NATO hasn’t got our back as some think

Jul 13, 2022
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, responds to a question as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy look on during a joint press conference at the Presidential Administration Building, July 3, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Image: Ukraine Presidency/Ukrainian Presidential Press Office/Alamy Live News

Anthony Albanese demonstrated that in some respects he remains a prisoner of his predecessor’s national security policies. Amid the glamour of Europe, he revealed once more that Canberra’s security agencies still control how Australia projects itself to the wider world.

Foreign affairs talk of a ‘single theatre’ of operations has Canberra excited. But Europe’s commitments fall a long way from substantive military integration in Asia.

A new zeitgeist now grips the minds of some policymakers and analysts in Canberra and around the world. It declares there is a ‘‘single theatre’’ of operations in world politics, comprising the Russian threat in Europe and China’s assertion in Asia. The result is global ideological conflict against what one Australian journalist has called the ‘‘old enemies’’.

The term derives momentum primarily from the ‘‘no limits’’ partnership announced by Beijing and Moscow in February. Its manifestation has come with the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine and China’s damaging refusal to condemn it. Its ‘‘lessons’’ are those that an aroused West hopes China will take from the European crisis for its intentions on Taiwan.

And its historical inspiration is sourced from the deep memory wells of the Second World War period. ‘‘This is our 1937 moment,’’ said Britain’s army chief Sir Patrick Sanders.

The ‘‘single theatre’’ thesis is an extension, and escalation, of the embrace of the term the ‘‘new Cold War’’ to describe US/China strategic competition and US President Joe Biden’s consistently stark binary of a global split between autocracies and democracies.

Following the recent NATO summit in Madrid, Japan’s Foreign Ministry stated that the leaders of the so called ‘‘Asia-Pacific 4’’ agreed that the security of Europe and Asia is now ‘‘indivisible’’. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has warned that he sees another Ukraine occurring in East Asia over Taiwan.

But as analyst Gorana Grgic argued on these pages last week, for the time being the Ukrainian war means Europe’s horizons remain firmly bounded. Grgic cautioned about the level of focus and commitment NATO could give Asia.

The German government remains split on the matter and wishes not to give too overtly to Kyiv: last week, Berlin said it would not ‘‘plunder its own military’’, refusing to send armoured vehicles to Ukraine.

In any case, the ‘‘single theatre’’ thesis can have real meaning only for the United States, since it remains the only great power with worldwide military capability and reach.

Yet, its renewed focus on Europe will only make it harder for Washington to juggle demands in both theatres. Asian allies will already be worrying privately about an America again being distracted. Washington’s added $US40 billion ($58 billion) military assistance package for Ukraine, recently passed after languishing in Congress, will also stretch US defence spending.

Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, conceded that NATO would not be ‘‘fighting wars in the Pacific’’ but instead stressed the ‘‘interconnection’’ of Washington’s European and Asian alliances.

That’s much less excitable than some of the commentary emerging from Canberra. Sure, European partners can help leverage economic, technological and financial power against China, but that’s a long way from substantive integration of military endeavours in Asia. Nevertheless, the appeal of the term is self-evident. America, and now Europe – according to the zeitgeist – have Australia’s back.

This is taken as the culmination of Australia’s attempt, first begun under Scott Morrison, to globalise its China policy. Some even believe that Australia’s political community of interest in Asia is now in harmony with its historical community of culture in Europe.

But in a country chronically forgetful of its history, such a view is risible. Long scratched from the strategic consciousness, it seems, are the nightmares haunting Australia’s psychology from the early 20th century, if not earlier. Namely, the fear that in the event of a simultaneous war in Europe and the Pacific Australia’s interests can be expendable in the plans of its great power friends and allies.

Any analyst talking the ‘‘single theatre’’ thesis need only be reminded of a place and a date: Singapore, February 1942.

While in Europe, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese also gave expression to a version of the new zeitgeist. He wanted Beijing to ensure it had learnt the lessons of Russian aggression. Presumably Albanese buys the line that the West must defeat Putin in Ukraine so that it stands as a warning to Xi. But it is not clear what the implications are for China’s ambitions on Taiwan if Russia seizes the Donbas.

Albanese demonstrated that in some respects he remains a prisoner of his predecessor’s national security policies. But Labor is also in the process, of ‘‘stabilising’’ the relationship with Beijing. And since taking office the government has stopped shouting at China. But amid the glamour of Europe, Albanese revealed once more that Canberra’s security agencies still control how Australia projects itself to the wider world.

On Ukraine, Albanese went even further. Australia stands ready, he proclaimed, to support Kyiv ‘‘for as long it takes for Ukraine to emerge victorious’’. But he must surely know the inevitability of being asked that if this kind of open-ended commitment is good enough for Ukraine, it must ultimately apply to Taiwan. He must surely see, too, the damage the war is doing to western economies – in fuel and food price increases, high inflation, energy crises and likely recessions. All of this appears lost in communique scribbles about supply chains.

But there is also a naivety here about great power politics, which ignores the point that Moscow, if facing defeat, may well turn to nuclear weapons. This appears to be completely forgotten by most urging the rearming of Ukraine.

This is still a fledgling Australian government. The foreign minister’s recent speech in Singapore shows where its primary focus will likely remain, and that is in south-east Asia, where Penny Wong continues to emphasise that Australia remains on ‘‘the right side of history’’ in the region.

Re-posted from the 7/11/2022 Financial Review eEdition

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