There are fears that the Trump Administration may, with the urging of America’s military/business and security complex and support from middle America, extend its trade war with China into a new Cold War. This would be unlikely to gain substantive international backing though were it to happen it would pose an uncomfortable dilemma for Australia as to how to respond – a long awaited test of national maturity.
Since President Trump launched his ‘trade war’ with China, and now fears of a new Cold War, panic has struck in certain quarters with calls going out to prepare the barricades and upgrade the national defences. Trump’s tactics on trade, and in undermining multilateral institutions generally, are disturbing. As with the proverbial bull in a China shop, we will not know how much crockery will be broken until it is all over.
For some time it has been understood that changes in the international system, and how power plays are conducted, had become inevitable. The WTO/GATT system for a start has been long overdue for reform now that it numbers over 160 members and the processes of decision-making by consensus have become impractical. Redress within the system for the infringement of rights and breaches of trade standards is largely ineffectual and exceedingly protracted.
In the political sphere the United Nations system itself would be seen now even by its founders as largely moribund, neither reflecting current power realities nor being effective in dealing with widespread and illegal conflicts or extreme abuses of human rights. This form of globalisation has been on the wane and is in urgent need of reform and revitalisation – which only the complaining major powers can achieve.
Against this summary background it is not surprising that some rising powers should want to dismantle some of the furniture or that an established major power should have become frustrated with institutional arrangements that have become sterile or stagnant, both within and without the UN.
While many third world countries are in turmoil, they are not ready to join in Cold Wars. The world has not become a village but with digitalisation everywhere populations anywhere are not as malleable as they once were. Bad as conditions are in the Middle East, and infected by proxies, 2018 is not a precursor of another sleepwalking event as became the First World War nor of a Cold War of the kind previously with the Soviet Union. There is no international support for that.
Within the US itself doubtless there is support for muscling up to China within the military/business/security complex, in parts of the media and in hard-core middle America. Yet hasn’t America had enough of wars and body bags and conflicts which can lead that way? Could a President hanging so precariously politically carry the country down that path? While the political mood has changed irrevocably regardless of Trump’s longevity, it is far from being unified on aggressive nationalist lines.
Internationally the US’s set-to against Iran is indicative. Resentment of America is high across the globe over its attempts to impose unilaterally and illegally sanctions on Iran and have them enforced against any country, allies not excepted, that choose to trade and conduct on-going business with Iran.
Our neighbours in this vicinity of Asia would almost certainly hold back from participation in a US contrived Cold War or institutionalised hostility against the People’s Republic.
It is impossible to see also how a Cold War with China would suit Australia’s interests, apart from sections of our own military/intelligence complex and their coteries in Canberra. Many would rightly think that such a development would pose a huge political dilemma for Australia, were we not to fall in with the US and prefer instead to maintain our critical trading links and other significant interests with China. If the Cold War cause was poor in itself, based on spurious pretexts, and was intended simply to thwart China and keep the US as the ‘exceptional’ power, what would be the loss given the US’s steady and inevitable detachment from the region? The national interest should see to that.
The relativities between Australia and China can never be bridged in military terms. But notwithstanding that fact we have heard calls recently from a high level group of former senior Defence officials to increase military spending to make Australia more self-reliant as China’s forces rapidly develop. It is said that as a consequence of China’s development in all spheres Australia’s relative power is going to reduce over time unless we do something about it. True there was a time many decades ago when Australia’s power relative to China’s might have looked comparable. But is this an area where we can now make a modicum of difference militarily with a country of some 1.4 billion people, that by 2030 will have a GDP 25 times ours, a defence expenditure already 25 times ours, and military forces of some 3 million compared to our 60,000? Comparisons in terms of planes, submarines, capital vessels, missiles and enhanced technology barely need mentioning. And beyond that there is China’s arsenal of nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Don’t mention in that context the US’s extended nuclear umbrella. That was trialled in North East Asia this year and found wanting.
True, we have on order capital items of the latest variety but in numbers they are relatively minuscule. Their delivery will mostly be in the mid to late 2030s. Meanwhile we must double down with largely semi-antiquated equipment, for the most part of little previous use. Lead times for war these days may be short and because of the lethality of modern technology so would their duration. The survival of even the most advanced capital units in an extended timeframe would be problematical. Long lead times for delivery can result in obsolescence well before commission, given the rapid pace of technological developments.
The worst of it is that the cost of what we have on order will eventually be unaffordable. It is already open-ended. It is reported, for example, that the 12 submarines of French design (so-far with unproven non-nuclear power units and outstanding contractual issues), estimated initially to cost $50 billion but when combat systems, maintenance and infra-structure are included, will run out, on a constant price basis, to some $225 billion – see remarks of the head of the future submarine project, Rear Admiral Gregory Sammut, as reported in The Australian, 29 September. Add to that the cost of 72 F-35 stealth fighters (which are not guaranteed to provide air superiority) at around $35 billion, a new state of the art fleet of frigates, together with new patrol boats and meeting the needs of future ground forces, will leave little scope for conceiving and implementing a force structure tailored to our specific geographical circumstances and realistic manpower potential within a relevant timeframe – that is, a force structure that might have a reasonable chance of survival at the margins of a major conflict.
I note with surprise that Professor Paul Dibb, one of the former defence officials referred to above, has joined the chorus for raising the level and scale of military preparations against these supposed high level threats when his own sensible Report to the Hawke government had advocated a more affordable and realistic, yet high-tech, force structure to handle low level threats to Australia’s continental and immediate offshore defences. And this was during the Cold War with the Soviets. From a contemporary Australian self-defence perspective the strategic outlook hasn’t changed to an extent that would justify such a wholesale change of position.
In any event Australians would never again tolerate or risk war casualties comparable to levels experienced in the First World War, which could occur in a nuclear conflict. Between the East Timor intervention in 1999 and today we have suffered just 60 military deaths in war, including Afghanistan (an irrelevant war if ever there was one). There were 521 Australian deaths in Vietnam, a discomforting fact in itself given that it too was a wrong war in the wrong place. Deaths on any larger scale in wars of choice, which could result from another Cold War, are simply not in the offing.
A trade war may achieve some reordering of entrenched trade relationships and may force much needed reform of the WTO/GATT multilateral system, but when driven by selfish purposes will prove unnecessarily disruptive and counter-productive and harm the least deserving. If its real purpose is to secure or maintain dominance for the US, as distinct from ‘free and fair’ trade for all, a limited Cold War could result. But this would be resisted by the wider international community and would eventually rebound on its instigators.
China is an indispensable partner economy for Australia and for much of our region, and will remain so as far as one can see if we are to maintain and extend our national development and our relative prosperity. China’s military activities, much criticised, are explicable in terms of its national defence interests, just as US military coastal and neighbourhood deployments are similarly justified. To this extent the geo-political equation has changed, and is changing for America – but not necessarily to everyone’s disadvantage.
Andrew Farran is a former diplomat, law academic and trade policy adviser.