The guns of March – Putin’s Ukraine gambit and the US rebalance to Asia
4 Mar 2014|

Russian soldiers in Gori city, 2008.The sudden outbreak of tensions in Europe as a result of Russia’s military intervention into the Crimea has led to dramatic days for international security policy makers. One hundred years after the outbreak of the First World War, Europe is once again confronting the prospect of major power tensions and even the risk of a new Cold War with Russia. As Strobe Talbott tweeted: ‘Consensus in the cacophony of chatter and sober official statements today: no one wants a new Cold War. That doesn’t mean we’ll avoid it’.

What would a new Cold War between Russia and the West imply for US choices on its rebalance to Asia, and by extension for the security choices of its Asian partners? In 2014, Russia’s armed forces, though significantly smaller than those the Soviet Union possesed at the end of the Cold War in 1991, are still potent in terms of capability. NATO policy in a renewed Cold War with Russia would be focused initially on preventing a conflict in Ukraine from threatening adjoining NATO member states, but could evolve into deterring any Russian threat to NATO’s broader eastern frontier if tensions increased. In this scenario, the US would have little choice but to respond to the needs of its allies in Europe. The alternative of not assisting NATO would risk the fracturing of the Alliance as new members lost confidence in NATO collective security commitments. So renewed tension in Europe may impose significant new demands on US defence deployments such that it mightn’t have the luxury of decreasing its commitments to Europe in order to rebalance its forces to Asia.

Such an outcome presents a challenge for the Obama administration’s Asia security policy. NATO can’t be left to wither in the face of a confident and aggressive Russia, but in Asia the US is no longer dealing with an inward looking China. Instead as noted China analyst Andrew Erickson said recently in US Congressional testimony, a rising and powerful China seeks

…to address historical grievances and rise again as a great power that commands neighbours deference… Beijing seeks to carve out from the global commons the Yellow, East and South China Seas and the airspace above them as a ‘zone of exceptionalism’ within which existing global legal, security and resource management norms are subordinated to its national interests.

If realised, such a development would dramatically weaken Asian stability, and erode US power such that it could no longer influence events in the region or maintain credibility in the eyes of its former allies.

In what may be the perfect storm strategically, the rise of China and the resurgence of Russia are occurring as US defence spending faces serious fiscal challenges, with the risk of a reintroduction of sequestration by 2016 and which will see significant cuts to capability in the up-coming Quadrennial Defence Review (QDR), due to be released in April 2014. Growing fiscal austerity is accompanied by a US population that is ‘war weary’. There’s an ironic meeting of minds between the liberal left and right-wing ‘Tea Partiers’ in US politics, both allergic to the notion of future foreign interventions. Beijing and Moscow wouldn’t be deaf to US domestic political trends or its economic constraints.

The US doesn’t have the luxury of an ‘either/or’ choice in regards to Europe and Asia. Instead, if the US is asked to do more in Europe, it’s likely that the US would demand greater burden sharing by its allies in Asia. For Japan, such an outcome might see investment in military capabilities designed to reinforce deterrent effect against China and a reinforced view of the imperative for Tokyo to break free of post-war constitutional constraints on its defence policy. In a quid-pro-quo, other regional actors such as the Philippines might give greater access to US forces in return for greater access and assistance to purchase much needed military capabilities to counterbalance China.

For Australia, a need for greater burden sharing in a more dangerous global environment must be factored into consideration in the 2015 Defence White Paper. The recent announcement by the Abbott Government of a commitment to boost defence spending to $50bn is a step in the right direction, but it may not have ten years to achieve this goal. Current Australian defence strategy should focus on forward area operations in the South China Sea or the Indian Ocean as part of a regional coalition undertaking AirSea Battle and Offshore Control rather than rear area tasks in the South Pacific.

If the US faced challenging commitments in Europe, it would be important for the ADF to have long-range capabilities to enable it to better support US operational requirements in Asia. The previous government’s unwillingness to consider nuclear propulsion for the Future Submarine ignored the very clear operational advantages that nuclear submarines offer in terms of range and endurance and the fact that an RAN SSN capability would more directly support US Navy interests in Asia than non-nuclear submarines. An RAN SSN option for the Future Submarine should be examined, especially in the light of a more challenging operational environment. In the air, options for long-range strike need to be examined, perhaps involving unmanned systems as they become available. And interoperability with American forces would be even more valuable in this future, so space-based or ‘near space’ ISR systems able to ‘plug and play’ with the US and regional allies as part of a coalition would be a sound investment. After recent events in Crimea it’s even more crucial to think hard about Australia’s defence options.

Malcolm Davis is assistant professor in International Relations and post-doctoral research fellow in China-Western Relations at Bond University. Image by Flickr user Bohan_伯韩 Shen_沈.