Australia has made its big bet on the US based on the key assumption that Asia really matters to Washington. Australia is placing a lot of chips on the red, white and blue, so we had better be sure that this assumption holds up. Does it?
Some who question American staying power in Asia argue that the US simply isn’t strong enough to maintain its leadership – it is too politically dysfunctional, racially divided and economically unequal. We shouldn’t dismiss such concerns, especially the increasingly realistic fear that the next US president will be a Republican who is deeply antagonistic towards the US’s alliance arrangements. The Washington foreign policy establishment withstood one such presidency, it may not survive another.
But as bad as things look in the US, they have looked worse in the past. The American economy, its society, and its politics, have proven remarkably resilient, overcoming a depression and many recessions, a civil war and two world wars, a pandemic and much more while remaining comfortably the most powerful nation on Earth.
The more important consideration here is resolve, no matter which party occupies the White House. For Australia to have a reliable partner in the US, we need to be sure that Washington has a vitally important reason to maintain its regional leadership.
Before China became a superpower and made it clear that it planned to challenge the US for leadership, the question of resolve didn’t arise. American military capability was so vast that no nation or coalition could hope to test it. That isn’t true any more. China is now so powerful that the American will to win has become a decisive factor. If the US is going to resist China’s rise and possibly fight the biggest conflict since the second world war, it needs strong motivation, otherwise allies like Australia will stop believing that the US is prepared to make big sacrifices on their behalf.
So, what is that motivation? It’s not military, because as strong as China already is and will yet become, it can’t threaten the US, which is protected by a vast ocean, a huge military and thousands of nuclear weapons. Economics is not sufficient reason, either. Even if the US did pull its forces out of Asia, that wouldn’t lead to economic exclusion; China can no more lock the US out of Asia’s economies than the US can exclude China from North and South America. What about allies – doesn’t the US have a duty to protect them? Only if it ultimately serves US security interests. An alliance is not a welfare scheme for the benefit of the junior partner. There has to be some payoff for the US, but it’s hard to see what that is.
If US is not up for this fight, then we appear to have made a historic mistake by putting the US so firmly at the centre of our security strategy. It’s not only nuclear-powered submarines. We’ve also decided to build facilities that will allow US bombers and nuclear-powered attack submarines to conduct wartime missions from our soil.
Defenders of these decisions say it’s all about deterrence. If we put up a united front with the US and build our collective military strength, we signal to China that it had better not risk any military adventurism, particularly over Taiwan.
But for deterrence to work, the other side must believe that you are prepared to make major sacrifices, otherwise they will be tempted call your bluff. The risk with the current American posture is that it continues to signal that it is prepared to make big sacrifices when the plain facts suggest it has no urgent need to do so. The US faces no security threat from China that would make it worth fighting what might easily become the third world war.
The more sensible course for Australia, therefore, is not to reinforce the American deterrent but to build a deterrent of its own, one that is perfectly consistent with the alliance but which can also work independently as American motivation to maintain its leadership in Asia declines.
The good news is that Australia can deter a Chinese military threat, alone if necessary, and it won’t bankrupt us. The key is to make full use of the vast distance that separates Australia from China. This is our single biggest defence asset. Unfortunately, we are now set on a course which emphasises long-range military assets, including nuclear-powered submarines ideally designed to operate off China’s coast. In effect, we are compressing the distance between Australia and China when we should be exploiting it.