MICHAEL McKINLEY. War talk, China phobia and Australia’s Hobbesian choices.

May 3, 2018

Australia’s choices and policy debate on China are in need of clarification and rethinking.  Currently, they are mired in an idealised past which has gone and cannot be recovered but the resulting nostalgia, now indulged, requires accepting phobic propositions by the US which reflect its preoccupation with decline and not with understanding the imperative to negotiate with historical change, which cannot be addressed by brute military power. 

In one of the foundational texts of International Relations Realism, Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, we find a formulation of war entirely applicable to the present US grand strategy: The nature of war consisteth not in actual fighting, but in the known disposition thereto.

Apart from actual combat involving US forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, Niger, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, Special Operations forces are deployed in over 140 countries, frequently in roles in which blur the combat-training boundary.

President Trump’s cabinet, national security staff and many holding high commands in the armed forces consist of personnel who either advocate, or expect, war with Russia, Iran, China, the online world of computer networks (“Cyberspace”) and in Space itself.  These same advisers and the President himself regard war an Executive prerogative – a derogation from the Constitution in which the Congress has been complicit.

For Australia, the antagonism directed at China is especially concerning and the imperative for what amounts to a radical re-thinking of Australian strategy and policy towards both China and the US alliance has been cogently argued on this site and elsewhere by a range of highly experienced and knowledgeable former members of the Australian Foreign and Defence policy community and the Australian Defence Force – among them Sam Bateman, Alan Gyngell, John Menadue, Geoff Miller, Geoff Raby and Hugh White.  I mention so many because the reception they have received in the realm of informed public debate is biblical: voices crying in the wilderness.

The resistance to developing Australia’s China policy in terms that seem unremarkable – in Geoff Raby’s description, a “more constructive and balanced approach” – is derived from several sources but all can be accurately subsumed under the heading of reality denial.

In the first instance there is the undeniable dyad of US decline and China’s rise.  For years these have been consistent themes in the published accounts by various US intelligence agencies and the Pentagon.  It cannot, moreover, be “managed” along the lines of a corporate change project; it might, however, be negotiated, but that would require a mindset currently not in evidence.

Then there are China’s Belt and Road initiatives of a scope and imagination which beggar the imagination, partly funded through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and the enthusiastic international support it received, including from Australia.  For the US, though, this is just one of China’s “malign activities” involving anti-democratic activities designed to “shape a world aligned to its own authoritarian model while undermining international norms such as the free flow of commerce and ideas”. Accordingly, it is indistinguishable from the alleged “militarisation” of disputed islands in the South China Sea. Thus speaks Admiral Philip Davidson, nominated to head Pacific Command, in recent testimony.

Davidson’s intention, specifically, is to “confront” China and other regional competitors in company with US allies.  In this he is taking his lead from Defense Secretary James Mattis who, via the National Defense Strategy document, raised China (along with Russia) to the level of a central challenge for the US and its allies. [As an aside, “containment” seems to have lost its currency in favour of a more muscular and dynamic term.]

Should there be any doubt as to whether the language here reflects intentions and capabilities, it is dispelled when examining the statements and activities of US Army Pacific.   Its commander, General Robert Brown, proclaims the need to be ready for the “Multi-Domain Battle in the Pacific Tomorrow” – an objective in which he includes the “new threat of a naval war with China”. The US Navy, specifically, is developing a new carrier-based drone (the MQ-25 Stingray) for the purposes of refuelling manned carrier-launched aircraft and thereby increase the range at which they can launch their weapons against China.

As  this implies, what is most concerning to the US is China’s development of an obvious response to potential threats to its territory: Area Access/Area Denial (A2/AD).  Simply expressed, China rejects the suggestion that, given the possibility of war, its intention to deploy deterrent measures (by way of a modernised fleet, undersea warfare capabilities and air warfare systems capable of attacking US fleet elements out as far as Guam) should be construed as unreasonable and threatening when it is the defensive prerogative of every nation state, not least the United States.

Thus, for Australia, as for the various allies that the US expects to join its “confrontation” and war, the suggestion that China’s wartime strategy of A2/AD implies a clear and present danger to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea needs to be disaggregated from the conflation of ideas and attitudes that reduce complex geoeconomic, geostrategic, and geopolitical forces to simple questions of strategic (military) power.

This requires resisting the constituencies promoting US interests and nostalgia for the days and habits of US hegemonic power but that it is surely not beyond the current government.  In recent days both Sam Bateman and Geoff Raby have offered a little optimism in that Prime Minister Turnbull has, on appropriate occasions, struck a constructive and balanced approach.

Particularly irritating when examining these issues is this question: What would China gain from fomenting war, or disrupting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea? We need to ask because nearly 40 percent of China’s total trade transits those waters.  China is also the world’s largest oil importer, the bulk of it imported by sea (much of it from ostensible US allies).

Adding risk results from the fact that any trade through the straits of the Indonesian archipelago is easy to interdict – and even if that is eventually circumvented by the port projects in Burma and Pakistan, the fact remains that routes across the Indian Ocean are also extremely vulnerable. The same applies to the 6,500 miles of Belt and Road high-speed rail networks which extend through Eurasia and Western Europe.

For Australia to accept that China is prepared to act in such a way that it becomes hostage to easy destruction is to also believe in the absurd proposition that China is suicidal.

From 1982 to 1988, Michael McKinley taught diplomacy, international relations and strategy in the Department of Politics at UWA. From 1988 to 2014 he taught diplomacy, international relations and strategy at the ANU. He is currently a member of the Emeritus Faculty at the ANU.


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