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19 February 2020

With Jonathan Pearlman

Can we trust America?

Last weekend, global leaders, diplomats and security officials gathered in Germany for the Munich Security Conference, the world’s largest foreign policy event. This year’s theme was “Westlessness”, a reference to growing anxiety about the West’s declining influence as it encounters powerful rivals.

But US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refused to accept the premise. “Don’t be fooled”, he told the conference. “The West is winning.” Equally bluntly, US Defence Secretary Mark Esper warned the world to “wake up” to the threat posed by China, which he called the West’s foremost adversary.

Back in Australia, a similar message was delivered by US Admiral Philip Davidson, the leader of the United States Indo-Pacific Command, a 375,000-person force that spans half the globe. China’s influence, Davidson told the Lowy Institute, was malign, but the United States was “all in” to resist it.

The message from America is not subtle. It recognises that it faces its first serious rival since the end of the Cold War. But it insists it will win and that US democracy will prevail against Chinese authoritarianism.

Yet US allies are wary. For many, China is a major trading partner and crucial to their prosperity. There was no such complicating condition during the Cold War, when Western trade with the Soviet Union was minimal. But today siding with the United States comes at a price. And allies are no longer certain about the extent to which their commitment will be reciprocated. Donald Trump has questioned the cost of foreign alliances, weakened international rule-making bodies, and threatened friendly nations with tariffs.

Australia, which occupies a vast landmass on the edge of Asia, will be crucial to any effort to assert US military dominance over China. The United States is likely to demand more of Australia, including basing more troops and weaponry here. Admiral Davidson acknowledged this last week, saying China’s threat made the alliance “even more critical”.

Australia’s response will depend on its trust in Washington’s strategy. Australia will lose much more than the United States, relatively, if its ties with China deteriorate. Trump, supported by leading Democrats, is “decoupling” America’s economy from China. But Australia is moving in the opposite direction. Last year, US–China trade dropped by 15 per cent as both sides imposed tariffs on each other; during the same period, Australia–China trade increased by 20.5 per cent.

As tensions between the United States and China increase, Australia should not be passive. Instead, as Brendan Taylor argues in AFA8: Can We Trust America?, Australia can try to shape this environment to suit both its own interests and those of the United States.

Taylor believes that the two prevailing views on America’s future in Asia are wrong. It won’t be possible, as Pompeo, Esper and Davidson suggest, for the United State to continue its dominance of Asia unfettered. But nor will the world’s strongest military power be forced to stand aside and allow China to take charge.

Taylor sets out a plan for the United States to create a “new balance in Asia” and avoid a scenario in which China dominates the region. The United States, he says, must acknowledge that there are territories where China is becoming too strong to confront, such as Taiwan and the South China Sea. But it should strengthen its position in areas where China can be deterred, including the East China Sea and the Korean Peninsula. “It would genuinely be a balance, rather than the lopsided, unrealistic and dangerously unstable order that Washington is currently fostering”, he says.

The role of Canberra’s political leaders, diplomats and military heads would be to persuade Washington to consider this approach, and to promote the idea among partners such as Indonesia, India, Japan, South Korea and Singapore. There are precedents for this sort of Australian diplomacy. Washington, possibly even Trump, would listen.

As global rivalries grow, Australia has a different vantage point than its close ally. The Australian Defence Force has about 60,000 active personnel; the US military has more than 1.3 million. Australia does not operate in this region with the swagger of a superpower. It cannot impose its will on Asia. Instead, it can choose its allies and, rather than blindly follow them, it can shape its alliances. As the region changes, Australia should think for itself, and this may require it to do some thinking for Washington.



The coronavirus could cripple China’s economy for longer than Wall Street wants to believe

“To understand the economic predicament the country finds itself in, you have to remember what was happening in China about a year ago completely aside from the trade conflict with the US. Last winter, you may recall, it seemed the Chinese economy might come apart at the seams, as credit had dried up … Suddenly banks became scared to lend to each other.” Linette LopezBusiness Insider

Australia–Indonesia relations are thriving, but economic ties lag behind

“The one area that President Jokowi and Prime Minister Scott Morrison must reconcile with an otherwise booming friendship is the state of their economic relations … Indonesia and Australia have the lowest trade volumes of any G20 pairing. In 2018, less than one percent of Australia’s foreign investment went to Indonesia.” Kyle SpringerAustralian Outlook (AIIA)

Japan–South Korea tensions show little sign of easing

“Following the latest round of diplomatic talks between South Korea and Japan in Seoul last week, it seems that both nations are keen to move towards a reconciliation in 2020. While the talks are a promising first step … the apparent inability of either side to stray from an entrenched position makes reaching middle ground difficult.” Kate Kalinova, The Interpreter (Lowy Institute)


How far will India go with its social agenda in 2020?

“New Delhi has become significantly emboldened by the fact that most countries in the world have given India a free pass for its recent actions … One scenario could be an Indian attempt to seize a small expanse of territory across the Line of Control in Azad Jammu and Kashmir in retaliation for a provocation … that New Delhi would blame on Pakistan.” Michael Kugelman, Asia Dialogue

The Australian Defence Force’s domestic role – how much does it do?

“Increasing the ADF’s capability to undertake domestic tasks will require either a reduction in other areas or additional funding – unless Defence can achieve the nirvana of developing dual-use capabilities that can perform both high-end warfighting and low-end support tasks equally well without additional cost.” Marcus Hellyer, The Strategist (ASPI)

Free from Australian Foreign Affairs

Beijing calling – how China is testing the alliance

“Australia and the United States share the same strategic imperatives. Historically, each nation has sought absolute security by dominating its landmass and securing its ocean approaches. But the geography of the Pacific makes safeguarding these maritime approaches difficult ... Despite the vastness of the Pacific, American and Australian strategists have remained preoccupied with the vulnerabilities and opportunities presented by this huge island chain.” Michael Wesley, HERE



Trump [is] trying to save the Visiting Forces Agreement. I said I don’t want to.

Rodrigo Duterte, President (Philippines)

That’s fine. We’ll save a lot of money.

Donald Trump, President (United States)

Gaps [on military cost-sharing] are still big.

Kang Kyung-wha, Foreign Minister (South Korea)

Sources: CNN Philippines, The White House, Yonhap News Agency

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