The Foreign Policy White Paper issued late last year is based on its judgement that “the United States’ long-term interests will anchor its economic and security engagement in the Indo-Pacific”. Is this right? Hugh White asserts the opposite. And whether it’s right or not, it seems we’re going to try to make it happen.
The views of the world, and of our part of it in particular, set out in the Foreign Policy White Paper and in Hugh White’s quarterly essay “Without America” flatly contradict each other. As Daniel Flitton has written, in the White Paper the Government has “bet the farm” if not on Trump then on the United States continuing to carry out its traditional roles in the Indo-Pacific, and with its traditional effectiveness. The White Paper says (p.37) that “Our alliance with the United States is central to Australia’s security and sits at the core of our strategic and defence planning. The Government will broaden and deepen our alliance cooperation and encourage the strongest possible economic and security engagement by the United States in the region…..including through the United States Force Posture Initiatives” (p.4). On p.26 it says that “Most regional countries, including Australia, clearly consider a significant US role in the Indo-Pacific as a stabilising influence”, and that “The Australian Government judges that the United States’ long-term interests will anchor its economic and security engagement in the Indo-Pacific”.
On the other hand White, Professor of Strategic Studies at one of our most leading universities, has concluded in his Quarterly Essay (p.1) that in the contest between America and China as to which will be East Asia’s primary power, “the most likely outcome is now becoming clear. America will lose, and China will win. America will cease to play a major strategic role in Asia.” White goes on to say (p.43) that “Under President Trump, the retreat from Asia which began under Obama is probably becoming irreversible. So we need to prepare ourselves to live in Asia without America, and (p.57) “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”.
The reasons White gives for his stark conclusions are summed up in his opening pages, when he says (p.2) that “China has kept growing stronger, economically, militarily and diplomatically, and America’s resolve has weakened”. In support of this he says that Obama’s “pivot to Asia” was unconvincing, and Trump “is not committed to maintaining US leadership in Asia”. He has pulled the US out of the TPP, while China has put forward major economic initiatives in the Belt and Road and Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. White says that “last year’s (US) election showed that a lot of Americans care very little about US global leadership”, their leaders not having convinced them that “resisting China’s challenge in Asia is in their most fundamental national interest”, or that China threatens their security in the Western Hemisphere. He asserts (p.40) that “There is no reason to assume that America’s economic interests in Asia depend on its strategic leadership”.
(It’s interesting that the November 13 2017 issue of “Time”, which dealt with great power competition in East Asia, had just two words on its front cover—“China Won”.)
Not surprisingly, as a former Deputy Secretary of Defence White devotes a considerable amount of time to the military aspects of the US-China competition. On p.11 he says that “To preserve its leadership, America must convince China that it is willing to go to war to resist China’s challenge”—and that it hasn’t done this in response to China’s “salami-slicing” in the South China Sea, thus undermining the credibility of US leadership. America, he says, “has no clear way to win…a conventional war in Asia against China”, and could not credibly threaten a nuclear exchange in the asymmetric circumstances of East Asia.
This is the clearest of contradictions. Which description of our region is correct has enormous implication for the future. Of course things are always changing. The just-issued US National Defense Strategy talks of the need for the US to stand up to Russia and China, and a US Navy destroyer has just carried out a Freedom of Navigation Operation in the South China Sea, both things that could be seen as casting some doubt on the White interpretation. But in any event the White Paper has made it clear where Australia stands, that is with the United States, which it hopes will behave in traditional ways.
This is despite the fact that some of the assertions in the Paper about the behaviour of the United States under the Trump Administration ring pretty hollow. For instance the Paper (pp. 7, 80 and 83) talks about “the United States’ engagement to support a rules-based order”, despite the facts that under Trump the US has left the Paris climate change agreement, withdrawn from the TPP and from UNESCO, and is engaged in emasculating the World Trade Organisation by refusing to allow appointments to its arbitral tribunal. In these circumstances it is rather hard to know what our Government thinks it is supporting when it talks about “supporting US global leadership”. One can only conclude that the White Paper, and the Government, is animated by an intense—desperate?—hope, against a lot of evidence, that the US under Trump is still the US we knew and loved—this despite Trump’s only too well-known characteristics, the bitter divisions in US society and the “chaos” prevailing in its government.
And the Paper indicates that the Government is not simply going to rest on this hope. There are a number of statements of active intent scattered through it. As noted above, it says that the Government will “broaden and deepen our alliance cooperation and encourage the strongest possible economic and security engagement by the United States in the region…including the US Force Posture initiatives”. We will “contribute to coalition operations in support of global and regional security”. And (p.80) we will “continue to help bear some of the costs of maintaining the current order…including through our alliance, broader contributions to regional and global security and the ideas we bring to our multilateral engagement”.
What all this adds up to is that far from simply agreeing to support the US in whatever policies or military adventures it decides to undertake, which is a criticism frequently levelled at this and former Australian governments, our current Government is looking to urge the United States to continue to play an active role in the Asia- or Indo-Pacific, believing that it is in our national interest that the US do so. This is reminiscent of the role the Menzies Government played in urging the US to become and remain involved in Indo-China, which resulted in the Vietnam War. One wonders whether the speeches made by the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister made in Singapore last year, which respectively took China to task over the South China Sea and said that it would never fulfil its economic potential unless it became a Western-style democracy, also had a US aspect in mind, doing Trump and Tillerson a favour by saying things about China that they could not, given their need for Chinese help over North Korea.
It is a fact that “change, unprecedented in its scale and pace, is the tenor of our times”, as the Prime Minister said in his Introduction to the White Paper. It’s also a fact that, as the Paper’s Overview states, “In the Indo-Pacific, the economic growth that has come with globalisation is in turn changing power balances”. It will be a great pity if, instead of accepting the reality of a changing situation, which it itself acknowledges, the Government locks itself into an almost certainly vain attempt to behave as if the pre-existing patterns need not change, and worse, eggs on the United States to resist them by force, in encounters in which, despite brave words, we would only play a very small part.
Geoff Miller is a former Australian diplomat who served in a number of Asian countries, as Deputy Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and as Director-General, Office of National Assessmente