Australia’s place in US Pacific Strategy: the Expendable Dependable?
18 Mar 2016|

Lord Palmerston is quite often cited in The Strategist. Had he prosecuted his thinking on the ephemeral nature of alliances and the enduring nature of interests to its logical conclusion, he might have said that self-interest is the driving force in any alliance. He might have also observed that self-interest diverges fundamentally between alliance partners.

So far, it’s been a good few weeks for senior US military officers, whose comments and observations have demonstrated both the truth of Lord Palmerston’s dictum and the inevitable logic of its sequel.

First, the commander of the US Seventh Fleet, VADM Joseph Aucoin suggested that Australia should conduct its own freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea as a way of signaling non acceptance of and displeasure with China’s territorial sea grab and construction of artificial islands in the disputed waters.

Then ADM Harry Harris, the CINC of the US Pacific Forces, used the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi to float the re-establishment of the quadrilateral security dialogue between the US, India, Japan and Australia in response to China’s expansionism in the South China Sea. His invitation to embark on a containment and encirclement of China possibly serves the self-interest of the US, but may be of doubtful strategic benefit to any of the other three possible partners. India’s Defence Minister Parrikar has already responded coolly to the proposal, ruling out the possibility of joint patrols in the South China Sea.

And finally, to provide some additional emphasis on the need to encircle China, US Pacific Air Force (PACAF) commander GEN Lori Robinson weighed in with the constructive suggestion—at least from a US perspective—that the US begin deploying and rotating B1 bombers through Darwin and Tindal, in addition to the B52s that have been conducting navigation and training exercises across northern Australia on and off since the early 80s.

Senior US military officers have a much larger role as policy spokesmen than do their Australian counterparts. There’s a long tradition of political CINCs in the US, and an established practice of quasi-political commentary on strategic issues. That’s consistent with the practice of great powers since classical times to inject a measure of ambiguity into their strategic posture—the trusted ambassador backed up by a fierce-looking general. Strategically constructive ambiguity, however, runs the risk of mixed messaging, and that’s perhaps what’s occurring at the moment.

At their joint press conference at the State Department a month ago, Secretary of State Kerry and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi were at pains to emphasise diplomacy and non-militarisation as critical features of their joint approach to the management of South China Sea issues. As is appropriate for the US’ top diplomat, Kerry is clearly conscious of the importance soft power if one is to ‘cuddle up’ to an interlocutor when tricky issues are in play.

Defense Secretary Carter, on the other hand, adopted a less nuanced ‘hard power’ position, using his November 2015 visit to the USS Theodore Roosevelt to ‘muscle up’ to China by proclaiming the carrier’s presence in the South China Sea to be a ‘symbol and a sign of the critical role the United States’ military power plays in what is a very ‘consequential region for the American future’.

As leader of the world’s superpower, President Obama has evidently chosen to ‘shape up’ to China by adopting a middle way approach—smart power. At his 16 February press conference following the US–ASEAN leaders’ summit, he spoke of ‘the need for tangible steps in the South China Sea to lower tensions, including a halt to further reclamation, new construction and militarization of disputed areas’.

While confirming the determination of the US to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, he took pains to point out that ‘disputes between claimants in the region must be resolved peacefully, through legal means, such as the upcoming arbitration ruling under the UN Convention of the Law of the Seas, which the parties are obligated to respect and abide by’. The ASEAN leaders, however, weren’t quite so full throated in their support for a ‘shape up’ approach, issuing instead a much more muted communiqué that refrained from singling out China for special attention. As with India, their interests and those of the US evidently don’t converge.

What does this mean for Australia? The US generally regards Australia’s interests as not only coterminous with its own but as subsumed by them. Australia’s docile and compliant response to its customary role of cat’s paw is as much evident in the noisy barracking on the part of former Prime Minister Abbott and former Defence Minister Andrews as it is in the preparedness of the current defence minister to declare an ‘open mind’ to US proposals, no matter how self-serving they are.

Australia has a strong interest in active US engagement in the Pacific, not as a counterweight to China but as a conditioning factor in the strategic evolution of the western Pacific. We don’t have an interest in the containment or encirclement of China. Rather, our interest—as clearly and repeatedly expressed in the Defence White Paper—is for constructive engagement with China in the context of an agreed international rules-based order.

Australia doesn’t have an interest in following blindly the US lead in pursuit of its more narrowly defined pursuit of power. As a cat’s paw, we might be dependable. But, sadly, cats’ paws are expendable.

It’s Australia’s interest to leverage its greatest strategic and political asset in Asia—the fact that it’s different, democratic and inclusive. We seem to have forgotten Wang Gungwu’s poignant observation in Community and Nation: China, Southeast Asia and Australasia a quarter of a century ago that we’re the sort of country that China would like to be, notwithstanding the vast differences in size and political culture.

We need to ‘face up’ to our future in Asia. As the Mouse that Roared so amusingly portrayed, adventurism and bellicosity of the ‘sail past’ and ‘fly past’ variety betray impotence. Engagement, on the other hand, demands confidence and skill. The application of brain power instead of brawn power would be in the interests of the both Australia and the US.