BRIAN TOOHEY. The US doesn’t need Asia

The US doesn’t need to be the dominant power in Asia to maintain its own national security. No amount of wishful thinking can negate this key insight from Hugh White, a leading professor of strategic studies, about the government’s latest foreign policy White Paper.

 It’s much too glib to downplay the risk of a small naval skirmish off China escalating into a major war between a rising and declining power. Leaving aside a nuclear exchange, a full-scale conventional war with China would collapse the global economy and kill millions. An enduring victory would require a horrific land invasion of China and a prolonged military occupation that is simply not achievable.

The US foreign policy establishment might wish otherwise, but American voters show a waning appetite for the wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, let alone new ones against Iran and China. The reassuring reality is that China could never pose a serious military threat to the US itself and has no motive to try. White says, “America has no real reason to fight China for primacy in Asia, shows little real interest in doing so, and has no chance of succeeding if it tries”. However, an ANU security specialist Matthew Sussex points out that the White Paper’s suggested “solution to declining US leadership is more US leadership”.

Forecasts in the White Paper show the Chinese economy will dwarf Australia’s by 2030 and be much bigger than that of US, India, Japan and Indonesia. All are forecast to be significantly larger than Australia’s. If Australia keeps lecturing others about what should happen, it will increasingly sound like the Mouse That Roared.

The White Paper wants an increasingly powerful India to provide a counterweight to China. Although it’s a democracy, this doesn’t mean India won’t be a prickly power. Indonesia is another increasingly wealthy democracy, but could become more difficult if Islamic fundamentalism grows. Nor is dealing with the democratically elected US president Donald Trump always a pleasure, especially if he implements tough trade sanctions against China that also hurt Australia.  

India is an immensely complex society. It is is difficult to govern, corruption is rife, political leaders ignore widespread poverty, women are often treated appallingly. One possibility is that it could reach a tacit understanding with China for each to have its own sphere of influence. White says neither would have the power to contest the other’s sphere, “except at immense cost, and it is not clear why either would choose to do so”.  In which case, Australian foreign policy makers would have to live with two new headstrong rising powers, not just one.

Pious appeals for either to obey a US rules based global order would then  cut no ice. The US, the UK and Australia broke these rules with disastrous results when they invaded Iraq. Despite the rules, the US and its major adversaries have often overthrown governments and interfered with elections since 1945.

The White Paper acknowledges military modernisation in our region is “not directed at Australia” and says the “risk of a direct military threat to Australia is low”. China’s military is structured to deny access to the approaches to its mainland. It will be many decades before it could project decisive power over long distances. In any event, there is nothing Australia can do to prevent the rise of China, nor force the US to protect us.

The prudent response is to focus on defending the approaches to Australia through the island chain to its north, rather than adopt a forward defence posture to contain China near its shores. Forward defence failed against Vietnam and would only make an unnecessary enemy of China. Fortunately, Australia is hard to invade. Potent defensive weapons include readily available medium-sized submarines, subsurface and aerial drones. Cheap Australian-launched  satellites can improve surveillance and communications. Meanwhile, Australia should ban all foreign political donations and boost surveillance of all foreign intelligence agencies operating here.

Unlike many geo-political pundits, most businesses are willing to adjust to disruptive change, rather than hanker for a global order that never existed. Ever since World War II, business has coped with political upheavals, decolonisation, wars, economic crises and technological change as the norm. It should vigorously reject alarmist calls to make Australia “safer”, and poorer, by deliberately cutting its growing $110 billion annual export trade with China.

This article was first published in the Australian Financial Review


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2 Responses to BRIAN TOOHEY. The US doesn’t need Asia

  1. paul frijters says:

    Mostly agreed, with a few small gripes:
    1. I see no reason why China could not project decisive power within a decade. The US managed to erect a huge war machine in no more than 2 years during WWII, so its just a matter of political will. On a normal trajectory, we should probably expect China to have caught up militarily with the US in 10 years: with an economy that is double the size of the US, it can afford a military of the same strength without dragging that economy down too much.
    2. The focus on old-fashioned defense against land invasion via subs and the like is a bit odd when warfare is moving more and more into the air and cyberspace. What use do you think those subs will be when they become available in 20 years? I am going to presume you just said that not to upset the military contract establishment.
    3. India naturally belongs to the Western power block (due to language and history), and we shouldn’t make the mistake of letting it cast adrift. It is no match for China for at least another 40 years but does have the long-run potential to be the world’s biggest power because, unlike China, it does not have the disadvantage of a stifling one-party rule. To team up with India whilst it slowly outgrows its problems makes sense.
    4. Australia is slowly becoming more Chinese with waves of new students and house-buyers. It already has way more Chinese than Americans. Hence a more correct analysis of the current situation is that Australia is being sold off to the Chinese whilst making American-oriented noises. There is no pressure to stop doing either.

  2. derrida derider says:

    It has been evident for years that the US will be able to very adequately protect itself for the foreseeable future. What is far more questionable is its ability to maintain its Empire (aka “protect its friends”). And note this is not about intention but capability – whether Trump or Hillary won last November does not change this essential fact, just how soon the US itself realises it.

    This fact is the reason “American voters show a waning appetite for the wars” – the same-sized war has become a bigger strain on American resources and is increasingly less likely to bring meaningful victory. Even Joe Redneck is beginning to realise this obvious fact.

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