I explained yesterday how the Chinese have thoroughly digested the Anglosphere’s Rules of the Road, and have steered themselves to prosperity in the process. The Anglosphere Ways of War are equally well understood. Indeed, China is embracing one of the central laws of the Elders of Greenwich: the top dog has to put to sea. The British adopted the naval strategy pioneered by the Dutch and then sailed out to build a global empire. The US took over the sea strategy and still presides as the maritime mega-power. If the Obama pivot is to mean anything long term in Asia, it will be based on the US delivering as the off-shore naval balancer in the region, in the same way as the Britain did for Europe.
Mead argues that the emergence of a multipolar international system in Asia is an extraordinary opportunity for the US and its maritime system:
The interests of the key Asian powers appear to be aligned with those of the US and of the liberal capitalist order; American interests are never more secure than when multiple pillars support the system… The offshore balancing power that is interested in an open global trading system poses less threat and offers more opportunity to more partners than traditional land powers can usually match.
Mark China as the traditional land power that understands this argument and is responding accordingly. On this, see Sam Roggeveen’s piece noting the view that ‘China has ticked the “sea denial” box, and is moving on to more ambitious blue water plans’. The military element of the US rebalance must pivot on maritime strategy. The response from China is plenty of naval pushback. The quandary for other Asian players is the extent to which they can do the Anglo dance in support of the US.
The Australian public shows every sign of grasping the shape and direction of these currents. The 2013 Lowy Institute survey of Australian public opinion on foreign policy suggests the voters still love the security elements embedded in the Anglosphere but are pondering the costs of the Ways of War. The Poll found 82% of Australians supported the US alliance (down from the Obama highpoint last year of 87%). The rotation of US marines through northern Australia is also popular: 61% of those polled were in favour of ‘allowing the US to base military forces here in Australia’ (up from 55% in 2011 when the same question was asked). The tradition of Australia fervently clinging to the alliance lives, but it’s the potential demands of the alliance that are troubling.
The George W. Iraq effect lingers: 76% of Australians think that ‘Australia should only support US military action if it is authorised by the United Nations’. And only 38% agreed with the proposition that Australia should support ‘US military action in Asia, for example, in a conflict between China and Japan’. So Australians like the alliance as much as ever, but aren’t too keen on doing any alliance heavy duty, especially as China is seen as far more important economically than the US. The Lowy survey reports it this way:
The prospect of strategic competition between a rising China and the United States has stirred a debate in recent years about whether it is possible for Australia to maintain good relations with both nations. An overwhelming majority of Australians believe this is possible (87%). Only 12% think it is ‘not possible for Australia to have a good relationship with China and a good relationship with the United States at the same time’. Most Australians (76%) see China as the most important economy to Australia at the moment, far more than the 16% who say the United States economy is the most important. Given this strong emphasis on the Chinese economy, we asked this year which relationship people saw as more important to Australia overall. Despite their views about the importance of China’s economy, more Australians place a higher value on our relationship with the United States (48%) than with China (37%). Without being prompted, 10% offered the response that both were equally important. Even of those three-quarters of Australians who believe that China’s economy is the most important to Australia, a significant minority (40%) still think that the relationship with the United States is more important to Australia than the relationship with China.
Australians have great affection for the American cousins but the scars of Iraq and Afghanistan are fresh (61% of those polled by Lowy thought the Afghanistan war ‘was not worth fighting’).
The voters have accepted that China has become supremely good at playing by the economic Rules of the Road. And Australians join the rest of the region in praying that the US and China can continue to motor along without any major traffic accidents.
Australians are happy with much that the Anglosphere has wrought, but aren’t so sure whether we should fight for it on traditional Anglosphere terms in the Asian Century. The climate of opinion is not to fight at all or to do so only with UN blessing. That’s a reading of the Australian mood that will cause some head scratching in the place where the Anglosphere holds greatest sway in Oz—the traditionally Anglo-Saxon ranks of the Australian military.
Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.