Talisman Sabre just confuses strategic thinking for Australia

Jul 27, 2017

The recent joint US:Australian Talisman Sabre joint military exercise has added further confusion to  the challenge of determining sensible Australian strategic thinking. US talk of a joint expeditionary force to combat IS terrorism in SE Asia camouflages an attempt by senior US military to draw Australia into a much closer US embrace.

The recent large scale joint US:Australian military exercise, initially around Darwin and later in and off the North Queensland coast, has been heralded by the military hierarchy in both countries. According to Admiral Harris (PACOM) saw it as providing “endless opportunities…to innovatively prepare for regional and global security challenges”. Ironically the level of our cooperation and interoperability failed to agree on the spelling of the exercise name _ Talisman Saber or Sabre !  Not to mention the fun Mad Men would have had marketing its product – “Up-gunned Expeditionary Strike Group”!

The undoubtedly valuable experience of realistic gaming (including in cyber warfare) enjoyed by all participants camouflaged  the fundamental question of where and against whom realistically such a military operation could be contemplated by Australia? Not to mention the huge cost of the exercise. A quick glance around the map of our neighborhood to the north, west and east fails to answer this question. Which in turn illustrates just how confused much of our strategic thinking has become.

The relentless intervention into the domestic Australian foreign policy debate by a chain of top US military officers  – starting with Admiral Harry Harris (several times) through to Marine Lt. General David Berger – has stirred the pot with their pep talks – seemingly without any corrective response from either main political party.  A common thread has been pressure for Australia to join the US  in Freedom-of-Navigation operations around Chinese installations in the South China Sea – which has been echoed repeatedly in some of the “strategic thinking in Canberra” . Berger, the latest, went a step further by urging Australia to commit forces to a joint expeditionary force with the US Marines to combat “IS militants” in SE Asia ! He asserted that Australia’s neighbours would need assistance to ‘successfully stop the threat posed by IS-inspired militants’

To take first the “war” on terrorism in SE Asia. The US still fails to understand that US military intervention has never proved to be successful in counterinsurgency operations at least since the failed Vietnam war – whether it be in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria or in the SE Asian region. All leaders in ASEAN are painfully aware of that fact. The US historical experience in Mindanao and  more recently certainly should have been enough of a lesson for the US about the inability of foreign forces prevailing in these situations. Let us also not forget that the communist insurgency in Malaysia only finally collapsed when China withdrew its support for the insurgency. Berger’s call for a joint expeditionary force to be ready to intervene against IS in SE Asia is so out of touch. The last any of ASEAN countries (as the Philippines even continues to show) would want would be US and Australian military boots on the ground. And this force would clearly be under US command and control with some token Australians in the line.

As for the South China Sea (SCS), one year on from The Hague ruling in the case brought by the Philippines it is timely to analyze calmly its actual meaning  and how China and claimant states have reacted to it. Singapore academic Lynn Kuok has just published in Foreign Affairs an excellent concise article (“Progress in the South China Sea”) which bears close reading by all interested parties. Kuok explains that ASEAN claimants and Indonesia have always emphasized that their concern has been resources rights rather than freedom of navigation – unlike the US (and Australia?) for which the latter has been the main concern and key to its wider containment of China goal. She points out that the tribunal was never meant to resolve the navigation issue or the lawfulness of China’s island building. The real significance of the tribunal’s decision was to clarify resource rights.

And there have been a few (albeit limited) developments on both fishing and oil and gas exploration to which China, so far, has kept its actions if not its words broadly within the letter of the ruling. So which of “the war on terrorism” , Chinese activities in the South China Sea, or North Korea should be the priority for our planning (and joint exercising) – especially given the modest military resources at our disposal?  To a significant degree the three issues are not complementary and indeed could be contradictory. For example, China with its own serious domestic counter-terrorism issues could prove to be a valuable partner in the “war on IS”  in SE Asia. Likewise China has already proved to be a (if not “the”) key player in resolving the North Korean problem.

And where does Talisman Sabre fit into the above? The likelihood of any need for such a complex offensive operation of that scale anywhere in in SE Asia or the South Pacific is so slim as to be realistically non-existent.  The expeditionary force’s name may be enough of a deterrent! One cannot imagine seriously of a situation in which any Indonesian Government would ever contemplate inviting such a joint US-Australian force to land on its shores or even welcome an uninvited incursion. And much the same could be  said of the rest of ASEAN. All the more because Admiral Harry’s exhortation to “find new ways to enable our (sic) joint and multinational combined forces to be faster, more precise, more cost effective and – most importantly – more lethal”!

Nor would this juggernaut be necessary or appropriate should military action against China in the South China Sea ever be contemplated. The most constructive  assistance to our SE Asian neighbours would be for Australia to seek ways to assist them in the protection of their resources rights in the SCS rather than gunboat diplomacy of freedom-of-navigation kind. The relevance to any joint military action against the Chinese mainland does not merit thought. Military action against North Korea certainly cannot be ruled out completely even though most observers continue to see it as unimaginable, if only because it needs to remain on the table for the crucial bluff poker which now appears to be the current game in play. But even if the military option were ever to be activated the military scene would be just so different in scale, weaponry and process.

Perhaps the most concerning aspect is the way this exercise has muddied the strategic waters for Australia by allowing the stretch of the “war on terrorism”  to Southeast Asia to allow US military planners to point us down the slippery track into joint or combined military operations in a region where we have so much of our own national interests at stake and which may not always be consistent with those of the US. Recent inferences in some of the comments by Foreign Minister Bishop that any concerns for Australia about the foreign policy directions of President Trump are being mitigated by her texts with Secretary of State Tillerson are far from reassuring. Though he has travelled widely, Tillerson has yet to demonstrate that he has a clear vision for US foreign policy and  a strong policy team behind him.

Of course, we have to work with what we have got. But as the continuing dramas inside the White House persist in confirming, there really is only one person that counts in the present US administration – a determinedly unpredictable President. Australia surely must not  allow our forces and strategic policy directions in this vital area be held hostage to that. And it would be helpful if Australian policy makers on both sides were not to stand idly by but to disabuse the US military brass of a likely Australian interest in much of the above.

 Mack Williams is a former Australian Ambassador to the Philippines and Republic of Korea. He is a graduate of the Royal College of Defence Studies College in London.

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