This extract is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 8: Can We Trust America?.
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Canberra today has one major foreign policy dilemma that outranks all others: how should Australia position itself between a more powerful China and an increasingly unpredictable United States?
The debate it provokes has become a dialogue of the deaf, in which entrenched positions prevent the two sides from arriving at a solution. Understandably, yet unhelpfully, the weighty moral and material issues at play give the discussion an increasingly nasty, personalised edge. As Allan Gyngell, national president of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, has noted, “The debate is getting sharper. Commentators and analysts from the think tanks and universities are marshalling themselves into hostile camps.”
In one corner are the China hawks, who contend that Canberra should stand up to Beijing, alongside Washington, preserving the US-led order in Asia that has served Australia so well. This entails bringing India into the fold, through such mechanisms as the Indo-Pacific framework and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, to balance an increasingly boisterous China and force it to play by international rules.
In the opposing corner are those who argue that US power is in precipitous decline and that America’s longstanding presence in Asia can no longer be counted on. According to this view, a weakened United States will ultimately play little, if any, role in this region. Australia must find new ways of living in a world dominated by China. It may even need to learn to fend for itself militarily.
Both sides are wrong. The United States, whose military strength and spending remain unmatched, shows little inclination for abandoning Asia. Despite President Trump’s “America First” utterances, competition with China has become his administration’s primary national security concern. US attitudes towards Beijing are hardening across partisan lines and even among the traditionally pro-China business community. A growing number of commentators now speak of a new Sino–American Cold War. But it is equally unrealistic to expect Asia’s existing security order to remain intact as seismic shifts continue in this region’s power dynamics and as China’s strength and assertiveness grows.
A third way is needed, one that acknowledges both America’s power in Asia and its limitations. And there is no need to invent this approach because it already exists – there is a plan, devised by eminent Cold War strategist and diplomat Dean Acheson, that applies to the contemporary moment, in which America faces the most serious challenge yet to its decades-long global dominance.
At the start of the Cold War, in the early 1950s, Washington confronted an aggressive, expansionist Moscow bent on world domination. Where and how to best counter the Soviet threat was a source of fierce debate. Acheson’s response was to call for the United States to create “situations of strength”: areas around the Soviet periphery where America was so strong that Moscow wouldn’t even contemplate aggression there. George F. Kennan, another leading architect of US Cold War strategy, favoured a minimalist approach. If “strong points” of defence could be established in Japan – which Kennan saw as one of the few centres of power with the industrial, population and military potential to challenge America – he believed that any Soviet threat to the United States in Asia could be readily contained. Others, such as strategist Paul Nitze, took a much darker view of Soviet intentions, and argued that threats to freedom anywhere were a challenge to US security that had to be quashed.
Acheson’s approach prevailed, though its implementation was at times muddled. He was castigated for dismissing the need for a US situation of strength in Korea. His neglect invited North Korea’s invasion of the South, resulting in the cruel and bitter Korean War of the early 1950s. In other places the United States overstretched, most infamously in Vietnam, when it devoted substantial military assets to a country of questionable strategic relevance in the larger contest against the Soviet Union. But even as America’s Cold War tactics changed, Acheson’s situations of strength remained a strategic lodestar.
In contrast, the United States’ strategy in Asia is now dangerously directionless. Much like Trump’s scrawling, oversized signature, this administration paints in broad and imprecise brushstrokes. A core aim, according to the US Department of Defense’s June 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, is ensuring a “favourable” balance of power across this vast region, which it defines as encompassing around half of the planet’s surface. Trump’s post–Cold War predecessors – Bushes senior and junior, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama – pursued similar grand ambitions. But they were operating in an era of uncontested US primacy. Trump’s reality is different. The period that the late conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer in 1990 dubbed the “unipolar moment” has passed.
America can remain a powerful player in Asia if it quickly recognises this new power dynamic and develops a plan to preserve its interests and maximise its position in the region. To do that, Washington must identify today’s situations of strength and double down on them. But it must also be more attuned to where its strength is slipping. It must begin extricating itself from emerging situations of weakness. Alas, Trump is lurching in exactly the opposite direction, leaning in on positions in Asia where the United States is at its weakest. Dean Acheson must be turning in his grave.
Situations of strength
When World War II ended, America was at the height of its power. The United States produced 60 per cent of the globe’s gross national product. It held a monopoly on the atomic bomb, the most powerful weapon the world had ever seen. Due to this, Winston Churchill bristled at Acheson’s theory of situations of strength, believing that America did not need to create offensive positions in a time of uncontested power.
The United States is nowhere near as predominant today. But it is still a formidable power. The 2019 Lowy Institute Asia Power Index ranks it as the region’s strongest player, based on attributes such as economic relationships, military capacity, diplomatic and cultural influence, and future resources.
The nation’s lead in military capacity is especially pronounced, partly due to the substantial sums it spends on defence. According to the latest figures from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the United States is the world’s biggest military spender, boasting an annual defence budget of US$643.3 billion. China spends US$168.2 billion, just over a quarter of that sum. Elsewhere in Asia, India is the world’s fifth-largest (US$57.9 billion) and Japan the eighth-largest (US$47.3 billion) defence spender. Australia sits in twelfth position, with an annual defence budget of US$26.6 billion.
The United States is also the world’s leading cyberpower. Strength in this rapidly evolving area is hard to quantify. Countries such as China and Russia are building their cyber capabilities at an impressive rate, potentially faster than the United States. America’s heavy reliance on computer networks for warfighting also creates potential vulnerabilities. But while the United States might not remain the world’s pre-eminent cyberpower indefinitely, it continues to reap the considerable “first mover” advantages, having developed a number of critical technologies, including the internet.
American strength in Asia is reinforced by its alliance relationships. Nowhere is this clearer than with Japan, which successive generations of US officials have described as the “cornerstone” of America’s Asian presence. The United States bases 53,900 military personnel there, primarily US Air Force and Navy, spread across eighty-five different facilities.
Japan has its own impressive air and naval capabilities, which augment US strength. Aside from the United States, it is probably the only other power in Asia that could hold its own in a maritime conflict with China. While its force is small – Japan has only forty-nine large-surface ships and twenty submarines, compared with China’s eighty-seven surface combatants and fifty-nine submarines – it makes up for this in quality. Anti-submarine warfare, for example, is a known area of Chinese weakness where Japan’s capabilities are second to none.
The US and Japanese militaries work increasingly hand-in-glove in Asia. They jointly operate a string of underwater sensors that stretches from the Ryukyu Islands in southern Japan right across to Taiwan. These are used to track Chinese submarines travelling between the East and South China seas, as well as between the East China Sea and the Pacific. Senior American officials have repeatedly confirmed that Chinese military action against its Asian ally in the East China Sea would trigger the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan. The knowledge that it would be no match for the combined forces of America and Japan is a powerful deterrent for China’s leaders. This makes the East China Sea a clear situation of strength for the United States.
The Korean Peninsula is another situation of strength. America currently deploys 28,500 troops there, the majority of these army. Their presence is designed to symbolise the US commitment to South Korea, as a force of this size would not lead to any re-run of the Korean War victory – especially against the North’s million-strong army. But South Korea’s military is also potent. While half the size of its northern counterpart, its armed forces are far better trained and more technologically advanced. In fact, Pyongyang’s expansion of its nuclear and missile programs, and its desire to publicise these investments, is partly due to how far North Korea’s military has fallen behind its neighbour’s. South Korea’s imposing armed forces would automatically come under US command in the event of conflict. While South Korean president Moon Jae-in has promised to end this longstanding arrangement by the conclusion of his presidency in 2022, for now it adds considerable strength to America’s arm.
Situations of weakness
Yet US strength is slipping elsewhere in Asia. Take Taiwan: when America’s alliance with the island formally lapsed at the end of 1979 – the chief casualty of US–China diplomatic normalisation – Taipei could still have held its own in a clash with the mainland. Taiwan’s major surface ships outnumbered China’s by forty to twenty-five, unthinkable as that seems today. Alliance with the United States also provided Taipei with access to superior technology, while more than twenty other countries were willing to sell the island weapons. But Chinese pressure has since forced them to abandon Taipei, leaving the United States as essentially Taiwan’s sole arms supplier.
Angered at Washington’s betrayal, Taipei’s friends in the US Congress enacted the Taiwan Relations Act, which stipulated that America retain some security ties with the island. When in 1995 and early 1996 China conducted missile tests and military exercises aimed at intimidating Taiwanese voters on the eve of their first direct presidential election, the Clinton administration responded by deploying two aircraft-carrier battle groups. Significantly, this was the largest US naval deployment to Asia since the end of the Vietnam War. Clinton’s display of force was intended to show resolve at a time when those in the region worried that the United States might withdraw, having seen off the Soviet Union and its threat of communism. However, it also had an unintended consequence: in forcing a humiliating Chinese backdown, it motivated Beijing to develop the military wherewithal to stop the United States from coming to Taiwan’s aid.
Since then, China’s march toward military modernisation has progressed at an impressive rate. Two decades after the 1995–96 crisis, Beijing has largely achieved its aim. It has developed increasingly powerful anti-shipping missiles, such as the Dongfeng 21D (DF-21D) – dubbed the “carrier killer” because of its capacity to strike aircraft carriers out to a range of 1550 kilometres. At its National Day parade in October 2019, China unveiled two more missiles – the DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile and the DF-17 short-range ballistic missile. The DF-41 can strike continental United States. Unlike its liquid-operated predecessors, which need to be fuelled at the launchpad – thus making them easier for an opponent to target – the DF-41 is solid-fuelled and road-mobile (able to be transported easily), making it much harder to take out. The DF-17 is also the world’s first “hypersonic” missile, meaning it can fly at five times the speed of sound. Current missile defence systems cannot reliably track and intercept missiles travelling at this speed.
Through the development of advanced radar, sonar and satellite technologies, China has also improved its ability to aim these missiles. The DF-21D and the DF-17, for example, can now strike within metres of their assigned targets. This stands in stark contrast to the mid-1990s, when China had virtually no capacity to hit even large US military bases in Asia. It remains to be seen how these technologies would perform in the heat of battle. Modelling by the RAND Corporation suggests that the costs and risks of US intervention in a conflict over Taiwan have increased substantially over the past two decades. According to RAND, in 1996 the United States could have achieved air superiority over China within a week of entering such a conflict, using only a single air wing of seventy-two fighter aircraft; by 2017, the country would have needed three to four air wings, while the time required to achieve air superiority increased to three weeks. Should these trends continue, the United States will lose the capability to come to Taiwan’s defence successfully. That tipping point could conceivably come within the next decade.
Trump either did not receive or has not read this memo. Relations between America and Taiwan are now the closest they have been since US–China normalisation. In 2016, president-elect Trump became the first head of state to speak directly with Taipei since 1979 when he took a congratulatory phone call from the island’s independence-leaning leader, Tsai Ing-wen. In March 2018, he signed the Taiwan Travel Act, allowing US government officials at all levels to meet with their Taiwanese counterparts and so making public interactions that had previously been occurring in secret. Trump has approved multi-billion-dollar weapons sales to the island, including F-16V fighter jets (the most advanced version of that aircraft) and Abrams tanks. US Navy ships now transit the Taiwan Strait monthly, while the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report took the unprecedented step of referring to Taiwan as a country. All this has created the worst of two worlds: it has raised Beijing’s ire to boiling point, while giving Taipei false hope.
A similar pattern is developing over the South China Sea. It is important not to exaggerate China’s ability to project military power across this vast 3.7-million-square-kilometre body of water. China has only two aircraft carriers – the key means of projecting military power in the area – and the first was acquired second-hand from Ukraine. A third is currently under construction and is expected to enter service by 2022. Some experts believe that China envisages a fleet of four to six aircraft carriers. Even so, this is much smaller than the US carrier fleet, which currently numbers ten. The US carriers are also much larger than their Chinese counterparts, allowing them to accommodate twice as many aircraft, and they are nuclear-powered, which gives them significantly greater range than China’s conventionally propelled boats.
Beijing’s much-publicised construction of artificial islands in this sea can also be seen as a sign of weakness. Work on these features began in 2013, when Chinese dredgers began to “reclaim” the equivalent of 3000 football ovals of territory by digging sand from the seabed and dumping it onto disputed rocks and reefs. Reports have since emerged that these islands are starting to succumb to the South China Sea’s unforgiving climate. In October 2019, The Economist reported that their foundations are turning to sponge. If true, it is unlikely such fragile features will survive one of the region’s super-typhoons, not to mention the barrage of air and missile strikes in the event of a full-blown conflict. Size, once again, matters. If war erupted, these features would not be large enough to sustain the required numbers of troops and missiles, or even basic rations and electricity.
Nonetheless, senior US military officials – including Indo-Pacific Commander Admiral Phil Davidson – concede that these artificial features, while they exist, give Beijing control over the South China Sea in all situations short of war. Reinforcing these claims, in May 2018 China landed its most capable strategic bomber aircraft – the H-6K – at one of these outposts for the first time. The landing took place on Woody Island, part of the Paracel chain in the northern South China Sea. Aircraft hangars have been built on several features further south, in the Spratly chain. It is only a matter of time before Chinese bombers are landing and taking off from these outposts too – which are significantly closer to Australian shores.
China has also installed powerful anti-shipping and anti-aircraft missiles on bases in both the Paracels and the Spratlys. This is despite Chinese president Xi Jinping’s September 2015 pledge, while standing alongside Obama in the Rose Garden of the White House, that Beijing had no intention of militarising the South China Sea.
A struggling superpower
Washington’s current approach reveals weakness, not strength. President Obama upped the rate of “freedom of navigation operations” (or FONOPS) in the South China Sea, and Trump has continued this pattern. FONOPS involve military ships and aircraft travelling within 12 nautical miles of China’s artificial features, thereby challenging China’s attempts to restrict navigation and overflight of the waters surrounding this territory. But such shows of force have neither stopped Beijing’s massive land reclamation program nor slowed its militarisation of the South China Sea. And not a single Asian country has been willing to undertake similar operations, either alone or alongside America. This includes Australia, which has been under continual pressure from the United States to step up. In a response to James Brown’s 2016 Quarterly Essay Firing Line, former Australian ambassador to the United States Kim Beazley recalls the parting gift he received when leaving Washington: a picture of a US destroyer being tailed by a Chinese ship while conducting a South China Sea FONOP. It carried an inscription, scribbled by a senior American official: “Hope to see your guys doing this soon.”
But geography favours China too strongly in these growing situations of weakness. Taiwan is 11,000 kilometres away from the continental United States. It sits less than 200 kilometres from the Chinese mainland. Although America still spends an estimated 700 “ship days” each year in the South China Sea – meaning that at least two US military vessels are sailing there at almost any given time – Beijing’s ability, as a littoral state, to force America to operate further away from China’s shores is only improving. The South China Sea is fast becoming a Chinese lake once more, just as it was from the fourteenth through to the early seventeenth century, when the powerful Ming dynasty ruled its waves.
Some commentators state that America can turn the tide by augmenting its presence in the South China Sea: by increasing the number of ships, aircraft and submarines it operates in these waters, by performing exercises more regularly with its Asian partners and by providing its South-East Asian allies with more-potent military equipment, including drones, mines, missiles and air-defence systems. Ely Ratner, one-time adviser to Joe Biden – formerly US vice president and now a frontrunner for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination – even goes so far as to suggest that the United States should be helping other South-East Asian claimants with their own land reclamation efforts and with fortifying the features they occupy.
But such an approach would spread the United States too thin. Washington already confronts what a key report from the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre describes as “a deepening crisis of strategic insolvency”. A decade of funding restrictions, delays and uncertainties have contributed to this quagmire. The operational and maintenance costs of the US military are already exceeding inflation. The American public has no appetite for increased defence spending. In fact, mounting deficits and rising public debt mean that less of the federal budget will be available for defence in future. All this reinforces the view that the US goal of upholding a “favourable” military balance across the entire Indo-Pacific region is simply not feasible.
New Delhi’s commitment to non-alignment is an even greater constraint. Two centuries of subjugation by the West has hardwired a desire for strategic autonomy into the Indian psyche. It is true that India’s young population gives it one of the most promising demographic profiles in Asia. Based on current projections, India will also become the world’s second-largest economy by 2050. But converting economic weight into military power takes decades, as China’s experience shows. India is not the answer to the US desire to maintain a favourable power balance across Asia.
The same is true of South-East Asia, where non-aligned preferences remain just as deep-seated. These came into sharpest relief in October 2016, when Filipino strongman Rodrigo Duterte famously announced his country’s “separation” from the United States while visiting Beijing. More recently, Singapore’s infinitely savvier prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, attracted Washington’s ire by calling both China and America to account in his keynote address to the May 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue: “The bottom line is that the US and China need to work together, and with other countries too, to bring the global system up to date, and to not upend the system. To succeed in this, each must understand the other’s point of view and reconcile each other’s interests.” Interestingly, Prime Minister Scott Morrison briefly stuck his head above the parapet, musing publicly that there were many insights in Lee’s speech that Australia shared.
Trump’s disdain for alliances further undermines America’s position in Asia. He has essentially turned a blind eye to Kim Jong-un’s testing of missiles that can’t reach the US homeland, even though these still threaten Japan and South Korea. In November 2019, the Pentagon was forced to deny South Korean press reports that thousands of American troops would be withdrawn from the Korean Peninsula if Seoul refused to bear more of the financial burden for keeping them there. Rumours also circulated that the US president even privately contemplated leaving the US–Japan alliance. Trump responded angrily to these speculations, raging that Tokyo had been “taking advantage” of America.
Acheson would see the writing on the wall. He would tell Trump to double down on US situations of strength in the East China Sea and on the Korean Peninsula, concentrating America’s Asian military presence there and further clarifying its alliance commitments to Seoul and Tokyo. Increasing US troop levels or building new military bases would be tricky given domestic sensitivities in both South Korea and Japan. But American ships and aircraft could still operate more frequently in their surrounding waters. Statements of US support for its north-east Asian allies should also be clearer and more consistent, especially in times of crisis.
Acheson would likely call concurrently for the United States to scale down in situations of weakness in the South China Sea and around Taiwan. A new balance in Asia would result, one that better reflected this region’s power realities. It would genuinely be a balance, rather than the lopsided, unrealistic and dangerously unstable order that Washington is currently fostering.
Trump might not listen. Even a president more receptive to expert opinion would struggle with this Achesonian approach. Superpowers usually think in global terms. It is challenging to pivot between regions, as Obama discovered when he tried to “rebalance” the US focus, away from Europe and towards Asia, with little success. The thought of adjusting priorities within a region is anathema to a superpower.
The United States has also never much liked balance-of-power politics. Americans have long regarded Europe’s embrace of this approach through the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth and twentieth centuries as the cause of that continent’s troubles, including two world wars. And from its earliest days as a republic, the United States has seen itself as exceptional, a “shining city on the hill” for others to emulate, not a member nation working alongside others to create and maintain global equilibrium. Acheson himself recognised this reality, framing his strategic formulations in lofty, idealistic terms to make them sufficiently palatable to his fellow Americans.
Promoting a third way
Canberra faces a conundrum. If Washington continues on its present trajectory, the risk to its position in Asia will grow. The United States could fall victim to what Yale historian Paul Kennedy terms “imperial overstretch”: a fate that has befallen many of the world’s major powers when they have overextended economically, militarily and geographically, creating an unsustainable burden on their domestic resources. Alternatively, the United States could find itself confronting an increasingly powerful China in a situation of weakness, which would result in either a humiliating US backdown or a costly military defeat.
Neither conflict between the United States and China nor American retreat is in Australia’s interest. A war of any significant length and intensity would cause China’s trade, consumption and income from investment to plummet. This would likely prompt an Australian economic recession, because China is by far our largest trading partner. Should America withdraw, no Asian power or combination thereof would be able to check China.
A China-dominated region might not necessarily be bad for Australia. Beijing could yet become a benign hegemon, just as it was for hundreds of years when it sat at the centre of Asia’s ancient tributary system. But China’s more recent regional heavy-handedness does not augur well. Instead, a new Asian balance of power, where America stays and doubles down on situations of strength, is Australia’s best bet.
Encouraging Washington to back away from situations of weakness is a risky strategy for Canberra, especially where the South China Sea is concerned. Beijing’s military outposts have already brought Chinese firepower more than 1000 kilometres closer to Australia. Up to 65 per cent of Australian trade traverses these economically vital waters.
Some commentators will assert that medium-sized nations such as Australia are powerless to influence the United States, especially during an administration as dysfunctional as Trump’s. History suggests this need not be the case. During the First Taiwan Strait Crisis – in the mid-1950s, when US power was at its peak – Australian prime minister Robert Menzies worked with his counterparts in London, Ottawa and Wellington to urge American restraint and advance diplomatic solutions. The Indo-Pacific strategy that America now promotes was developed in Canberra: Australian diplomats employed the concept of the Indo-Pacific privately from as early as the mid-2000s, and Australia was the first government in the region to officially use this now-pervasive term, in its 2013 Defence White Paper. The Indo-Pacific concept might be flawed, but Canberra’s successful promotion of it shows what is possible.
Australia needs to formulate an approach to Asia’s changing power balance – one that maximises America’s position, but remains clear-sighted about China’s strength – and convey this to Washington. Getting through to Trump will not be easy. Morrison seems to have established a good rapport with the president, which is a useful start. But there are other angles that Canberra can and should work, including through senior interlocutors in the US Congress and the foreign policy bureaucracy. This will involve some trial and error. There is no silver bullet when dealing with such an idiosyncratic and historically unprecedented administration. Perhaps most importantly, Canberra must also remain in close contact with its Asian friends and partners, quietly advocating this third way in other regional capitals – Jakarta, New Delhi, Singapore, Seoul and Tokyo in particular. This is the essence of effective middle-power diplomacy.
At the outset of the Cold War, America was divided into rival camps. One side insisted that the United States and the Soviet Union must cooperate, as the only alternative was nuclear catastrophe. The other maintained that Washington should call Moscow’s bluff and enter into a risky showdown. Acheson’s counsel enabled America to chart a viable third way between appeasement and nuclear armageddon. Seven decades on, as the United States enters a new era of competition with China, his approach has renewed resonance. America is hurtling blindly towards a deadly confrontation with Beijing, one that could have dire ramifications for its continued presence in Asia. Australia’s leaders must have the strength, foresight and diplomatic acumen to speak this truth to power. And they have a clear template to take with them – one that has worked before to maximise America’s strength, and could work again today.