MACK WILLIAMS. New Cold War: Just how independent can Australia be ?

Nov 2, 2018

As renewed discussion grows pace in Australia about being less dependent on the United States in any Cold War against China how realistic is that option? For one thing we would need to loosen some of the linkages which have embedded us so deeply into the US defence machine through the US Indo Pacific Command (INDOPACOM).

There have been some interesting developments on the Australian foreign policy front in recent weeks as speculation about a new Cold War with China grew. On 20 October in The Australian Paul Kelly commented :

The Trump fan club in this country is obsessed with its base and out of touch with public ­opinion. It doesn’t grasp that America is big enough and powerful enough to live with decisions that antagonise much of the world — but that Australia isn’t, and doesn’t escape with such im­munity. 

On 27 October he wrote :

In coming years, perhaps months, Australia will be required to do something it has never done before  as a nation – it will be required to spell out to the world’s two great and competing powers where it will not support aspects of their global competition and confrontation. This will become a psychological test of our maturity and independence – not the brainless, gesture laden independence that romantics evoke but a calibrated, sophisticated independence that we purchase from both powers”.

In his speech to the Lowy Institute on 29 October, Bill Shorten also addressed the urgent need for change :

The foreign policy of the next Labor government will be different from those of the past because the world is different. Power is shifting. The international order in which Australia has operated since the Second World War is being disrupted….We can’t know where the present uncertainty will lead, but we can be sure of one thing : the world of the past is not going to return. We can’t trust to old assumptions, we need to think differently about foreign policy, understanding that Australia will be more responsible than ever for setting our own future course. Under a Labor Government I lead, Australian foreign policy will be independent, confident and ambitious.

But how realistic will it to be for an Australian Government to implement a foreign and defence policy more independent of the United States? As a number of commentators have pointed out in recent years, in this blog and elsewhere, the embedding arrangements which have been established with the old and new PACOM  have placed two senior ADF officers and a senior Defence Intelligence official in very important positions in the key US military command covering Asia, the Indian Ocean and Pacific – and the one which would be responsible for managing any US military strategy against China. These appointments were part of an effort by the Australian military/security interests, supported by both our major political parties, to strengthen interoperational and embedment arrangements with the US. This was well before Trump had even appeared on the scene in Washington and those who pointed to the potential risks for our national interests of these appointments given the likely future developments were largely discounted as the “usual suspects” (or as Paul Kelly suggests “romantics”).

As the former PACOM Commander, Admiral Harry Harris, himself detailed in a speech to the Lowy Institute :

Our alliance is so important that Australian Army Major General Roger Noble is the Deputy Commanding General for Operations at U.S. Army Pacific……. That’s right; an Aussie General Officer is a fully integrated partner at the top of one of my service component commands.

Leading U.S. troops is a responsibility that I take very seriously and isn’t something we just give away. In fact, the first offensive action by American Expeditionary Forces serving under non-American command was during World War I in the Battle of Hamel under the overall command of the Australian commander Lt. Gen. Sir John Monash. So I’d also be remiss if I didn’t also mention Australian Navy Commodore Phil Champion, our PACOM deputy J-5 – and Mr. Richard Gray, the Deputy Director for Intelligence; both of them represent their country and our alliance very well.

 This confirmed publicly that these officers are under US command – an extremely important fact with direct national security implications which the Department of Defence failed to communicate to the Australian people at the time of Major General Burr’s earlier appointment to a key position in PACOM. Indeed, it seems to have been so sensitive that Defence sought to avoid giving it any publicity. As Harris confirmed, all three of these officers (supported by a sizable group of more junior staff serving in Hawaii with PACOM) under his command have been actively engaged across a wide range of strategic planning and operations. Some of the senior ADF officers have been involved in military-to-military PACOM dialogues with many of the countries now covered by the recently renamed Indo Pacific Command (INDOPACOM)- but identified as Australians by wearing their ADF uniforms. It may well have included PACOM dialogues with the Chinese military, it certainly has with the Japanese and ROK military.

INDOPACOM’s detailed planning naturally is guided by strategic direction from the White House and Pentagon. Under Trump this has been a challenging role given the dysfunctional situation in the White House and leadership team. The National Defense Strategy (NDS18) issued in January this year ( P & I Blog : US National Defense Strategy : Back to the Cold War ? 21 January 2018) provided the basics – including the interesting call for the US to be

“ strategically predictable but operationally unpredictable”. Counter-terrorism was dramatically lowered down the priority list and the competition with China and Russia elevated to the top. Vice President Pence’s controversial 4 October speech on the tensions in the US:China relationship included the following : As we rebuild our military, we will continue to assert American interests across the Indo-Pacific”.

There is evidence that both major parties in Australia are seeking to distance themselves from the heightened level of US rhetoric on China. And as we struggle to establish our own space on the Sino/US relationship where does that leave our officers in Hawaii? How can the Deputy Commanding General (Operations) of the US Army in the region or the Regional and Multinational Engagement Adviser for Strategic Planning not be involved? Should they be directed to ensure that INDOPACOM fully understands Australian resolve not to be drawn into any ramped-up US military confrontation with China – including in the South China Sea ( FONOPS)? Should they be asked to stand aside from any planning for these contingencies? How would this be regarded in Washington?

These are enormously challenging questions. But as part of the changing debate reflected in Australia by Kelly and Shorten we cannot continue to turn a blind eye to this situation. Flippant comments by Shorten about the need to develop a foreign policy with an Aussie accent and remarks by Prime Minister Morrison ( on  the relocation of the embassy to Jerusalem) that only Australia can decide its own policy sadly ring hollow while this issue remains unresolved.

Mack Williams is a former Australian Ambassador to the Republic of Korea.






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