Australian, US and Chinese troops at the opening ceremony of EX Kowari, Darwin. (Photo: Defence.)
Right now a good news story in Australia's strategic relations is unfolding in the country's vast Northern Territory. Australian, American and – most significantly – Chinese soldiers are training together, with indigenous Australians showing them a thing or two about survival.
Among other things, this exercise challenges the simplistic notion that the closer Australia gets to its US ally, or indeed to Japan, the more strained and mistrustful becomes its relationship with China. It also undercuts the nonsensical view, bandied about this year by former prime minister Malcolm Fraser, that the alliance diminishes Australia's chances of doing constructive things with Asian partners.
I've long argued that US forces rotating through Darwin were more likely to find themselves training or even deploying alongside the People's Liberation Army than fighting it. Even while tensions persist in the South and East China seas, the US and China recognise the need for their forces to learn to operate safely and cooperatively in close proximity – thus China's participation, for the first time, in this year's RIMPAC exercise.
And Australia, given its central Indo-Pacific geography, its enviably large training areas and its web of mature defence relationships (including with China) is ideally placed as a hub for cooperation among capable military powers. Sometimes these minilateral activities will include China and sometimes not. Sometimes, as with the recent Kakadu naval drills, they will not even include the US.
A small number of specialist soldiers doing survival training in northern Australia's harsh conditions is perhaps more redolent of The Hunger Games (minus the nasty bits) than some new Great Game of incessant major-power rivalry. On a day-to-day basis, Australia needs to work with China and other Asian powers as providers of security and order in the global commons – even while, deep down, sharpening its own capabilities and tightening select partnerships to guard against a possible breakdown in the peace.