Strategic stances at an uncertain time

Aug 25, 2021

The unimpressive end to the United States’ commitment to Afghanistan emphasises the questions facing Australia in regard to the future security of the Asia-Pacific.  Different approaches are being put forward, including greater self-reliance, and greater involvement with the US.

A common response to the US’s unseemly departure from Afghanistan has been to say that we must become more self-reliant in regard to defence matters.  But not everyone thinks in this way.  For example, in a recent interview with Paul Kelly for the ‘Weekend Australian’ (21-22 August), Alan Dupont said “Australia has to rethink its alliance relationship with the US…Paying our alliance dues with token contributions won’t work anymore.  If we want a security guarantee and the protection of the US nuclear umbrella, we will have to pay a higher premium.  That means greater burden-sharing and greater US access to our defence facilities, particularly in Northern Australia.”

In the same article Kelly himself said “Allies must do more in order to exert more influence on US decision-making but also to insure against the US retreat”.

These arguments are of course counter-intuitive, saying as they do that because the US is unreliable and has shown a lack of commitment to an ally, a lack of consultation with other allies, and “might retreat”,we should involve ourselves with it, and link our policies to its, the more closely.

Kelly says “ forget any notion of Australia distancing itself from the US on the grounds of senior partner unreliability.  The US unreliability risk is growing but the strategic danger from China is growing at a faster rate.”

But what is this “strategic danger from China”?  The Americans certainly see China as a “peer competitor”, which they don’t welcome, but do they see it as a strategic danger to them?  Some do, of course, and one rationale for leaving Afghanistan was to “clear the decks” to concentrate on China.  What sort of strategic danger does China pose to us?  Our objectives for the Asia-Pacific are similar to the United States’, but not identical: we both want a peaceful, stable and prosperous Pacific, but it’s not essential for us, as it seems to be for some Americans, for America to be predominant in it.  It will always have a big voice but it doesn’t need to rule the roost, and it does need to face reality and make room for China.

China of course has responsibilities too if the desired state of a sustainable equilibrium is to be achieved.  It has to be said that China speaks with many voices.  In a telephone conversation with US Secretary of State Blinken, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reportedly offered to have a dialogue with the US looking to a “soft landing” in Afghanistan, which should establish an “open and inclusive” political framework. He said that in the face of global challenges and regional issues the US and China  should “carry out coordination and cooperation”.

But various articles in the “Global Times”, the CCP’s English-language newspaper and propaganda organ, have speculated about what the events in Afghanistan will mean for Taiwan (in fact President Tsai has called for more self-reliance), and whether Taiwan or the United States will resist “when the mainland uses force to unify the island one day”.  The answers given are that Taiwan couldn’t and the US in the end wouldn’t, because it wouldn’t be facing a threat to itself, but would be risking a war with a formidable foe, China.  There’s no doubt that the US’s setback in Afghanistan has brought on an attack of hubris in some circles in Beijing.

In a way, the US and China each represent the other’s worst fear.  For some in the US China is the hot breath of unwanted, unaccustomed and unrelenting competition; for some in China, the US is simply determined to oppose its rise and prevent it from taking its rightful place in the world.

What we want, as a middle-sized denizen of the Asia-Pacific, is for both of these giants to draw in their horns, curb their mutual paranoias and seek some kind of mutually bearable accommodation.  That doesn’t mean that we should turn away from the US alliance, but it does mean that we should not give up our right, and duty, to come to our own conclusions on policy, and not so commit ourselves to enmeshment and inter-operability  with the US that in effect we commit ourselves to US objectives in advance.  Our objectives are not always the same and, as recent events have emphasised, US decisions are not always right.

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