Monday, 08 November 2010 00:00 GFP Columnist - Helen Briton Wheeler

Hillary Clinton flew in to Australia a couple of days ago and my country is consequentially embarking on a delicate balancing act that would challenge a world-class gymnast.

We’re just a medium-sized nation, with long-standing ties to the US, notably a major defence alliance, trade and cultural ties and plain good friendship that goes back over many years.

We’ve also had good relations with China over many years. Australian business, cultural ties and friendship with China has been building for decades and, now that China is in economic boom times, a good part of our economy is tied up with selling resources to China.

The fact is that both the US and China are very important to people in Australia. And that’s why we’re on the balance bar.

In years past, when the US was the Superpower and China an emerging nation, maintaining friendships with China and the US was no problem. There was no “torn between two lovers” undercurrent. I’m not so sure it looks that way now.

However, I am sure that Australians want peace and balance in the Asia Pacific region. We want friendships, trade, cultural relations and – above all – to avoid tension, mistrust and accusations.

Peace is the foundation of prosperity and benefits everybody, especially “ordinary people on the street”, whether it’s a street in Sydney, San Francisco or Shanghai.

So it’s vital Australia’s leaders work towards long-term co-operation and communicate clearly, in a transparent manner, to leaders in both the US and China. We need to dispel tension.

Hillary Clinton is very popular in this country, as is President Barack Obama.

We know that Obama is getting a plastering from critics in the US and we put this down to the tough economic times there. Americans want to blame someone for their economic pain and the President is the one, simply because he’s human and doesn’t have either a magic wand or a silver bullet for the complex US financial problems.

Here in Australia, President Obama is generally seen as intelligent, moderate and reasonable. We like him, just as we do Mrs Clinton and President Bill Clinton. In fact, Australians are a bit mystified by the US Tea Party movement and the strange belief by about 20% of Americans that Barack Obama is a Muslim.

I see these negative views as the product of economic pain and fear of the future among “Main Street” Americans. Fears can distort perceptions and skew our decision making, whether we are in San Francisco or Shanghai.

For mutual peace and prosperity we need to have the Pacific Ocean live up to its name by being as peaceful as a mill pond. And the nations of the Asia Pacific region to see the great mutual benefits that will flow from trust, co-operation and transparency.

Hillary Clinton has described the ties between the US, China and Australia as being “one of the most consequential” for the Obama administration.

Almost as I write, those consequences are being discussed by Secretary of State Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates on the US side and their counter parts, Australia’s Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd and Defence Minister Stephen Smith here.

And Australia needs to get its balancing act right. Suspicion is a negative. Good will between the US, China and Australia is a positive.

Beside me at the computer, I have a charming picture of Hillary Clinton in Australia, strolling in the open air with Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard. The two women look friendly and relaxed.

Let’s hope we can keep that cordial atmosphere going and transmit it to our powerful friends, the US and China. That is the necessary win-win scenario for us all.

Image Courtesy DayLife - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (L) and Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard walk along the Yarra River on the way to lunch at Melbourne's Federation Square November 7, 2010. - Reuters Pictures

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