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Australia, a longtime U.S. ally, drifting towards new suitor China

BRISBANE, Australia—Over the past century, U.S. and Australian military forces have fought together in nearly every major global conflict, including both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, the first Gulf War and now in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"Australians have been at the pointy end of the spear in both Iraq and Afghanistan," said Michael J. Green, the former head of Asian affairs at the National Security Council in Washington.

So it may come as a surprise that a recent poll found that Australians feel about as warmly toward a new suitor in the region—China—as they do toward longtime ally America. Moreover, the poll found that Australians think China is the strongest power in Asia, eclipsing the United States.

The results of the poll, conducted for the Lowy Institute, a think tank in Sydney, and released in October, underscore the intensifying ties between Australia and China. Australia increasingly feels the gravitational pull of China's rise as a global power, and the trend is leaving ripples in its traditionally warm relations with Washington.

A trickle of Chinese students enrolling in Australian schools has turned into a tide, and trade between the two countries has skyrocketed, turning Australian views of China distinctly rosier and making some U.S. policymakers uneasy.

Australians generally see China's rise as unambiguously good for them and for Asia, and they're indifferent to nervousness elsewhere.

"Look, a majority of Australians are sensitive and aware that we have a dynamic and powerful neighbor," said Richard Gibbs, chief economist at Macquarie Bank. "People do see the ships leaving the ports, and they hear about the iron ore mines opening up."

Canberra has rebuffed U.S. appeals to criticize Beijing publicly on issues that include its defense spending and currency policy.

"There's bipartisan support in Australia to try to counsel the Americans on taking a cooperative view of China's rise," said Malcolm Cook, an East Asia expert at the Lowy Institute.

Those attitudes are likely to deepen amid new contacts, including more direct flights between the two countries and the growing number of Chinese students. Following the 2001 terror attacks in the United States, many Chinese enrolled in Australian schools when they were denied U.S. visas. Some 89,000 now study here.

"In my accounting class, about 85 percent of the students are Chinese," said Yan Jie, 25, a graduate student at the jacaranda-shaded campus of the University of Queensland.

The number of Chinese tourists arriving annually in this nation of some 20 million people is forecast to hit 1 million by 2010, a fourfold increase from 2004.

Attitudes toward China weren't always so warm. Two decades ago, Australia viewed China with suspicion because of its human rights record and its one-party rule. Decades-old immigration policies kept out Asian immigrants until the 1970s.

But soaring trade seems to have melted the suspicions, and ethnic Chinese now make up the country's largest non-European ethnic group, totaling 3 percent of the population.

Prime Minister John Howard points to Australia's transformed relationship with China as perhaps his greatest foreign policy achievement after a decade in office.

It takes only a glance at the frenetic activity in the copper, zinc, uranium and iron ore mines working full bore to slake China's thirst for commodities to see how ties have changed. Over the past decade, Australia's trade with China has tripled. China may become Australia's lead trade partner, surpassing Japan, as soon as next year.

Australia now brims with confidence amid what some dub the "Australian Revival." The economy has grown for 16 straight years, unemployment is at its lowest level in three decades, and standards of living rise steadily.

Many associate the prosperity with China's appetite for Australian raw materials.

"When the main stock exchange, the ASX, went through 5,000 last year, the main headline in The Financial Review was, `ASX breaks 5,000; China boom fuels growth,'" said Hugh White, a strategic studies scholar at the Australian National University in Canberra.

Australia's mineral resources and energy riches complement China's huge manufacturing sector, and the trade boom has added jobs rather than eliminated them.

"The idea of China as an economic threat doesn't seem to have too much bite here," said Cook, the East Asia specialist.

Trade with China is likely to keep soaring. Last year, Australia began a $25 billion long-term contract to export liquid natural gas to China. And this year, Australia, which holds 40 percent of the world's uranium deposits, will begin exporting uranium to China, an energy-hungry nation that plans to build 63 nuclear power reactors by 2020.

China values its trade relations with Australia, which aren't freighted with the political and moral questions of its reliance on resource-rich but repressive nations, such as Iran and Sudan. Australia, too, sees little downside in fueling China's rise as a power.

"This has come as a surprise to some people in Washington," said White, adding that some U.S. officials are "concerned that Australia is becoming too comfortable with China's role in the region."

Public deference toward China began in 2003, when visiting President Hu Jintao was allowed to address Australia's parliament, an honor previously given only to visiting U.S. presidents. In 2004, Australia's foreign minister riled Washington by saying that Australia wouldn't automatically be pulled into the conflict if U.S. forces intervened in a clash between China and Taiwan, an independently ruled island that China claims.

Dissonance also emerged last year when Australia declined to follow the Bush administration's lead and publicly press Europe not to lift a weapons embargo of China. Australians quietly said they wouldn't antagonize China at Washington's behest.

Again displaying reticence to rile China, Canberra rejected an asylum request last May from a resident Chinese diplomat who said he tired of pursuing overseas democracy activists and Falun Gong practitioners. He was given a lesser "protection" visa.

Even as Australia's relations with China have strengthened, U.S.-Australian relations arguably are as robust as ever.

"I saw zero difference between President Bush and Prime Minister (John) Howard on China policy," said Green, the former National Security Council adviser to Bush, adding that Australia's views on Taiwan were later explained in Washington and technically didn't veer from a cornerstone 1951 U.S.-Australian defense treaty.

Global security interests tie the United States and Australia together, Green said, and the soaring Sino-Australian trade relationship doesn't automatically threaten that. Both nations, he said, share an approach to China: "You engage them, you get rich off of them, and you encourage them in areas where you want changes."

Green acknowledged that a chorus of voices outside of government in Australia, however, is urging stronger ties with China.

"It can appear, particularly in the academic side, that there is a growing gap between Canberra and Washington," Green said.

White, the university scholar, reflected that gap as he forecast what lay ahead for the region: "We do not expect the United States to retain the kind of unquestioned primacy that we all assumed at the end of the Cold War."

Whether the Australian government adopts a similar view hinges on elections later this year in which Howard, a formidable conservative politician who some voters consider stale after a decade in office, faces a serious challenge from the new head of the Australian Labor Party, Kevin Rudd.

Rudd, 49, spent four years as a diplomat in Beijing in the 1980s. He speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese. The Age, a Melbourne newspaper, said last month that Rudd has "a love affair with all things Chinese."

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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