By Abhijit Iyer-Mitra
Will Australia join the US against China should hostilities eventuate? The Australian defence minister, Stephen Smith, apparently had to do some fire-fighting in Beijing this week on account of reports suggesting the existence of a secret chapter to the 2009 defence white paper. This chapter apparently focussed on joint operations with the US against China.
Australia has nothing to apologize for. It has a twofold responsibility – one, to defend the Australian people and second, to maintain regional stability – and it has lived up to both admirably.
Within the ambit of the former the defence ministry is tasked with coming up with various contingency plans, as all defence establishments around the world are required to do, including presumably China’s. Contingency plans by their very nature have to consider the extremes. The public sections of the 2009 defence white paper made abundantly clear the environment Australia thought it was operating in terming Taiwan the most likely cause of ‘strategic miscalculation’. Acknowledging that China had every right to modernize and have a military commensurate with its size and importance, it was worried that the expansion concentrated on the ‘development of power projection capabilities’, but ‘beyond the scope of what would be required for a conflict over Taiwan’. For China, or the media to feign ‘surprise’ that consequent contingencies dealt with the fallout of precisely such miscalculation, is both naïve and disingenuous.
What is Australia’s responsibility to the region? Basically leveraging its soft power to calm tensions in the region and to balance this against the need to protect the Australian people. This is precisely why the alleged secret portion, if it does exist, was kept secret. Yes China is Australia’s biggest market, and much of Australia’s prosperity depends on Chinese consumption but one must not stretch this logic too far. Yes there is scope for trade to act as a buffer to hostilities but there is also historical precedent that indicates the exact opposite. The first phase of globalization was spawned by the Industrial Revolution, and Norman Angell predicted in his 1910 book, ‘The Great Illusion’ that talk of war was concocted and the vast and complex global trade inter-linkages would prevent war – proven horribly wrong when World War I broke out four years later. Ultimately, the trade argument focuses too much on common sense, logic, and public statements: in reality history repeatedly shows that foreign policy is at variance to any of these.
At a time of uncertainty (what Leon Panetta referred to as ‘rebalancing’ at the Shangri-La 2012 summit) Australia is doing what any sensible nation would do – hedge upto a point, but hold on to some certainties – in this case the US and the American alliance. The 2009 white paper accepts an economic rebalancing but caveats this by saying ‘China has the potential to overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy…..However, economic strength is also a function of trade, aid and financial flows, and by those market-exchange based measures, the US economy is likely to remain paramount’.
One should not delude oneself that there was much of a choice between Pax Americana and Pax Sinaica, Australia will choose the former any day, since it has far more in common with the US than it ever will have with China. Even in the military rebalancing Australia has behaved with both responsibility and restraint. Joint exercises with the US and other allies are reversible; signalling that can go away should China’s actions match China’s rhetoric. The marine deployment also needs to be contextualized in that the forces in question are being redeployed from Okinawa – a mere 800 kilometres from the Chinese mainland to Darwin a full 5000 kilometres away. One glance at the map would show that Australia has very little by way of direct access to the southern Chinese coast blocked as it is by the Indonesian archipelago and most of ASEAN. For what it’s worth the Australian and Chinese navies have conducted joint exercises and frequent port calls precisely because Australia, with its nuanced perceptions of the rise of China that allows for multiple truths, has always hoped China would emerge as a partner.
Is ‘Australia’s silently acquiescing’ to America’s ‘increasingly hostile policy’? This is a crude oversimplification not supported by the facts. Just as one needs to have a nuanced view of the rise of China one also needs a nuanced view of the rebalancing that it sets in motion. Ultimately, all that Australia seeks is the assurance that the international order based on maritime security be respected. China’s actions have done more to undermine this than anyone or anything else. Australia has no reason to be cagey – far from it – its conduct has been exemplary.
Research Officer, IPCS
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