19 February 2020
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.