Almost inevitably, I find myself disagreeing with another column by Hugh White, this time in The Age newspaper of 9 July, in which he damns the foreign policy of the Gillard government, condemns the poverty of Tony Abbott’s thought on the issue and praises the perspicacity of Kevin Rudd, because he ‘understands’ the effect of strategic change in Asia. That’s a target rich environment, but I’ll limit my rebuttal to just one aspect of Hugh’s piece: his casual dismissal of the Anglosphere:
[Abbott’s] deepest commitment is to the ‘Anglosphere’—the agreeable idea that the world should continue to be run from Washington and London, by people just like us. In Washington last year he went so far as to say that ‘few Australians would regard America as a foreign country’. This is a very strange thing for a national leader to say. Indeed for sheer sentimental silliness it ranks with Gillard’s words to Congress: ‘America can do anything’.
A more cursory dismissal of a core Australian strategic interest would be hard to find, although it has to be said that the Anglosphere is one of those international institutions about which it’s cool to sneer. So old fashioned. So, well, English. How can this relic of an old order have a place in the Asian Century? The short answer is because the Anglosphere demonstrates itself time and time again to be the engine of global order and the essential enforcer of international stability, even at a time of sweeping strategic change.
Strategists tend not to use the term Anglosphere unless they’re trying to cast someone or something in a rather negative way—all Robert Menzies and golden afternoon light. A more modern term is the Five Eyes community, which refers to the post Second World War intelligence collecting and sharing relationship developed between the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Depending on the strategic issue being discussed, NATO and Japan might be added to the list, the point of commonality being that we’re talking about the capitalist democracies which support open trading systems and the international rule of law. This is the group which, in different configurations and with occasional drop-outs, provided the core of military force needed to support Western (another derided term) interests from the Korean War up to the current Afghanistan conflict.
When strategists talk about the ‘international system’ they’re primarily discussing an order created and maintained by the Anglosphere and a small number of like-minded countries. That’s the same order which created the basis for economic growth in Asia and elsewhere; the same norms of domestic and international behaviour that best deliver innovation and productivity growth, and thus the life-styles that individuals in developing countries want to copy. If there’s a need for a coalition of countries to impose order or reduce risk in Kosovo, or Iraq, or Timor, or Afghanistan or Libya, or Mali, then the world looks to the Anglosphere or its allies to lead the task.
Perhaps more prosaically, the Five Eyes community offers a cost-effective defence framework for Australia. This makes it possible for us to be part of a highly effective intelligence grouping without having to maintain the burden of constellations of self-funded satellites, and to have access to military technology of a standard that couldn’t be developed indigenously. The Anglosphere makes it possible for Australia to operate a defence force and prosecute a sophisticated strategic policy that we would have no chance of matching based solely on our own resources. It’s for that reason that all Australian Prime Ministers, not just Gillard and (possibly) Tony Abbott, but also Rudd and the rest, have supported the Anglosphere, even though some have found it hard to utter the term for reasons of tribalism or trendiness.
Even if some might concede that the Anglosphere has served a useful purpose one could argue that the grouping’s run its historical course and that we must now look to new bringers of international order. This is presumably what Hugh thinks Mr Rudd understands, more’ than anyone else in Australian politics’:
[Rudd] argues that Asia’s peace and stability in the Asian Century cannot be based on solely American primacy … but on a Pax Pacifica in which both America and China, along with other countries, will have to play leading roles—to share leadership, in other words.
Rudd and White would probably part company on some key points, however. Rudd has, in fact, been a particularly strong advocate of what the Anglosphere delivers in substance, if not in name. His 2009 Defence White Paper championed a strengthened ADF maritime capability designed primarily for coalition (that is, five eyes and like-minded countries) operations. Rudd was also the most enthusiastic supporter of enhanced defence cooperation with the United States Marine Corps and Air Force. Rudd’s model of regional cooperation, in other words, is based on the strong involvement of Anglospheric countries. Strong militaries make for confident neighbours.
The Rudd approach suggests that it isn’t time to ditch the Anglosphere. Five factors militate against doing anything that would weaken the current international dispensation in the Asia-Pacific. First, there’s no alternate model which offers an attractive way to manage regional security, or to transition to a regional, power sharing arrangement; no Sinosphere, for example. Second, there’s no other set of countries willing and able to take on a regional security enforcement role. China has dipped a metaphoric toe in the water via anti-piracy operations off the Gulf of Aden, but has showed little signs of wanting to shape an international order outside of its own territorial claims.
Third, no country in the Asia-Pacific, excepting perhaps North Korea, would comfortably welcome China taking on such a role anyway. Even the most muted attempts to assert a Sinosphere—such as we saw in 2009 and 2010 when China practiced a more assertive diplomacy over its South China Sea claims—served only to push ASEAN countries closer to Washington. Fourth, the current international order as applied to the Asia-Pacific is largely welcomed, including by China as the lead beneficiary of the growth which stability has promoted. Fifth, the US shows no sign of going away—it has added significant extra emphasis to its regional military, diplomatic economic and political engagement. We don’t need to redesign what isn’t broken.
Having recently debated Hugh about his ‘China Choice’ argument, I imagine he might by now be saying, ‘But at some point Peter, your assumptions won’t hold, and we have to be ready for that moment, when the US will be relatively less capable vis-a-vis China’. My view is that there’s no such inevitability about China’s long term rise to Sinospheric dominance. The current trends suggest that the US and China will indeed manage their relations to mutual benefit. The Anglosphere—or more accurately the international system it bequeathed—will remain the dominant paradigm, perhaps taking on some Chinese characteristics.
Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image courtesy of jumparoundjon.