by Zac Rogers
Prevent realignment. Full stop.
Australia is not in danger of being entrapped by the US over China. Nor is it in danger of being abandoned. Something else is going on.
In Australia, over the last fifteen years or so, the strategic/security community in government, think-tanks, academia, and the commentariat has found itself grappling with an increasingly uncomfortable question. Put simply, what does the future hold for Australia as China’s re-emergence continues? As the conventional wisdom goes, China has become Australia’s most important economic partner, and its huge market offers Australia important opportunities and incentives if it is to ride the next wave of economic change into a post-industrial, digital information age. Miss out, and The Lucky Country could find itself among the ranks of nation-states who, by a combination of misfortune and mismanagement, face steepening obstacles to their continued prosperity.
On the security side, China’s economic re-emergence has, understandably, been put to good use modernizing and expanding its military capabilities. China’s weakness, particularly from the sea, had ushered in its self-described ‘century of humiliation’ at the hands of Western powers and Japan between 1839 and 1945. The Taiwan Strait crisis of 1995-96 further catalyzed the PLA onto a pathway of modernization that focused on preventing such weakness from ever disrupting China occurring again. The post-war model of American power projection: Naval aviation supported by secure forward-basing and the capacity to surge military power into any theater on the globe, provided the PLA modernization effort with its archetypal antipodes. By the mid-2000s, with most eyes focused elsewhere, war gaming inside the Pentagon suggested a fundamental shift was underway regarding the American model. China would likely soon, in a crisis, be capable of exacting a cost on American forces based in, entering, and transiting the Western Pacific that might force a fundamental re-evaluation of their presence there.
This presented Australia’s strategic thinkers with an entirely novel and unwanted problem. The US Navy, which has treated the Western Pacific as an American lake for the best part of the last seventy years, has its command of the commons contested by a China with whom Australia’s future prosperity is now inextricably linked. Australia had experienced the deeply traumatic loss of its Great Power friend once before, and was acutely aware of the trappings of security dependency. Despite this, efforts in the 1980s to conceive of a more self-reliant Australian defence policy had, through sheer physical and technical limitations, wound its way inexorably back to the only powerful friend that could provide the capabilities required. Now, it faces the prospect of a growing, if partially concealed, rivalry between its key economic partner and key strategic partner in East Asia.
Further to the conventional wisdom, the US can be expected to push back hard in the Western Pacific to protect its primacy. Air-Sea Battle in 2010, the ‘pivot’ in 2011, more US Navy FONOPs since 2015, all evidence, if somewhat piece-meal, of that intention. The strategic thinking is that narrowly speaking, US economic interests in a dynamic East Asia over the next 50 years require it to retain primacy in order to be able to pursue and protect them. More broadly, US treaty and sub-treaty arrangements in the region must be honoured in order to maintain American regional and global system leadership. In Australia, this is taken as reflecting the deepening strategic alignment between our two countries. The shadow of the future always means states like ours will favour the status quo, and the US favours that too. The maritime arteries of East Asia are simply too important to us and to other regional states to be entrusted to anyone else. The problem, then, is one of managing relations with China while it and the US elbow their way towards some sort of quid pro quo in the Pacific that doesn’t end up in a shooting war, but fundamentally retains US primacy. Maybe we could even live with primacy lite. As long as we can avoid entrapment, and we are not likely to be abandoned, all good. Lucky Country again.
This picture is not without significant risks, and much debate has been raised on the prospects of such an outcome. China faces economic, demographic, and political headwinds that could derail its re-emergence. But would a weakened China be more or less dangerous? The US faces economic and political challenges, and retrenchment is never far from the politically possible with the United States, especially around election time. Just how firmly is America committed, politically, to the re-balance? Congress looks ready to sink the TPP. Could politics derail our future? And what about all the other regional variables? Japan’s normalization, ASEAN’s inefficacy, Duterte’s madness. What next for China’s artificial islands? Scarborough Shoal? Flash points, Taiwan, North Korea?
There is an even bigger, clearer, picture emerging here, and Australia must not mistake the forest for the trees. Strategically, the United States sees the world outside its borders as a system, from which it itself is exempt, that is made up of pieces. That system needs to be managed, and sometimes the pieces need to be manipulated. Forget about friendships, they are not permanent. Only interests are permanent. In East Asia, China’s power projection capabilities will probably never be more than that of a regional power. Geography, and the physics of distance and time are the main reasons. These are hard limitations. As such, American interests, narrowly conceived, are unlikely to ever be subject to coercion via China’s instruments of military force. Consider the degree of US nuclear primacy over China and the argument strengthens. That canon of American strategic thinking: To prevent the rise of a state or coalition of states to the status of regional hegemon on the Eurasian landmass, is worth bearing in mind. China is not that threat. And besides, the key word is prevent. Prevention does not necessarily require full spectrum dominance.
Nothing of the sort can be said for America’s allies and partners in the Western Pacific. As China’s power to control the air and the sea off its eastern flank solidifies, the prospect of political coercion directed either north or south of the South China Sea increases. The US can’t stop this because the US is not interested in what it would really take to roll back PLA capabilities here. If they were, we would have seen it already. Nor should we have expected them to. The writing has been on the wall since the end of the Cold War. Pentagon, White House, State Department have more-or-less been saying this for a while. ‘Build partner capacity’, ‘lighter military footprint’, ‘no more ground wars’. China has expertly designed its strategy to preclude US reaction by remaining below certain thresholds. Over the last decade or so it has probed, pulled back, and learned. Beijing by now is likely confident that its eventual capacity to militarily dominate the entire South China Sea is not going to be pre-emptively thwarted by the United States. This has massive implications for Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the entire region.
This does not imply that the US is happy to cede significant influence to Beijing in East Asia. Nor is it in any way a traditional case of abandonment. To the contrary, the US is working to retain if not strengthen its regional influence. The one thing the US feared was the potential for strategic realignment in East Asia. In the early-mid 2000s, Beijing was conducting ‘smile diplomacy’ and the ‘peaceful rise’ had captured the regional narrative. The shortest path to US strategic decline would have been if its presence was simply deferred in favour of what Beijing had to offer. This, of course, did not happen. The ‘China Threat’ thesis ramped up after 2007-8 when military and paramilitary incidents in the air and sea of the South and East China Seas began multiplying, and has gone from strength to strength since. Fearing rising Chinese influence, states flocked to the US. Their fears are real. Beijing’s strategy contains internal contradictions it has been unable to nuance. While the realignment of Japan and Australia with Beijing was never seriously considered, the US had thwarted the only real risk to its ongoing strategic presence and influence in the Western Pacific.
With its major allies and partners firmly in place, the US strategy is to slowly shift more responsibility and burden on to them. Traditionally, this would incur a loss of control as well. However, US dominance in the increasingly pivotal information domains, that it has plugged much of the region into, is designed to offset this age-old dynamic. With American strategic access to East Asia basically assured, the time when the US would assume responsibility for the security interests of an entire region of nation-states whom, if they wanted to, could build much greater capacity and pay the cost themselves, has passed. It was called the Cold War. It was not only more necessary then but also more possible, because of bipolarity. These are the important lessons of the end of that era that it’s not entirely clear Australia has learned. The Pentagon and the US services openly planned for more responsive global flexibility, less static presence, the type best suited for assurance. They planned to retain their edge through information.
We are still, in civilizational terms, a very young nation. At the fall of Singapore we were horribly exposed, but for the historically serendipitous exchange of one Great Power patron for another. We emerge now after a prolonged period of gestation into another moment of harsh and untimely exposure. The balance of military power in East Asia will not be what it has been for the last seventy years, even while American primacy is retained but variegated. The Alliance endures, but Australia’s capacity to manoeuvre among the complex interplay of powerful interests in a region of life-and-death significance to us will come down to just that: Australia’s capacity. The US is simply far less concerned strategically about China than we should be. There is no ‘China Choice’, we are not caught between entrapment and abandonment by the US. We are just being shouldered forward into a much harsher light.