Portuguese Potential: A different understanding of Australia’s 21st century global role vis-à-vis America and China.

Guy Roberts

The challenge of accommodating ‘China’s Rise’ into the US-backed international order has proven frustrating for policymakers and academics alike.  Given Australia’s lively debate about the relevance (and suitability) of the ANZUS Treaty in the face of this rise, there is a useful historical example we can explore to see how Australia may maintain its safety and sovereignty.

Those arguing for a closer relationship with China suggest the current authoritarianism will remain (or somehow transform into a democratic regime) without disrupting China’s global commitments or potential.  Essentially, China will be benign.  Therefore, maintaining ANZUS will prove an opportunity cost for closer Australian/Chinese engagement (ignoring the riddle of why a ‘benign’ China would punish Australia for the ANZUS treaty).  The opposing view is that China will be authoritarian and ‘belligerent’ – growing power will be translated into adventurism (recall Imperial Germany).  Incidentally, neither argument truly addresses the third possibility; that China might at any moment collapse into civil war – essentially ‘breaking’ (as has occurred to authoritarian regimes from the French Revolution to the Arab Spring).  The point is that even China’s Government does not know which path the country will take.  So whether China proves benign, belligerent or broken, Australia must develop a position of engagement that maximises opportunity and minimises risk.

In this context, a given factor is that the United States – an off-shore balancer – will play the same self-interested role of maintaining regional stability (on the world-island) that Great Britain played (on the Continent) for centuries.   It is not in America’s interests to see an unfriendly hegemonic challenger rise in Asia any more than it was for Great Britain to see one rise in Europe – whether that challenger was Phillip II’s Spain, Napoleon’s France or the Germanys of Wilhelm or Hitler.  This is already acknowledged as America’s global strategy – as proved in Europe in WW1, in Asia in WW2, and globally in the Cold War.

Given this, how should Australia chart her course – between an unpredictable China and an off-shore America?  This is far from a Scylla/Charybdis decision.  Our interests lie with our fellow democracies and our opportunities lie in the wise exploitation of that interest – the same reason why many of China’s neighbours are scrambling to re-claim ties to America.  So how can Australia best position itself?  An example can be found in the relationship between Portugal and Great Britain.

Figure 1: Mutually beneficial relationships between a ‘Strategic Toehold’ and an ‘Off Shore Balancer’

If Great Britain was the off-shore balancer of Europe, then Portugal was a European minnow – small, peripheral, even more vulnerable to hegemonic threat than its insular ally.  It was in Portugal’s interests to foster a relationship with Great Britain and this relationship was cemented in the Treaty of Windsor, signed in 1386.  This Treaty is still in place.  This is to say Great Britain and Portugal share a 626 year old (bar a short-lived dynastic union with Spain in the 1600s) alliance, which has weathered centuries of generational, institutional and structural change.  It has lasted because of mutual strategic benefits – even when faced by threat or temptation from continental challengers.

The alliance has acted a security guarantor for tiny Portugal, most importantly during the Napoleonic Wars – when all of Europe was dominated by Imperial France.  The Lines of Torres Vedras helped protect Lisbon from the France, and was an essential toehold for British forces to keep up the fight against Napoleon.   In WW1, Portuguese forces fought with the allies on the Western Front, and although neutral in WW2, Portugal leased the Azores to Britain, and also helped keep Franco’s Fascist Spain from joining the fight.  Thus, from the Middle Ages onward, the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance helped protect a distinct Portuguese identify and nation-state from the unpredictable challenges of the continent – even when faced with far more belligerent and aggressive powers than modern-day China.   Portugal had an off-shore security guarantor; Great Britain had a continental redoubt for any grievous security challenge.

Australia should think like Portugal.  We are of Asia, though we stand at its furthermost point.  The rise of an aggressive hegemon would devastate our interests.  Even a benign regional hegemon could – potentially – threaten our prosperity.  Thus, just as the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty proved mutually beneficial throughout centuries of continental Sturm und Drang, an ongoing relationship with the United States will prove equally beneficial to Australia, regardless of whether 21st century Asia develops well or ill.  The commitment of America to the Asia-Pacific has been tested and proven during the 20th century. To spurn such opportunity at this point is, essentially, like driving onto a freeway without plugging in a seatbelt!

Australia should embrace a ‘Portuguese Posture’ toward America, as a national safety measure and even the bedrock of our global engagement –it should prove a given in our relationship with both China and America.

Guy Roberts is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne.  His thesis examines the ‘China Policy’ of President George W. Bush. He can be emailed at robertsg@unimelb.edu.au


‘When you have to kill a man it costs nothing to be polite’.

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