Can We Serve Two Masters?


Today US president Barack Obama announced the strengthening of military ties between America and Australia. It is the latest step in Washington’s coordination of Asia Pacific nations into a containment strategy aimed at limiting China’s growing influence.

The Asia Pacific security region is on the brink of profound change, with China’s rise likely to bring to an end four decades of unchallenged US primacy.

For Australia, opinions on how to deal with these changes are divided between those who support a strategy aimed at defending the continent independently through advanced sea and air forces and those who advocate strengthening support for US power in the expectation that the defence of Australia would be provided for by our great and powerful friend.

Both sides of politics appear to favour the latter view but recent history suggests that an over-reliance on the United States puts Australia at risk of a defence policy that has little relevance to the country’s unique geostrategic position in Asia.

In the aftermath of 9/11, many in Australian security circles, such as former Defence Minister Robert Hill and academic Alan Dupont, argued that the primary responsibility of the Australian Defence Force in the initial decades of the 21st Century would be to make "niche contributions" to US-led coalitions far beyond Australia’s immediate region.

Such assessments lead to capability acquisitions intended more for supporting the US than for protecting Australia. The decision to buy 59 American Abrams tanks at a cost of about $550 million in 2004 is one example. As analyst Gary Brown writes, the impetus for Australia’s decision to purchase the tanks came "not from any real strategic (concern), but from … the desire to turn the Australian Defence Force into a fully-fledged subsidiary of the US Armed Forces".

Only 10 years after September 11, both Washington’s political and economic capital for fighting interventionist wars in the Middle East appears to have run out. In hindsight, Australian reactions to the threat of international terrorism and support for the US in the War on Terror raise serious questions about the government’s ability to balance the US alliance with the requirement for independent strategic thinking in times of crisis.

As the Lowy Institute’s Rory Medcalfe notes, "one of the strategically damaging consequences of 9/11 was that the US and other countries like Australia were diverted and distracted from the Asian strategic picture".

Far from the overstated threat of international terrorism, the current rise of China heralds a meaningful and fundamental change in strategic affairs, with profound implications for the way regional countries think and act about defence priorities.

China’s economy is expected to overtake the US in real terms by 2016. This growth has already been converted into a significant military capability with Beijing developing the "A2/AD challenge", pursuing anti-access (A2) strategies and area-denial (AD) operations to limit the options available to US military planners operating in the Pacific.

This force structure along with confidence in continued economic growth have provided solid ground for China’s increased assertiveness toward the US in recent years.

It comes at a time when China is Australia’s most significant trade partner, with combined imports and exports worth $105,945 million in 2011, or 23.1 per cent share of total Australian trade activity. The majority of exports come from the resource sector with $39,956 million, around 60 per cent of total exports, coming through iron ore. Conversely, Australia represents only the 14th largest destination for Chinese goods.

China’s continued industrialisation represents Australia’s only plan for economic prosperity. However, defence and diplomatic interests are dependent on US primacy remaining unchallenged. The divergence between Australia’s two primary strategic interests could not be more stark and places Australia at a strategic dilemma.

It is for that reason that robust debate and objective reassessment of the US alliance and Australia’s position in the Asian Century is critical at this point in the history of Australian strategic affairs. Failure to do so over the past decade has lead to the situation we are currently in, pressured by the US to increase support for its military operations and risking diplomatic backlash from China if we respond.

And with US relative power declining, Washington will likely be less able and less willing to project power for the security of allies especially at great distance from the US. Instead America’s allies will be expected to do more to ensure the advancement of US and alliance interests. This will be especially acute in Asia.

For Australia this likely means further increases to numbers of US forces stationed here and increased military activity in our immediate region. This will undoubtedly raise questions about Canberra’s capacity to think and act independently in accordance with Australia’s own national interests.

With Obama’s announcement, this trend has already begun. Ahead of the most significant announcement on these issues in recent years, decisions were made in Canberra and Washington without any form of prior parliamentary or public scrutiny.

According to Radio National, the Chinese government was informed of this decision before the announcement was made to the Australian public and debate of the issues could begin.

Instead, the Australian people were offered a view that the US alliance is less a policy instrument orchestrated after robust debate on the nation’s strategic interests, and more a natural cultural and diplomatic exchange between two age-old friends.

However the responsibility of government is to develop an independent foreign and defence policy based on objective assessments of Australia’s geostrategic position. To avoid this responsibility risks Australia taking on a strategy that has little to do with the national interest and more about supporting the interests of a major power.

Despite its longer association with free-market economics, democratic political systems and cultural liberalism than many of its neighbours, Australia is likely to fall further behind the surging China, India and Indonesia in most aspects of state power: militarily, economically and diplomatically.

The US alliance and Australia’s membership of the Anglosphere stands in contrast to our geo-strategic reality in Asia. Addressing this is a long overdue priority for Australia.

Professor Brahma Chellaney from India’s Centre for Policy Research has highlighted this, writing, "Australia tends to be part of Asia where its economic interests are concerned but it’s not seen as being part of Asia where political and cultural interests are concerned".

More than simply playing host to an increasing presence of foreign armed forces, Australia should seek to provide for its own defence and work to establish peace and security within its immediate region. Such a response would enhance Australia’s contribution to an alliance and not detract from it.

When we shared western cultural traditions with the biggest powers in the world, this ability to overlook Asia did not present a significant failure of strategy. Now, however, it’s time for a new approach.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.