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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Brian Toohey is author of Secret: The Making of Australia’s Security State.

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