it might be difficult to argue American interests were being threatened in the South China Sea or other regional maritime disputes.

Other US allies like Japan and South Korea seem happy for Canberra to act as a counterweight to Chinese ambitions, but many Asians are still unconvinced it is ready to step out from Washington’s shadow. Australia is one of four pillar nations of an emerging “quadrilateral” security arrangement with the US, Japan and India directed at China.

U.S. President Donald Trump jokes with Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull before their trilateral meeting with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe alongside the ASEAN Summit in Manila, Philippines November 13, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
US President Donald Trump jokes with Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at the Asean Summit in Manila, November 13, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

While Turnbull did stick around for plenary sessions at the EAS summit – as Trump was jetting off – he has not yet found a leadership role within the region.

There will be an opportunity when Turnbull hosts the inaugural Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean)-Australia Special Summit in Sydney in March, which will include a business forum and counterterrorism conference. How Australia handles these two cornerstones of its Asian relationship will decide whether it sits at the top end of the table.

Asean’s multilateral framework is an uncomfortable fit for a country that mostly functions outside collective economic arrangements. It does have a free trade pact with Asean, in tandem with New Zealand, but in general relies on bilateral accords to secure Asian markets; these even underpin its participation in umbrella groups like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The limitations of this economic diplomacy will become apparent as China benefits from waning American influence in Asia: Australia may share the US distaste of a Chinese arc of influence, but can’t afford to stay on the sidelines. A late signatory to China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Australia has declined to get involved in the One Belt One Road initiative, where much AIIB cash will be spent.

Counterterrorism interests dovetail much better, as long as they don’t intrude into territorial issues. Australia provides training, air surveillance and equipment for countries like Indonesia and the Philippines and shares intelligence with Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and several other nations.

Yet the potential for cultural miscalculation is never far from the surface.

Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull talks as he sits next to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. Photo: Reuters, Dan Himbrechts
Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull talks as he sits next to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. Photo: Reuters/Dan Himbrechts

In 1999, Australia led a multinational taskforce against Indonesian militia groups in East Timor following an independence referendum that badly strained relations with Jakarta.

Many Asians saw the campaign as unjustified meddling in Indonesian affairs; conspiracy theorists say it was one reason for the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed 88 Australians among 202 dead and 209 injured.

The intervention took place under the conservative government of John Howard, who ditched the pro-Indonesian strategy of Labor’s Paul Keating and sought a closer diplomatic and security relationship with the US.

It was unfortunate timing, as Japan and Southeast Asian countries were keen for Australia to join the emerging Asean+3 arrangement (Asean, China, Japan and South Korea), along with India and New Zealand, to prevent it being dominated by the Chinese. A first step was the annual East Asian Summit, which was subsequently established in 2004.

Australia was the inaugural dialogue partner of Asean, back in 1974, but could not obtain observer status or participate in summits until it signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, a symbolic commitment to regional responsibilities and the “Asean way” of dialogue and consensus.

In short, the treaty preaches non-interference in the internal affairs of other members, which was anathema to a country that had just sent troops to round up Indonesian militiamen.

Worried the treaty might undermine Australia’s parallel obligations to the US defense alliance, Howard refused to accede, costing Australia valuable regional support.

Singing from same song sheet? Calls are growing for Australia to distance itself from US military policy. Photo: Reuters
Australia’s naval band blowing their horns. Photo: Reuters

Then US President George Bush notoriously anointed Australia “deputy sheriff” for US security interests in Asia, prompting the prickly retort from then-Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad that “Australia has to choose whether it’s an Asian country or a Western country.”

“If you take the position of being a deputy sheriff to America, you cannot very well be accepted by the countries of this region,” Mahathir said.

Howard eventually did sign the Asean treaty in 2005, but only on condition that it had no bearing on bilateral defense agreements. Australia has pacts with the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore, as well as the US.

Findings in a June poll by the Lowy Institute think tank suggest that most Australians are happy dealing with both the US and China – with some reservations.

Only 20% of respondents had “a great deal” of trust that the US would act responsibly, down from 40% when the topic was last raised in 2011, and 60% said Trump caused them to have an unfavorable opinion of the US.

Nonetheless, 77% said the security alliance with the US was “very or fairly important” for Australia’s security and just 29% believed “Australia should distance itself from the United States under President Donald Trump.”

Almost 80% saw China as more of an economic partner than a military threat, though 46% believed it was likely China “will become a military threat to Australia in the next 20 years.” Yet only 34% favored the deployment of Australian military forces “if China initiated a military conflict with one of its neighbors over disputed islands or territories.”