The latest fearmongering by ASPI on the military threat posed by the Russia – China partnership is not helpful to either our future security or prosperity.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) describes itself as an independent think tank that produces expert and timely advice for Australia’s strategic and defence leaders. Further it aims to provide accurate and well-informed information to broaden public knowledge about critical strategic choices that Australia faces. ASPI recently released a special report (pdf) titled ‘How the geopolitical partnership between China and Russia threatens the West’. Unfortunately this report comes nowhere near attaining the standards ASPI claims to strive for.
The report is riddled with assertions claimed as fact, omits or glosses over key contextual factors, provides wholly unconvincing arguments and applies double standards to Western vis-a-vis Russian and Chinese actions. As a junior army officer I was taught the vital importance of appreciating the situation and avoiding the pitfall of situating the appreciation. The very title of this special report suggests that it has been situated; that is the premise has been decided upfront and the subsequent analysis has been written to support the initial premise. This is surprising and concerning, given that the author is one of Australia’s foremost strategic thinkers, Emeritus Professor Paul Dibb.
Dibb’s thesis is that Russia and China, who are supposedly ‘leagued together in their disdain for the West,’ see the West as weak and vulnerable and as such may resort to military adventurism to regain lost territories. There are multiple fundamental weaknesses in Dibb’s analysis some of which will be examined here. When these are considered, it is clear that Russia and China do not pose the military threat that Dibb suggests.
The international order is a dynamic system. It has been for thousands of years and no doubt this feature of the system will continue indefinitely. History has repeatedly proven that no-one nation, empire, superpower or coalition of powers lasts forever; indeed at any one point in time some powers are rising and others are falling. The eventual decline of a dominant power is inbuilt into the dynamics of the system thanks to the law of diminishing returns. Diminishing returns are clearly evident in the current US led Western dominant international order as demonstrated by the $5 – $7 trillion spent on wars in the Middle East resulting in nothing but a string of failed states, thousands of dead and a deteriorating security situation. Meanwhile China and Russia (despite Dibb’s claims to the contrary) are nations that are on the rise. The ‘revisionism’ which Dibb uses in a negative sense is a natural part of the international order; a century or so ago the same label could have been applied to the United States. Whilst Dibb acknowledges the ‘relative decline’ of the United States, by failing to place international developments in their broader context the report inadequately sets the scene for the possible future actions of Russia and China.
Clearly Russia and China are aware of the dynamic described above. This does not however imply that their objectives are to violently overthrow the international order through military adventurism as posited by Dibb; indeed the opposite is more likely the case. The avoidance of military conflict actually works to both Russia and China’s long term advantage. Another decade or two of economic growth and the implementation of programs such as the Belt and Road Initiative combined with the continuing relative decline of the Western world will be a far more effective method for China and Russia to achieve their national objectives, most of which are domestically focused, than short term military adventurism.
Many of the current geopolitical flashpoints can actually be seen as Western provocations against China and Russia. An overreaction by China and/or Russia in anyone of these flashpoints can subsequently be used to justify actions, such as sanctions, by the Western world with the intent of weakening these countries. Examples abound and include Hong Kong (support to protesters), the South China Sea (Freedom of Navigation Operations), Ukraine (the 2014 coup d’etat) and the Baltics (NATO expansion). Russia and China are yet to take the bait however. China’s handling of the Hong Kong protests has been firm but proportionate in stark contrast to the underreported barbarity displayed by the French police against the still ongoing Yellow Vest protests. Russia was also very restrained in its response to the post Ukrainian coup situation in 2014 securing the strategically important Crimean peninsula and effectively disrupting EU and US designs to incorporate Ukraine into the EU and eventually NATO.
Framed in this context, the motivations that Dibb attributes to China and Russia in militarily challenging the West appear somewhat juvenile; such as stoking nationalism by reclaiming lost territories or viewing a country with disdain because it is small. As an example it is difficult to see how Russia invading economically backward Estonia, as suggested by Dibb, and risking war with NATO would stoke nationalism when many Russian’s are more interested in having their garbage collected on time.
Another weakness of Dibb’s analysis is to frame the normal behaviour of a country/major power as a sign of potential aggression in Russia and China. Obviously Russia and China are major powers, like the United States. Dibb correctly asserts that both seek to establish a regional sphere of influence in their region, just as Australia seeks in the South Pacific. Would the United States accept Russian or Chinese military bases within their region? The answer, as demonstrated by the Cuban missile crisis, is a definite no. It is therefore perfectly logical, and reasonable, that Russia and China seek to establish a regional sphere of influence and resist attempts by the United States to attain a global sphere of influence that threatens their security.
A rather stunning demonstration of the blindness in Dibb’s thinking is the discussion, quoting the Chief of the Defence Force, on what are called ‘grey-zone’ operations that involve information warfare, proxy operations, cyber-attacks and subversion to achieve political objectives. Dibb states that China and Russia are well versed in these operations, a point that I don’t disagree with. However Dibb misses the obvious point that the world’s leading practitioner of grey-zone operations is the United States. Much of the geopolitical turmoil present in the world today is a direct result of the United States use of grey-zone operations.
It is intellectually dishonest in a document that attempts to describe the threat posed by Russia and China not to compare the empirical evidence of their rather short list of military aggression/interventions against that of the United States and the Western world more generally. China’s last war, other than a few minor skirmishes was in 1979. Post-Soviet Russian military operations in Ukraine, just as they were in Georgia, were a response to events started by others whilst in Syria, Russia is there at the invite of the internationally recognised Government, unlike the United States’ presence. The Western world has in comparison been at war continuously for decades across the globe and has arguably always been the aggressor, as most recently demonstrated with the assassination of Iranian General Soleimani. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Dibb’s report is actually little more than fearmongering.
Einstein stated that ‘problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created it.’ The problem, as described by Dibb, of an increasingly strong partnership between Russia and China has been created by Cold War style thinking that remains apparent in the Western world. Judging by the shrillness evident in both Dibb’s report and by other commentators, there also appears to be an underlying sense of panic as a multi-polar international order re-emerges. Given the destructiveness of the United States’ unipolar moment of the last few decades, a multi-polar world should be something that Australia actively encourages. Other than stoking anti-Russian and anti-Chinese hysteria Dibb’ special report offers little to Australia’s strategic policy makers. Perhaps it would be far more useful for ASPI to commission a special report that examines how Australia can balance the inevitable decline of the existing order and the rise of a new order such that it benefits both our national security and prosperity?
Cameron Leckie served as an officer in the Australian Army for 24 years including three operational deployments. He maintains a keen interest in strategic affairs.