30 January 2019
Political divisions in Washington have left the nation paralysed, yet the warring parties have found a subject upon which they can agree: China.
Last month, Republicans and Democrats in Congress backed a law that committed the US to expanding its military and diplomatic activities in the Indo-Pacific region. Donald Trump signed the bill – the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act – on 31 December, his final act of 2018.
As its title suggests, the law was not the action of a relaxed superpower. Instead, it was an overt attempt by the US to reassure partners in the region that it was not abandoning them.
But it also demonstrated the US’s changing approach to the region.
In 2011, Barack Obama used a visit to Australia to announce an “Asia pivot”, which attempted to deliver similar reassurances to regional allies. Obama downplayed concerns about China and linked the pivot to Washington’s historic role in the region, presenting the policy as a reinforcement of the US’s determination to remain the unrivalled anchor of Asian stability. The hope in Washington, which has since faded, was that such a display of resolve would encourage Beijing to play by the rules of trade and security that had facilitated China’s rise.
But this old vision has ended. Now, Washington’s approach to the region is explicitly motivated by rivalry with Beijing. This is the position outlined in Washington’s National Security Strategy, which described China as a strategic competitor, and by US Vice-President Mike Pence, whose speech last year denouncing Beijing’s approach to human rights, trade and foreign interference was seen as marking the commencement of a second Cold War.
Now that rivalry has eclipsed history or sentiment as the US’s rationale for engaging in the region, its re-branded “Indo-Pacific pivot” should be taken seriously.
The Reassurance law, for instance, calls for joint patrols in the South China Sea, expresses support for Taiwan and promises to arm it against Chinese threats, and includes $US1.5 billion a year for maritime and security programs across Asia. It also elevates defence ties with India.
The pivot, combined with Xi Jinping’s determination to expand and demonstrate Chinese power, is leading to heightened tensions and a greater risk of war. But it does not appear to be deterring Beijing. The day after Trump signed the Reassurance Act, Xi Jinping gave a speech marking the fortieth anniversary of Beijing’s conciliatory overture to Taiwan. Xi called for Taiwan to be united with China, saying he was committed to negotiations but he was not “renouncing the use of force”.
The seemingly irresolvable dispute over the status of Taiwan is not the only potential flashpoint. As US and Chinese warships and planes become bolder, for example, there is an increased chance of confrontation or accidental collision.
Australia can do little to shape the relations between these two great powers, but it can consider the regional role that it wants the US, its closest ally, to play. This will require an assessment of whether Australia should back the US in any confrontation with China, purely because it would want to see its ally victorious, or whether it should restrict itself to supporting confrontations that directly affect its security – such as if China were to choke international shipping routes. Former foreign minister Alexander Downer was an unwavering backer of the US alliance, but famously volunteered in 2004 that a war over Taiwan would not trigger Australia’s commitments to it. This did not unravel the alliance. Instead, US diplomats quietly asked Australia to clarify its approach – a process that was probably beneficial to both parties.
Today, Washington is forming a new consensus about the need to oppose China. But Australia is neither the fifty-first US state nor a deputy sheriff. Its stance in the region – like the US’s – should be guided by calculations about interests and threats, rather than by history and sentiment.