Cavan Hogue. The Defence White Paper and the China threat.

Mar 11, 2016

In a paper distributed by the ANU East Asia Forum, Professor Hugh White has pointed out that the Defence White Paper makes two invalid assumptions: the post-Cold War US-led international order will be maintained and that it must be. He is right on both counts and I will not repeat his views here except to say I agree with them.

The so-called “rules based” order is based on Western concepts and dominated by Western countries. Many other countries simply don’t accept the rules. Even some UN rules, including those we would like to keep, are open to question by some countries especially if you consider “interpretation”. Indeed, we and others break the rules when it suits us; the Coalition of the Willing is just one example of the preachers breaking the rules and we can find countless others. Australia, like the US and Western Europe, sees democracy as an article of faith and condemns as evil infidels anyone who questions the one true political faith. Not everyone agrees with our approach and in an increasingly multipolar world do we have the capacity or need to impose our values on others so long as they don’t try to impose theirs on us?

America’s Gibbon will not appear for some time to come but US power is increasingly limited and its attempts to impose its will on others is weakening. Russians see the world differently and so do Chinese and US attempts to dictate policy to these countries are not succeeding. As Hugh White points out, nobody is going to invade the USA because the Americans would win such a war but America’s limited military actions have a poor record of success. This is mostly because they were poorly planned, lacked clear objectives, were based on bad intelligence and sometimes had a heavy ideological basis. Backing the losing side in a civil war is not good policy.

Any threat assessment is based on capacity and motive. The only country with the capacity to invade Australia is the USA which is hardly likely to do so and nobody has the motive except perhaps in our capacity as a US ally.

Our naval hardware can deter people smugglers and illegal fishing boats but is not able to do much else by itself except perhaps to defeat weak countries who are not likely to pose a threat to our interests. Without a carrier based task force we would not last very long outside the range of our land based aircraft in an action against a major power. All our major military actions since WW2 have been as adjuncts to the US, either legally (Korea and the first Gulf War) or illegally (Vietnam, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan). However worthy, Timor and the Solomons were hardly serious military exercises. From the tone of the White Paper and public statements by the relevant ministers,it would appear that our future military actions will be proposed in Washington; we will theoretically be able to accept or reject participation but our track record so far suggests we will go along. Looking at the wars the US has led us into in the past, we can not be confident that future ones will be any better.

The argument about supporting countries which share our values is a dubious one and we have to ask which values? Donald Trump’s or Ted Cruz’s religious fundamentalism? The USA is a very diverse country with many different values and a complex governmental process. Its decisions are based on the perceived interests of the US and the rhetoric is created to to suit. We might also meditate on that old but true saying that countries don’t have friends, only interests.

It is clear that we are closely integrated into the US military and our public support for the US has not led others to see us a truly independent actor in military matters. As US proposals for basing bombers near Darwin show, the US takes it for granted that Australia will go along with US decisions which are based on US interests. Certainly, some regional countries want the US as a balance to  China but, on the other hand, US facilities in Australia and the perception that we are part of the US team could be the cause of attacks on Australia rather than a source of defence. If we were not a US ally, why would anyone want to attack us? If we had not got involved in the Middle East, why would Islamic extremists threaten us? Our military hardware and increased personnel are no defence against terrorism. We might also consider the Costa Rican approach. They disbanded their armed forces on the grounds that they couldn’t beat anyone else and if they had no armed forces nobody could accuse them of being a threat or see them as one. This is probably not a realistic option for Australia but it does make the point that action to build up military capacity invites a reaction.

The White Paper does not spell out who is the enemy but it can only be China. The US and China both want to be number one in the region and Australia has clearly backed the USA.  India has a significant and growing blue water navy. It will be an important factor in our considerations, especially in the Indian Ocean. Australia talks about not taking sides between the US and China but walks with the US. We began by doing what we had always done without making a fuss but there is growing pressure on us to send ships or planes through the disputed area purely for the sake of doing so. Does this serve our interests? The US confrontation with China, as with Russia, is not about principle but about great power rivalry. The freedom of navigation issue is probably not what it is all about but is a peg on which to hang competition for influence between two great powers.

To sum up, the White Paper identifies China as a potential threat and the USA as our dominant ally. The structure of our forces suggests that they are designed to operate with a major ally which is the USA and this is confirmed by the extent to which we are integrated with the US armed forces. The USA is not the Great Satan but nor is it God. It is a country like any other which sometimes gets things right and sometimes not but which acts in accordance with its own perceived interests which may or may not coincide with Australia’s. An anti-American stance on our part would be stupid but a much greater degree of independence in word and deed that showed a clearer understanding of Australian long term interests does not emerge from the White Paper. We can of course ask what real influence the White Paper will have on policy? Perhaps not much?

Cavan Hogue was formerly Australian Ambassador to USSR and Russia, and Ambassador to Thailand and Mexico, and High Commissioner to Malaysia.

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