Any defence policy is ultimately based on a view of the international system and how it is expected to evolve over coming decades. These are the judgments that most fundamentally influence the nature and scale of armed conflict that a country’s forces must be prepared to fight. Australia’s new Defence White Paper makes two central judgments about this. First, that the post-Cold War, US-led international orderwill be maintained; and second, that it must be maintained.
Are these judgments correct? Let’s take them one at a time. First, will the ‘rules-based global order’ — as the White Paper calls it — survive over the next few decades, especially in Asia? The White Paper argues that it will, because the United States will remain ‘the pre-eminent global military power’ and ‘the world will continue to look to the United States for leadership’.
Many accepted this view in the 1990s, when America’s unchallengeable global primacy seemed to have created a unipolar order that marked the ‘end of history’. But it is much harder to believe this now, when the United States faces serious challenges in at least three key regions — the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Asia. In each of these regions, important players directly challenge US leadership.
And in each of these regions, US military power has so far proved insufficient to overcome these challenges. While no country can match the United States’ capacity to project force anywhere on the globe, the US has been unable to defeat major regional powers or even ill-armed insurgents on their own turf.
This is most obviously true in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, where America’s traditionally weak land forces offer no viable military options against regional adversaries. But it is also true in Asia, where the United States’ traditional mastery at sea is being very seriously challenged by China’s growing capacity for sea denial.
This is what makes the contest in the South China Sea so important. China’s stark defiance of US concerns about its conduct there, its willingness to militarise the confrontation and America’s inability to effectively respond indicate that US military power is no longer sufficient to resist the major challenge to the ‘rules-based global order’ in our region.
As I have argued elsewhere, China likely regards US and allied threats to use force in the South China Sea as bluffing. If so, there is no reason to hope that China will back off from its challenge or that the US-led regional order will be preserved.
Now that US primacy is no longer uncontested, the questions are what will replace the US-led order and how will this new order emerge.
The answers to these questions depend a great deal on how the United States and its allies, including Australia, respond to China’s challenge. This brings us to the second judgment in the White Paper — that the old order must be preserved.
The White Paper promotes a vision of the ‘rules-based global order’ as a seamless and indivisible whole that must be either preserved unaltered or surrendered in its entirety. And it sends a clear message that Australia should be willing to join a war against China to preserve it unaltered.
This is plainly wrong. There are many parts of the current international order. Some really are essential, like the prohibition on outright interstate aggression embodied in the UN Charter. Others are much less important, like the rules governing occupation of low tide elevations and the extent of territorial sea claims that they can support embodied in UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. To see them all as equally non-negotiable is absurd. The essential must be distinguished from the negotiable.
Australia has to decide whether leadership of the international order is essential or negotiable. This is what is really at stake in Asia today. Are we willing to concede to China a larger share of regional leadership? Or must we preserve sole US leadership at any price — even at the price of a major war? Anyone who reflects on the likely scale and nature of a US–China war will quickly conclude that it would be better to concede at least a share of regional leadership to China, frightening and difficult though that might be.
The more we are determined to preserve the current regional order unchanged, the more likely it is that it will be replaced not by a new, stable and peaceful order but by a protracted and catastrophic rivalry, and probably by conflict.
So what are the implications of the White Paper’s views of regional order for the defence policy it presents? The blithe assumption at the White Paper’s heart is that we can preserve the current rules-based order without serious military confrontation, because China will back down in the face of our threats. Consequently, it maintains that Australia needs no major changes to its defence policy. And for all the talk of a maritime build up and massive new funding, the government plans no major new capacities and no major funding commitments beyond those already laid down.
This may prove a big mistake. Over the next few decades, Australia will face a new order in Asia in which the United States will play a lesser role, and may even play no substantial strategic role at all.
If that happens, Australia’s forces would have to do much more independently, or with allies, than it has had to contemplate over the past four decades of uncontested US regional leadership. This is the challenge that Australia’s defence policy must address and which the White Paper has ignored.
Hugh White is Professor of Strategic Studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at The Australian National University. This article was first published in ANU East Asia Forum on 8 March 2016.