This extract is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 10: Friends, Allies and Enemies.
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In March 2020, what the US Defense Department now calls its Indo-Pacific Command asked Congress for slightly more than US$20 billion to cover a six-year expansion of its operations across East Asia. Congress had invited the Pentagon’s request, effectively saying, “You need more money. Ask and you shall receive.” Few questioned this course.
This is all about China, to state the obvious. More to the point, it is about prolonging American primacy in the Pacific as the People’s Republic emerges as a regional and global power. This is a forlorn project by any balanced reckoning. Yes, America will remain a Pacific power. No, it can no longer presume pre-eminence. The compulsion to insist otherwise arises out of longing for the once-was, anxiety in the face of change and an appallingly poor grasp of China’s aspirations and intentions.
Admiral Phil Davidson, who heads the Pacific Command, cast his submission to Congress as part of a strategy he called Regain the Advantage. Somewhere along the line the United States lost the advantage, he wants us to know. Numerous members of Congress joined Davidson, invoking American “credibility” and speaking of “reassuring US allies and partners”. We have been here before, of course. This is the same boilerplate one heard when the Soviet Union, warhead counts, “missile gaps” and all the rest were at issue during the Cold War decades.
The comparison is portentously apt. After years of low-wattage hostility, the United States committed to a new Cold War with China this past northern summer. This one is almost certain to remain cold by design: only fools imagine a hot conflict with the mainland could be won, and while there seem to be fools aplenty at the Pentagon, it is unlikely there are enough of them to carry the day on this point. But Cold War II will nonetheless prove as divisive and ruinously wasteful as the first. In the matter of friends, allies and enemies, Asians and their southerly neighbours will have some serious sorting to do.
Since Davidson’s document landed on Capitol Hill, the House and Senate have been busy massaging the numbers to determine how much to spend on what they prefer to call the Pacific Deterrence Initiative. However these authorisations are allocated, the United States is about to buy a greatly enhanced, more visible military presence in the western Pacific. These outlays are very precisely marked – enlarged stockpiles of long-range weapons, air defence and radar systems, landing facilities for F-35A fighter jets, lots of money for military construction in cooperating nations. Davidson wrote of “projecting credible combat power at the time of crisis” when he asked for the funding Congress had asked him to ask for. His request included an “OPLAN” – a military operation plan ready for full-dress execution “if it becomes necessary”. This is Cold War II made flesh.
The future arrives as we speak. In mid-April, the US Navy sent three warships (and Australia one) into the waters off Malaysia in response to an unarmed Chinese vessel conducting routine seismic surveys in the area. In early July, the Pentagon sent two carrier strike groups into the South China Sea in its latest and largest “freedom of navigation” tour – this as the Chinese Navy conducted exercises nearby. Nothing came of these incidents, and nothing was supposed to: they were in the way of acting out, with something of spectacle about them.
Ten days later, on 13 July, Mike Pompeo, America’s primitively Manichaean secretary of state, turned US policy sharply when he declared in a press statement that China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea were “completely unlawful”. This marked an abrupt departure from Washington’s professed neutrality as to jurisdiction over contested waters; it was greeted in some quarters, not least the foreign pages of The New York Times, as opening the door to war with China on behalf of nations contesting Beijing’s claims. Nothing will come of this, either. It was a somewhat extravagant display, as Pompeo is wont to offer us, but display it once again was.
What does America intend to achieve by way of events and declarations such as these, or from its emerging military posture? What can one read into this past season of heightened tensions, and what will proceed from it?
A display of power is the most obvious answer. Washington wishes Beijing to see these ostentatious manifestations of American military force and accept the security order at the western end of the Pacific as this has been for the past seven decades. It wishes the rest of East Asia and the good people of Australia and New Zealand to be comforted: yes, the Yanks are still here. Do not miss the nostalgia in America’s ever-unaltered wishes. I have long taken nostalgia to be a form of depression, an inability or refusal to address things as they are. This is America’s fundamental affliction in the twenty-first century, from which sprout its numerous errors in foreign policy. It declines to accept the realities of the new century, and so is no longer leading. At base, its purpose is to hold onto the past and avoid facing either the present or the future, leaving it indifferent (or opposed) to what an imaginatively managed new order in the Pacific can be. This is a perilous state.
China is determined to redress historic wrongs and reclaim a place in the region it long ago lost, but it is nostalgic for nothing. With perfect justification, it finds nothing beneficial or worthy in prolonging the US-led security order, however much this may have served Beijing’s interests during the years it was implementing the Dengist economic reforms. The rest of the Pacific littoral is best advised to take note. Wisdom in the year 2020 lies in checking the clock for the correct time, even if the nation from which I write insists its hands have stopped.
Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the former secretary-general at the United Nations, concluded Unvanquished, his 1999 memoir, with the observation that diplomacy is for weak nations, the strong having no need of it. The thought remains pertinent, but I must offer a correction. His Excellency confused strength and power, and we mustn’t any longer. Diplomacy is twenty-first century statecraft’s defining technology. In an era when conquest is no longer feasible, desirable or acceptable, it is vastly more effective than carrier groups and preposterously expensive hardware that, in the end, display nothing so much as how ill-equipped my country is to meet the tasks of our time.
Let me finish the point this way. Sending that warship into Malaysian waters in April was the very wrongest thing Australia could have done. One, to tag along after the Americans in such an unbecoming fashion is to follow them into the wistful mists. Two, the Malaysians proved the adults in the room when they told the US Navy to be on its way: we intend to negotiate these sorts of things, they advised with typically Asian courtesy. The Americans affect not to notice this inconvenient but obvious cue. Never mind them: it is best to take it. The foreign ministry in Kuala Lumpur has a more useful take on where the Asia-Pacific is headed than the world’s most elaborately armed military.