The question for Australian policymakers in the Asian Century is whether Australia’s foreign policy remains on the right trajectory to best deal with the changes which will inevitably come to our region. With Australia contributing to yet another American foray into the Middle East, is it really within our interests to spend money and risk life in pursuit of American foreign policy?
It is often hypothesised that, with the rise of China and other Asian powers, the US may someday have to decide – think anywhere from 2035 onwards – to what extent it wishes to maintain its primacy in the Asia-Pacific. Similarly, the Asian powers will have to decide to what extent they wish to either accept, or contest, US hegemony in their backyard. Because developing military capabilities takes anywhere from ten to thirty years, Australia must make choices today based on the future strategic decisions of its neighbours.
Australia has few options. Neutrality, both unarmed and armed, is as unfeasible as a south-east Asian regional security arrangement, or realignment with China. We must think practically; our best way forward is to wholeheartedly solidify our alliance (read: strategic insurance) with the US.
Assume that Australia has thrown off the shackles of strategic alliances and enmeshment. Considering its geographic location, it might be said that total neutrality could work for Australia, as it effectively has for New Zealand. However, unlike New Zealand, Australia would not have a ‘bigger brother’ to overcome before it is rendered vulnerable; Indonesia’s capacity to fill this role is not yet developed.
Further, Australia’s vast repositories of uranium and fossil fuels, at land and sea, represent crucial economic interests which are desirable, and easily taken away. Coupled with the political inability to implement complete disarmament, this option will never be seriously considered.
To develop the capacity to ‘tear an arm off’ an invading force, academics consider military spending would have to increase substantially, starting immediately. Assuming we could get the money together, it is unlikely that any government would have the political capital for such a venture, especially when Australians only support drastically increased military expenditure during wartime. The development of any nuclear capabilities in Australia would similarly meet with considerable domestic resistance, and likely cause more instability in the region than any increase in conventional power would.
Instead of a US alliance, Australia could seek to build a regional defence network, where countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and South Pacific island nations form an alliance to balance out any larger power. By pledging to defend these states with Australian soldiers, Australia would protect its own territory and interests.
However, the developing nature of these nations’ economic and military power renders this avenue untenable. Moreover, our trust relationship with the key player in this concept, Indonesia, is nowhere near what would be required; the 2014 Lowy survey indicates that Australians view Indonesia with more suspicion than China.
Australia has traditionally relied upon a great naval power for its security. Assuming China maintains its military development trends over the next thirty years, it is possible that it could seek regional hegemony. Why not align with the power that would be naturally incentivised to protect its considerable energy investments and citizens here?
First, an assumption of continued military development is predicated on an assumption of continued economic development. This assumption is a dangerous one to make when China’s economic growth is widely predicted to decelerate in the medium term.
Second, although trade ties are strong, Australia has very little in common with China in terms of shared history, values, or culture. When compared with our historical allies of England or America, it is difficult to see how an Australian government could convince its population that China, not America, should be our main ally in Asia.
This leaves us with our existing low-risk and low-cost alliance with the United States. Could America potentially withdraw from Asia in the long to very-long term? Perhaps. This is why it is in Australia’s best interests to continually remind our great power ally of our usefulness and our dedication to our shared goals. We need to continue to pay our military insurance, and do so enthusiastically, so that we remain within America’s strategic calculations and, by extension, protection.
Finally, before we make decisions based on a fear of abandonment by the US, we should remember the following. American presence in the Asia-Pacific is not altruistic. Primacy in this region achieves sea denial and prevents power projection by other countries in case of conflict. Relinquishing its position would make the US more vulnerable on its home turf to enemy forces.
So long as America understands this, its interest in the region will continue. As General MacArthur once said of Taiwan, Australia represents a great southern unsinkable aircraft carrier and a valuable strategic asset to the US in the protection of its own interests.
There is no doubt that the Asian strategic landscape is changing. There is no doubt that this carries unprecedented implications for Australian security in the coming century. Choices need to be made, and soon. However, above all, these choices need to be rational, and consider not only the economic rise of a few key countries, but the broader, more practical, picture.