The recent descent of the Australia-China relationship into what seems to be an intractable state of antagonism has so far produced more finger-pointing than careful analysis.
Beijing and Canberra have each lapsed into accusing the other of being entirely at fault for the current state-of-affairs – hardly a formula for improving their relationship.
There is growing pressure on Canberra to stabilise the Sino-Australian relationship, from business groups, universities and think tanks. Yet the government seems to have little idea about how to do this other than to say publicly that it is willing to have conversations with its counterparts in Beijing.
China, meanwhile, appears to be in no mood to stabilise or improve the relationship.
It has subjected Australia to a barrage of hostile messaging, while steadily expanding the Australian export sectors it has chosen to block. Any avenue for communication with Australia, whether political or diplomatic, has been firmly closed.
Meanwhile, following the election of Joe Biden to the US Presidency, commentary has begun to speculate on how the changed Sino-American relationship under Biden might affect Sino-Australian relations.
While some commentators have argued that presumably improved Sino-American ties will assist Australia in repairing its relationship with Beijing, others have argued that such an improvement in Sino-American ties could further isolate Australia.
Rather than focussing on specific events, statements and reactions, or trends in bilateral ties, a deeper understanding must include broader contextual pressures on Australia and China.
Triangulation as a Foreign Policy Strategy
‘Triangulation’ has different meanings in different contexts.
As a research method, it refers to the use of different forms of measurement or observation to verify conclusions reached.
In domestic politics, it has come to be associated with a technique for disarming ideological opponents by appropriating parts of their platforms and merging them with one’s own into an electorally dominant “third way” position.
In foreign policy, triangulation is most famously associated with Henry Kissinger, who as US President Richard Nixon’s National Security Adviser, engineered the United States’ rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China.
The strategy of triangulation can be defined as a state’s alteration of its relations with one state in order to change the behaviour or incentives of another state.
There appear to be three basic requirements of a triangular relationship that allows a strategy of triangulation to bear fruit.
The first is significance, or the situation in which each leg of a triangular relationship must engage the significant interests of each of its nodes. A triangular relationship needn’t involve three states of equal power; what is necessary is that each bilateral relationship must be of actual or potential importance to the states involved.
Second is agency, a situation in which each node has the capacity unilaterally to shift the bilateral dynamics of each leg of the triangle to which it is a party in ways that will significantly alter the interests and calculations of the other node.
The third condition is balance, referring to the equilibrium among the three bilateral relationships in a triangle.
This must be sufficiently delicate that a significant shift in one bilateral will have significant consequences for at least one other bilateral.
In other words, triangulation won’t work if a shift in one bilateral leg has little or no effect on the dynamic of the other leg.
My argument is that the Australia-US-China triangle has the requisite levels of significance, agency, and balance to be conducive to triangulation by each of its members.
Arguably, careful analysis of the triangle offers a much clearer understanding of the evolution of Australia’s bilateral relationship with China since the foundation of the People’s Republic in 1949, and of the recent deterioration in that relationship in such a comparably short time.
It also provides a new perspective on the prospects for the improvement in Sino-Australian ties in the near- and medium term.
The Australia-US-China Triangle
At first look, the Australia-US-China triangle is one of unequal power.
However, closer examination shows that each node of the triangle has important interests to protect and promote in its bilateral relations with the other two nodes.
The relationship between the United States and China is arguably the most consequential bilateral relationship in world politics. Since 2008, they have been the world’s two largest economies with the world’s largest trading and investment relationship.
At the same time, the strategic rivalry between China and the United States is significant and escalating, arguably subjecting the broader Indo-Pacific region to ever more insistent polarisation.
While not as consequential for the rest of the world, the bilateral relationship between the United States and Australia is complex and involves significant interests for both parties.
For Australia, the United States is its ultimate security guarantor, offering the smaller partner extended deterrence, intelligence, advanced weaponry, and a sense of cultural-ideological security for a western democracy on the periphery of Asia.
For the United States, Australia is significant as its only western ally in Asia, a member of the “five eyes” intelligence partnership providing coverage of the South Pacific and Southeast Asia, and an important geographic location for the US global presence, hosting intelligence facilities and now rotational and training facilities for US forces.
The Australia-China bilateral relationship is made significant for both parties by a powerful economic complementarity, which has seen each provide the other with essential inputs for its prosperity and development for decades.
For Australia, China’s growing centrality in Asia, in trade, investment, manufacturing, infrastructure, and geopolitical heft means it is a crucial player in Australia’s evolving relations with its region. For China, Australia’s role as a close US ally makes it a potential opportunity and risk in its strategic competition with the United States.
The balance between the triangle’s three legs means that a significant shift in one leg will on most occasions have important implications for the other.
The growing strategic rivalry between the US and China from the 1990s ultimately affected how Australia managed its relationships with both China and the United States.
Similarly, the increasing economic interdependence between Australia and China, facilitated by cordial government-to-government relations and initiatives, had a significant impact on how the United States dealt with Australia and had an influence on American strategy in the Asia Pacific.
The steady strengthening of the Australia-US alliance from the 1990s has played a part in Beijing’s increasing concern about the nature of and intentions behind the American strategic position in the Pacific, influencing the evolution of China’s grand strategy in the region.
The qualities of significance, agency and balance have evolved over time for each of the three countries, as have their strategies for exploiting or managing the potential for triangulation. The full version of this article in the Australian Journal of Politics and History traces the influence of triangulation on Australia-China-US relations since 1949.
Sudden shifts and significant changes
The Australia-US-China case study shows that triangulation is worthy of a much greater systematic study in international relations, for academic and practical reasons.
It shows that triangulation has a powerful logic, requiring skilful statecraft to counter.
For Australia, as long as it maintains a strong economic exchange with China and its alliance with the United States, this is likely to be the paramount problem for its foreign policy.
It also suggests that, as damaged as its diplomatic relations with Beijing are and as close as its alliance is with the US appears at present, a sudden shift in one could precipitate a significant change in the other.
This may not be in prospect in the near term but can never be ruled out in the medium term.
Understanding the possible permutations of triangulation and the consequences of these for Australian interests should be a central concern for Australian foreign policy scholars and practitioners alike.
This is an edited extract of Professor Michael Wesley’s full article The Challenge of Triangulation: The Impact of China on the Australia-US Alliance published in the Australian Journal of Politics and History.