Greg Sheridan doesn’t get a lot right, but I had to agree with him on the weekend when he wrote that Kevin Rudd’s speech to the RSL national congress in Townsville last week was perhaps the most important of his prime ministership.
Why was Rudd’s speech so important?
Well, firstly, he managed to highlight three areas of national security that have been ignored in the terrorism hullabaloo — the increasing militarisation of our region, the importance of energy security and the impact of climate change on food and water security.
Secondly, he acknowledged what analysts and behind-the-sceners have known for a while: that "militarily, the Asia-Pacific will become a much more contested region". That is as China’s influence in the region grows, we can expect the United States to try and limit the new upstart’s power — both economically and militarily — through its local hub and spokes allies.
Thirdly, he outlined the areas that may be flashpoints in the new competition between the US and China — Taiwan, the South China Sea, North and South Korea, and of course the border disputes with India.
Fourth, he acknowledged the use of advanced technology in military ventures that is sometimes referred to as RMA (Revolution in Military Affairs), currently transforming not just the battlefield but also the military strategy of countries such as China, as it attempts to catch up to US superiority.
And not least, Rudd reaffirmed the importance of Australia’s alliance with the United States which he stated "will remain the bedrock of our strategic policy". With this line, he indicated clearly which way Australia would swing in the US-China tussle, putting paid to endless babbling in the press about the "hard decision" Australia would have to make in the event of conflict. Discussing regional partnerships with Japan, Republic of Korea, Indonesia, Maylaysia and Singapore, Rudd clearly outlined our partners who are also working to hedge against China’s military ambitions.
While the media focused on the need to upgrade our naval capabilities — it was the line "to protect our sea lanes of communication" that indicated how much of this battle in the Pacific is about naval power and energy security.
Sea lanes of communication are vital for passage of trade, oil and gas and other energy needs, especially for a growing China. That means areas such as the Straits of Malacca, the Lombok Straits, and other high-traffic channels are going to be strategically crucial if things turn for the worse between these two powers. Any attempt by the other power to block these vital sea lanes could set off a chain of events, involving other areas such as Taiwan or North Korea.
The AFR quoted ANU’s Hugh White saying that US-Chinese regional military competition would reshape Australia’s strategic environment more than anything since the collapse of the British Empire. That’s quite a statement coming from the former head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and former deputy secretary for intelligence and strategy in the DOD. And it indicates how serious this competition is to our future defence and security.
More importantly, it finally gave official voice to an issue that has been getting thicker in the air for quite some time: would America and China ever risk the benefits of economic interdependence by challenging each other in the Pacific? Would conflict between the powers threaten Australia’s huge trade with China? Could one side make a strategic misstep that leads to an Asian conflagration?
The matter of Chinese military spending continues to feature prominently in discussions on strategic issues, as does the question of how much China plans to exploit the many strong relationships it is currently building with other countries around the world.
Australia’s options in the event of conflict — and their possible effects on our energy security — would have to be one of the more pressing national issues of the day. Want to know what the new WA Government is thinking about? Probably China.
These are the questions we need asked and debated in a far more open forum than any international relations conference in Canberra, and should be familiar topic of discussion around the great Aussie barbecue.
At the very least, the issue for the "mum and dad" shareholders of post-Howard Australia is "How are you going to know when to dump the energy shares in your portfolio and diversify if you don’t know when relations are deteriorating between the superpowers?"
Rudd knows enough about China to realise he can’t tiptoe around this issue forever. The national discussion about our relationship with China has entered a new, much more explicit domain.
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