MIKE SCRAFTON. What do the Chinese think of the US-Australian Alliance?

With similar articles in The Australian and The Strategist, Peter Jennings has lauded the government’s decision to refurbish and expand RAAF Base Tindal in the Northern Territory as ‘a giant strategic step forward’.

In these articles, which contain oddly emotive language and more than a touch of vitriol towards those who disagree, ASPI’s Executive Director seems to overstate the case.

For The Australian’s readership the article carried the hairy-chested headline ‘Letting the Beijing bully know this is our neighbourhood’. Jennings’ exaggerated rhetoric is not what might be expected from the head of a leading think tank focussed on strategic policy. For example, it is not the case that China has ‘annexed the vast bulk of the South China Sea’ or brought ‘Chinese air and maritime power into the heart of Southeast Asia’.

Apparently Jennings expects a certain section of the interested public to dissent from his views. This group is dismissed as ‘a variegated collection of China boosters, US alliance haters and people determined to see in our modest defence companies a ‘mini-me’ military–industrial complex’. He anticipates complaints ‘about the government’s initiative’ and people declaiming ‘ASPI’s gall in talking frankly about the strategic risks posed by an assertive, authoritarian China’. Well, yes and no.

To argue against putting Australia on a path to a possible war, and potentially locking Australia into that decision without consultation with the electorate or seeking the endorsement of Parliament, is neither being pro-China or anti-American. It is certainly a different issue from Australia’s efforts to establish a defence industry.

That ASPI pushes a particular line on China that is indistinguishable from that of the Americans is not a cause for taking umbrage, nor is the strong support shown by its key staff for the US alliance. However, this debate is important. What is perhaps most concerning about Jennings’ pieces are the lack of balance and the pirouetting blithely over the strategic issues and possible consequences; not to mention dressing up imaginary internal Chinese appreciations of the alliance as analysis.

RAAF Base Tindal Redevelopment Stage 6 and United States Force Posture Initiative Airfield Works will achieve two things. Firstly, to upgrade and adapt the airfield to address constraints imposed on operational tempo and to support KC-30A Multi Role Tanker Transport operations for RAAF. Secondly, to ‘support the United States Force Posture Initiatives by improving accessibility to the RAAF Base Tindal for United States Air Force aircraft’. The latter objective is a part of the Force Posture Agreement between the Australian and United States Governments.

Jennings makes some strong claims for this project. It ‘will deliver a firmer deterrent posture and a closer alliance with the US’ and ‘could also be the basis for a greater Australian leadership role in the region’. The paternalistic desire for Australian leadership in the region, perhaps aping US pretensions of world leadership, is a separate and more complex issue. It is one that seems to imply that the robustly independent states in Southeast Asia lack the capacity to determine their own strategic interests in a manner similar to the way Jennings seems to think Australia doesn’t need to distinguish its interests from those of America.

Interestingly, the SIPRI report Arms flows to Southeast Asia demonstrates a significant degree of independence and ability to resist US pressure in their military acquisitions. Russia has been the primary source of military equipment in Southeast Asia for a long time, and between 2014 and 2018, Russian sales to the region were 180% of those of America. Indonesia’s three top arms suppliers were Russia, South Korea, and the Netherlands over the past decade, Malaysia’s were Russia, Germany, and Spain, and Vietnam’s were Russia, Israel, and Ukraine. The SIPRI report notes ‘it is clear that China, and its ambitions in the South China Sea in particular, is probably seen as the most imminent threat by at least 6 of the 11 South East Asian states: Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Viet Nam’. They don’t seem to require Australian leadership to assess their situation.

How refurbishing this relatively basic airfield will enhance deterrence is hard to understand. Deterrence is primarily an effort to shape thinking of a potential aggressor. Tindal is too far away to play a major role in Chinese strategic calculations in the South China Sea and Northeast Asia. Compared to the US and allied forces already present in those theatres, it is difficult to see Tindal supporting more than a trivial, if any, force projection capability into those regions.

Perhaps Jennings has in mind deterring a Chinese attack on Australia. A situation that surely would only arise were the US expected not provide support to Australia. If, in the inconceivable situation where China did have sufficient reason to attack Australia while US security guarantees remained strong, the operational capacity that Tindal provides would be inadequate to deter or defeat a serious Chinese assault.

In Jennings’ assessment ‘China views Australia’s defence alliance with the United States with a mix of envy and puzzlement’. China is envious because it could never build the willing partnerships of the kind that give Australia privileged access to military technology and intelligence. It is puzzled, Jennings surmises, by relationships ‘based on trust, strategic interest and shared values’.

Alternatively, China’s history might actually provide it with a superior understanding of the alliance than Jennings credits it with. It has had significant experience with tributary states willing to override their own interests in order to acquiesce in the strategic interests of a hegemon. The Chinese rulers are more likely to look with bafflement on a small country physically distant from Northeast Asia yet willing to openly plan and force structure on the assumption of fighting a war it cannot influence against a state crucial to its economic prosperity and towards which China shows no indications of threatening militarily.

Mike Scrafton was a Deputy Secretary in the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, senior Defence executive, CEO of a state statutory body, and chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.


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5 Responses to MIKE SCRAFTON. What do the Chinese think of the US-Australian Alliance?

  1. Colin Cook says:

    I felt that last Monday’s Q&A on ABC TV showed the success of ASPI’s anti-China contributions to our public broadcasters.
    As the program progressed the first Chinese government representative, Minister Wang Xining, ever to appear on the program was subjected to a barrage of questions and comments from other panel members, notably Stan Grant and Vicky Xu, and the host, Hamish Macdonald. Stan amazingly observed that ‘we’ had hoped China would become ‘more like us but this didn’t happen’!
    There seemed to be little comprehension of the scale of China – a population some 40 times that of Australia and the different needs that such may invoke.
    It was a sad display in that the opportunity for some better understanding of our biggest trading partner and a new super-power was completely lost.

    • Teow Loon Ti says:

      The “Lost Generation” was caused by an Australian government that sought to make Aboriginal people “More like us”.

    • Anthony Pun says:

      Dear Colin, I felt the same way about the ABC Q&A program and the SMH published my comments; Mr Wang’s comment smh media comment 25Feb2020 published
      Mr Wang Xining, defended his country well despite the loaded questions about the Uighurs and the visa issued raised. The visa question was barely heard hence Mr Wang’s answer. The program is about Coronavirus and its side effects, including xenophobia affecting 1.2 million Chinese Australians, and unfortunately, it degraded from a friendly discussion to a hostile criticism of the Chinese political system compared with western liberal democracy. I was there and there is no difference in watching CNN usual western propaganda and ABC Q&A. Jason Li and Prof Raina McIntyre views were more balanced and geopolitically non-partisan.
      Story: Chinese embassy official faces hard questions on Q+A
      A more detailed commentary appear in au123.com on 27Feb2020

  2. Anthony Pun says:

    What would the Chinese say about Australia?:: “We are amazed that big far away island in the South Pacific with less than 26 million people are building a fortress Australia to protect themselves from an imagined enemy like us. It is unbelievable, because they trade well with us and makes them rich and yet they occasionally whacked us on the head with the cricket bat for no reason at all or for reasons not known to us. They always side with Uncle Sam, who used to love us but now treat us like an enemy just simply that they cannot stand any competition, particularly with our BRI and Huawei 5G. We better tell our cousins, the 1.2 million Chinese Australians to watch out for the Indons comrade because their sampans are more likely to land in Australia undetected than the COVID19. If they continue to whack us, we should turn our trade to the next friendly island; Comrade, the Maoris and Jacinta are very friendly people whom we should do more trade, send more tourist and students to that smaller island paradise!”

  3. Teow Loon Ti says:

    First of all, thank you very much for a brilliant article.

    It seems to me that the Covid19 has highlighted the interdependence of the world based on a system of economic cooperation built up over the years, arguably since Britannia ruled the world. The economic and social well being of the people around the world depend on this system; be it trade, combating human induced climate change, diseases or poverty. The only world leader who seems to be doing his utmost to disrupt this system, instead of strengthening it, is Donald Trump. What we are seeing is an increasing tendency to create a “them and us”, “winner takes all” and “I come first” situation. This is a dangerous situation for the world – a gradual erosion of cooperation and trust. Unfortunately for Australia, he seems to find a supporter in Peter Jennings.


    Teow Loon Ti

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