- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 7, 2004

SYDNEY, Australia — Australia’s obligations under its defense alliance with the United States have been thrown into question since a mid-August visit to Beijing by Foreign Minister Alexander Downer.

After meeting with senior Chinese leaders, Mr. Downer said it should not be taken for granted that Australia would side with the United States in the event of a conflict with China across the Taiwan Strait.

That came as a surprise to U.S. officials, who had thought they could count on Australian support in such a conflict under the 1951 ANZUS treaty that committed Australia, New Zealand and the United States to one another’s defense. New Zealand was dropped from the alliance in 1985 when it stopped allowing port calls by U.S. nuclear warships.

Especially under conservative Prime Minister John Howard, Australia has been a staunch ally of the United States. The Canberra government invoked the ANZUS treaty for the first time in response to the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington and has been one of the strongest supporters of the war effort in Iraq.

But at a press conference in Beijing, Mr. Downer said the ANZUS obligations could be invoked only in the event of a direct attack on the United States or Australia. “So some other activity elsewhere in the world … doesn’t invoke it,” he said.

U.S. Ambassador to Australia Tom Schieffer took issue with the foreign minister when asked about the remarks at a press conference two days later.

“We are to come to the aid of each other in the event of either of our territories being attacked, or if either of our interests are attacked, our home territories, or if either of our interests are attacked in the Pacific,” he said.

The United States had long been ambiguous about what it would do if China were to attack Taiwan, which it considers a renegade province. But President Bush said in 2001 that America would do “whatever it takes” to help Taiwan defend itself.

Mr. Schieffer said in responding to Mr. Downer’s remarks in Beijing: “Obviously the U.S. has a relationship and a commitment to defend Taiwan in the event of an attack by the Chinese and we would be prepared to honor that commitment.”

Hugh White, the director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra, said Mr. Downer’s remarks indicated a shift in the government’s thinking since 1996, when it supported the dispatch of two U.S. carrier groups to the Taiwan Strait in response to Chinese missile tests near Taiwan’s shores.

“I do believe, that this is the first time that such a policy has been articulated by Australia, and it does indicate that the government’s internal thinking has moved on since 1996,” he said.

In the Australian newspaper, Foreign Editor Greg Sheridan wrote that Mr. Downer was being “a bit disingenuous and a bit too cute,” because a joint intelligence-gathering facility at Pine Gap in Australia’s desert would play an important role in pinpointing targets during any conflict involving the United States.

However, Australia has important commercial reasons not to want to upset Beijing.

China recently agreed after intensive lobbying to a $25 billion deal for the purchase of liquid natural gas from Australia over the next 25 years — the richest trade deal in Australian history.

Australian giant BHP Billiton, the world’s largest mining company, said in August that profits were up nearly 80 percent with much of the growth coming from demand by Chinese steel mills making girders to build more skyscrapers in China.

“There is no doubt that one of the aims of [Mr. Downer’s] trip was to send a message to China that the balance is shifting in its favor,” wrote Beijing correspondent Catherine Armitage in the Australian.

Increasingly, Australia sees itself an important contributor to regional stability. Mr. Downer recently visited North Korea to discuss that country’s nuclear program and strategic relations with Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.

There was a “recognition from the Chinese leadership of the significant role Australia plays in the [Asia-Pacific] region and the value for both of us … of working more closely together on political and security issues in the region,” Mr. Downer said after the Beijing talks.

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