Australia should work on the basis that the US cannot win the strategic contest with China for dominance in Asia, Hugh White writes.
Last month the Defence Minster, Senator Linda Reynolds, announced the government was undertaking a major review of Australia’s defence strategy.
This was needed, she said, because the 2016 Defence white paper had underestimated the pace of strategic change in Asia. As rivalry between the region’s major powers escalates faster than the government expected, Australia needs to move swiftly to upgrade its defence posture and military capabilities.
She is certainly right about the deficiencies of the last white paper, which blithely assumed the old regional order based on US primacy would remain basically intact for decades, so that Australia’s defence policy did not require any fundamental changes.
The question now is whether the review the minister has commissioned will do much better. Will it follow the example of previous reviews, which talked of rapid and profound strategic change in Asia but still concluded that our defence policy needed no fundamental changes?
Or will it realistically assess the dynamics and possible outcomes of the strategic contest now under way between America and China over which of them will hold sway in the region in future?
To do that, the new strategic review will need to acknowledge and explore some unfamiliar and disconcerting possibilities. Will America and China go to war?
Or will America prevail and somehow persuade or compel China to back off and accept US leadership for the indefinite future?
Might they instead reach some new accommodation in which they share power in east Asia?
Or will America be the one to back off, stepping back from Asia to avoid the costs and risks of a “new Cold War” with its formidable rival, leaving China as the dominant power in East Asia and the Western Pacific?
Chinese soldiers practice in Beijing in September ahead of a military parade. Picture: Getty Images
There are many reasons to think that the last of these scenarios is the most likely, and not just because of Donald Trump. Important though Trump is, much deeper trends are at work in undermining the long-term foundations of America’s role in Asia.
Most fundamentally, the US margin of advantage over China in overall national power is shrinking, while at the same time China’s determination to replace America as the region’s primary power is growing. Plus the playing field is tilted Beijing’s way because they are competing in China’s backyard, and without the distractions that America faces in Europe and the Middle East.
This all means that the costs and risks to America of successfully containing China’s ambitions will be very high – and may be higher than US voters are willing to bear.
Americans might want their country to remain the leading power in Asia, but it is far from clear that they want that enough to bear the burdens required to do so. China is, after all, by far the most formidable adversary America has ever faced in Asia, and in some ways the most formidable adversary it has ever faced anywhere.
Fiery Cross Reef, one of several disputed islands in the South China Sea which China has occupied and developed as military bases.
Indeed, for all the tough talk we hear from Washington about a ‘new Cold War’ with China, there is very little evidence that US policymakers have any clear idea of how they can counter China’s combination of economic enticements and strategic intimidation.
Nor is there any evidence that Americans at large understand and accept the sacrifices that a successful strategy to contain China would entail.
Unless and until that changes, and we can see a credible, realistic and broadly-supported US strategy to prosecute this “new Cold War”, then we in Australia would be unwise to assume that America will win it. We’d be wise instead to start planning for the opposite outcome – that in the long run America loses the contest with China and steps back from any major strategic role in the region.
If America steps back from Asia it will have no reason to underwrite Australia’s security in future as it has done for so long in the past.
And that means that Australia should, as a matter of simple prudence, start to plan and build the forces we’d need to defend ourselves without America’s help.
US marines take part in an amphibious assault maneuver during the Balikatan war games exercise in the Philippines in 2015. Balikatan which means ‘shoulder to shoulder’ is a joint military exercise meant to increase the interoperability effectiveness of US and Philippine troops. Picture: Getty Images
Of course that need not necessarily mean we would be left entirely on our own to face the growing power of China. Some people argue that even if America steps back from Asia, we could and should look for new allies among Asia’s leading powers – India, Japan, Indonesia – either singly or better still in some kind of coalition.
This is clearly a possibility, and one we should not rule out. But we cannot assume that we will easily find new ‘great and powerful friends’ in Asia to take America’s place as our major protector.
That is because the only alliances that can really be relied upon in facing major threats are those based on clear alignment of vital interests.
So we have to ask how vital is Australia’s security to India or Japan, or even Indonesia. Would any of these countries be likely to sacrifice their own relationships with China, and turn the region’s most powerful state into a bitter enemy, in order to support Australia? We cannot assume so.
That means the most prudent basis for Australia’s defence policy today – assuming we decide to take our defence seriously at all – is to plan and build the forces required to defend the continent independently from a major power like China. To many people this seems impossible, mainly – it seems – because we have never done it before.
U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan as it leaves the Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong in 2018. Picture: Getty Images
But we have never had to do it before, so we have never really explored how it might best be done, and therefore whether or not it might be possible and at what cost.
Now we have no real choice but to explore these issues, and we have no time to waste in doing so.
Once we begin to look more carefully at whether and how Australia could defend itself independently, the task does not look quite as hard as many people assume. But it would require fundamental reassessments of our strategic objectives, our military strategy, our capability priorities and our funding commitments.
If the minister’s new strategic review acknowledges this reality and sparks those reassessments, then it will deserve an honoured place in the history of our defence policy. If not …
- Hugh White is Emeritus Professor of Strategic Studies at ANU. His book How to defend Australia was published in July 2019. The original article is here.