Defending ‘the region’
20 Nov 2014|

Risk vs. RewardI write to make a further contribution to the ongoing debate about Australia’s strategic place as a Top 20 power. In Peter’s latest response he implies that regionalists are less ‘grown up’ than globalists. I beg to differ.

Peter talks about defending a broadly-defined set of global interests. But those interests are ill-defined: how broad is broad enough? And, if it’s appropriate, how much should we contribute to the fight in Iraq and Syria in order to win, rather than just to keep the fight going. Contemplating an approach involving piling on with more is frightening, with dark consequences.

Piling on got us nowhere in Vietnam. Piling on in Iraq from 2006 to 2008 provided only a temporary reprieve—once we left, there was little to show for our presence. The jury’s still out on our contributions in Afghanistan but the signs are ominous.

A concern Peter doesn’t address adequately is whether the current plan for Iraq and Syria is even viable or likely to be remotely successful. There are a number of indicators which would suggest it’s not going to end well for the people of Iraq and the neighbourhood (as I’ve argued here and here). There’s no evidence we have a viable end point in sight or even in conception. I’m all for contributing to global coalitions that have clearly defined and achievable objectives and which don’t undermine our position or that of the US in East Asia. But where are the clear and achievable objectives for this one?

Peter verbals me saying the Middle East isn’t a second- or third-order priority. Yet I was merely citing the order of priority from successive Defence White Papers. What’s the point of having tiered DWP priorities if the lowest priority (global issues) is treated the same as the highest (DoA)?

Peter suggests Middle Eastern hot spots can ruin Australia’s day more thoroughly than events closer to home in places like Dili. Really? On what measure? To be sure, returning vigilantes from the Middle East are a problem, but plans are already in place to address those concerns.

Does East Asia matter more to Australia than the Middle East? If so, why? If not, why not? Economically, the Middle East used to matter a lot. Nowadays our economic interests are overwhelmingly linked to East Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia. The visits of Xi and Modi bear testament to that fact. Having said that, I agree we have a stake in preventing the spread of terrorism and halting the descent into sectarian violence. But are we following a viable path toward that objective? The past decade or so of intervention suggests not.

Peter refers to a G20 benchmark of international contributions to the war in Iraq and Syria. He cites NATO countries, but most are former imperial powers with residual influence in places like Africa. They also have genuine obligations to the security of the periphery of NATO—including the borders of Turkey. That’s a direct and understandable connection. But it’s not ours.

Also if there’s a G20 benchmark then why have other Asian G20 countries been quite circumspect in staying out of the game there? He seems to overlook China, Japan, ROK, Indonesia, India, Brazil, and Mexico. Peter says we don’t have a choice to opt out of the club, but those countries appear to have done so with no untoward effects.

Why not ask our Muslim neighbours why they aren’t buying in more and perhaps what insights they might have to share with us as to why more people are going to the war in Iraq/Syria from Australia than from Indonesia or Malaysia—even though there are many more Muslims in those states? Perhaps it says something about Australia needling the hornet’s nest in the Middle East unnecessarily.

Peter talks about overcoming our geopolitical cringe and accepting that Australia can have real strategic interests beyond its neighbourhood. Of course it can. I recognise Australia has real interests in the Middle East. They’re just lesser ones than with our immediate neighbours and principal trading partners in East Asia and Southeast Asia. As I’ve argued elsewhere, events from Whitlam to Howard and beyond demonstrate Australia has always taken a carefully calibrated approach to contributions far afield. Those imperatives haven’t changed.

Peter paints what I perceive to be a false dichotomy of opting in or out from the world’s biggest security concerns. I’m not for opting out. But we should only opt in where it’s viable, achievable and commensurate with the risks and potential rewards.

Peter closes by saying Australia’s size confers an obligation to make meaningful contributions to the global order. That’s true. But the question is where best to do so and how? In our neighbourhood, no one else can be relied on to pick up the slack. Back in 1999, for instance, Australia had to coax the US to be involved in INTERFET. Similarly in Bougainville and Solomon Islands, Australia, along with New Zealand had to take the lead. Let’s not kid ourselves that by making niche contributions in the Middle East we somehow guarantee reciprocal commitments in our neighbourhood.

John Blaxland is a senior fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre. Image courtesy of Flickr user Bradley Huchteman.