GEOFF MILLER. The Asia-Pacific: Busy Times, Big Choices

May 30, 2017

A number of recent, current and in prospect events emphasise the importance of clear thinking in regard to Australia’s policy stances in the Asia-Pacific. They include the Trump Administration’s warming to China (despite pre-election rhetoric) especially in regard to trade, where a major deal has been done very quickly, and cooperation in regard to North Korea; the successful “BRI-fest” in Beijing, which was attended by a US delegation, and by our own Trade Minister; the US “Freedom of Navigation” exercise in the South China Sea, the first for a long time and strongly criticised by China; the US request to us to increase our military assistance effort in Afghanistan; and, coming up, the annual meeting of our Foreign and Defence Ministers with their US counterparts; and the annual “Shangri-la” defence dialogue in Singapore, at which this year our Prime Minister is scheduled to deliver the opening address.  

Before either of these last two events Australia is this week being visited by US Senator John McCain, a leading Republican, former Presidential candidate, and current Chairman of the US Senate Armed Services Committee. Senator McCain comes from probably the United States’ most eminent naval family—he himself was a naval aviator, and both his father and grandfather were four-star Admirals, his father having served as CINCPAC.   According to a report in “The Australian” of May 25 he has said that “beefed up naval forces developed by both the US and Australia would jointly target ‘peace through strength’ in the Pacific…to ensure freedom of navigation in the face of China’s increasingly belligerent behaviour”. The report said that “the Pentagon this month endorsed a plan by Senator McCain, known as the Asia Pacific Stability Initiative, to inject $US8 billion over five years into US military strength in Asia”, and that “Senator McCain said Australia would play an enhanced military role in the new US strategy”.

Senator McCain is of course not a member of the Trump Administration, of aspects of which he has in fact been critical. But he is a very senior American political figure, and presumably will be putting these propositions to Australian interlocutors while here. How should our Government respond? This really raises the question of what Paul Kelly (“Australian”, May 10) called the debate about the ANZUS alliance between “those in government and much of the outside academic and retired diplomatic community”.

In his characterisation, those in government seek “to ensure the depth of the alliance can be preserved under Trump while the (outsiders) are fixated by the risks, and want degrees of real distance built into the alliance’s future”.

In support of the “insider” position Kelly states that “the Australian-American partnership is a far bigger, more intense, more dynamic partnership today than even its strongest advocates could have imagined. He goes on to quote Kim Beazley to the effect that “the relationship has never been closer. Both Labor and conservative governments have presided over the deepening of the relationship with decisions taken to strengthen connections through the joint facilities, rotation of US Marines through Darwin, investment in US defence systems, engagement in conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, intensification of intelligence collection and extensive embeds in the US military”.

It is worth noting that everything that Beazley cites in regard to the US-Australia relationship is to do with defence, describing a situation, which he applauds, in which the Australian Defence Force is increasingly integrated into the US military.

Kelly also quotes former Chief of the Defence Force, Sir Angus Houston, as saying that without the alliance our defence spending would have to double to 4% of GDP—hard to imagine, given the cost of currently planned acquisitions. Elsewhere Greg Sheridan has quoted Beazley as saying that the US alliance is the only way for us to have an affordable defence policy.

But is this the right way around? Isn’t it putting the capability cart before the policy horse? Despite the mantra of “independence within the alliance” I find it very hard to believe that after all the integration and embedding that Kim Beazley is so proud of—and which he has claimed was to a large extent at Australian, rather than US, initiative—we could decline to take part if “things get difficult”, to quote former Defence Secretary Dennis Richardson (“Weekend Australian”, May 13-14), or if the US embarks on an ill-judged venture in the Asia-Pacific, a possibility envisaged by Kelly in an earlier article.

And is such an ill-judged venture likely? Thankfully it now seems less so, given the “new best friend” relationship that has so quickly arisen between Trump and Xi Jinping. But as the Comey affair is showing, no-one can have much confidence in what Trump will do, or in his understanding of the issues, entities and forces he is dealing with. Successful as Malcolm Turnbull’s visit to New York was, it was based on the premise that under Trump the US is still a “normal”, predictable and prudent country as it was under Obama. But it’s not clear that that is the case. Perhaps the success of the visit was more a case of Trump pretending to be normal, and us pretending to believe it.

In these circumstances I’m happy to be one of Kelly’s “outsiders”, wanting Australia to think and decide for itself on its involvement in future possible uses of force in the Asia-Pacific. This is the attitude which the Government has adopted in refraining from joining the US in FONOPs in the South China Sea, for example. We can further it by stepping back from the recent trend to ever-greater integration of our Defence Force into those of the United States, and by ceasing to give the US alliance the sacrosanct status which Paul Keating has so vividly described. Failure to do that is, among other things, to make the Government’s coming Foreign Policy White Paper quite superfluous.

If, as senior figures involved in the alliance have said, a more independent approach would mean an increase in our defence spending, that need not necessarily be something that we should shy away from. But it may be that looked at from a different perspective we find that our defence needs do not require all the enormously expensive equipment currently in the pipeline.

Geoff Miller was formerly Director General, Office of National Assesments. He was also Australian Ambassador to ROK and Japan. He was High Commissioner to New Zealand.

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