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Risk and reward for Australia as US flexes its muscles in Asia

By Peter Jennings

The US is rapidly restructuring its military presence in Asia and rethinking how it could fight a conventional war in the area, which the Pentagon has identified as the “single most consequential region for America’s future”. This will have important strategic consequences for Australia.

An Indo-Pacific Strategy Report released this month in Washington, DC alarmingly concedes China, described as a “competitor”, is “likely to enjoy a local military advantage at the start of a conflict” in East Asia.

The strategy makes it clear that rapid growth of Chinese military power is forcing wholesale change to how America will base, move and fight its forces in Asia. It gives priority to the role of “allies and partners” because they offer an “unparalleled advantage that no competitor or rival can match”. And the strategy aims to overcome American dependence on a handful of military bases in Japan, South Korea and Guam that are vulnerable to missile attack, in favour of a “more dynamic and distributed presence and access locations across the region”.

For the plan to work the US will need to preposition military equipment in multiple locations, have access to a large number of ports and military-grade runways, and be able to rapidly project combat forces with extended reach and hitting power.

According to the Pentagon, the strategy is designed “to create temporary windows of superiority across multiple domains” where US and allies’ forces can “seize, retain and exploit the initiative”.

The “rotational” presence of up to a 2500-strong US Marines taskforce in Darwin, along with longer duration and more sophisticated US Air Force training in Australia’s north, has become a model of the dispersed strategy America wants to pursue around the Indo-Pacific. These “force posture initiatives” are described as promoting a “combined capability to respond to crises and contingencies”.

Another intriguing reference in the strategy, yet to be explained in Australia, points to “investments in advanced missile-defence systems interoperable with allied systems in Japan and Australia”.

This new strategy offers Australia opportunities and some risks depending on how intelligently we manage our interests with Donald Trump and the Washington system.

What does the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report tell us about America’s role in the world? First, forget Trump’s tweets and The New York Times’ outrage, Washington is as capable as it has ever been of developing thoughtful policy ideas across multiple departments and agencies.

In the first two years of Trump’s presidency, a national security strategy and a national defence strategy, along with this latest report, define a more coherent, sharply focused plan to promote American interests than we ever saw from the Obama administration.

As always with Trump the challenge is to look beyond the theatre and the undeniably dysfunctional way he runs the White House. There is a growing clarity around the central lines of Trump’s Asia policies that show he is setting some clear directions.

Trump’s Asia doctrine comes down to this: Keep China unsettled and off-balance because this reduces its capacity for bad behaviour; keep pressuring North Korea by refusing to cut a deal with Kim Jong-un unless he really does denuclearise; support Japan and Australia as the two most consequential allies in the region; finally, sharpen America’s military posture in Asia, working with as many countries as possible to counter Chinese influence.

All told, that’s sensible and appropriate. Barack Obama elegantly talked about Asian engagement but failed tests of policy resolve on the South China Sea and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. By contrast, Trump clumsily talks about his America-first policy but is actually doing more to strengthen US interests in the region.

The President’s unpredictability means one can never be completely sure that the urge to cut a deal won’t overturn one or other policy objective, but that hasn’t happened yet and the “no deal” from the Hanoi summit with Kim shows that Trump can be disciplined when he needs to be.

As Trump announced his intention this week to run for a second term of office, some Asian governments will be wishing him luck. Most would choose crude but effective US engagement over a return to an Obama-style elegant distancing of American interests from the region’s sharpening ­security problems.

A second conclusion is that America has made its mind up about China. The US doesn’t want war but is not afraid of competition and will not take a backward step when it comes to protecting American interests.

That’s good for Australia because of the substantial overlap between American interests and ours. But except for our intelligence agencies and Defence, Canberra is still unwilling to accept the reality that China is the most pressing strategic problem we face.

This gives rise to daily policy contortions as DFAT and others stick to 1990s-style rhetoric about how we have a “constructive relationship with China, founded on shared interests, mutual benefit and mutual respect”. The reality is different. Whatever the official soothing public utterances, the need is for a hard-headed assessment of how to deal with the risks presented by Beijing.

A final thought about America’s strategy for Asia is, simply, that the US is not giving up on the region. For most of my 30 years working on defence in Canberra, I have listened to many policy intellectuals forecast with relish the inevitable decline of the US, usually as a result of the unstoppable rise of China.

Neither of these propositions is true or likely to be so in the next couple of decades. We habitually overlook China’s many structural flaws and overstate America’s problems. It’s true that there is an increasingly incompatible clash of strategic interests between the US and like-minded democracies on the one hand and China and revisionist authoritarian regimes on the other hand.

This is not a clash of civilisations — although Beijing would like to present it that way — but a clash of political systems. It’s hard to see how these divergent interests can be reconciled to a point where both sides agree that the rule of international laws and norms promote the interests of all parties. As the US Indo-Pacific Strategy starkly puts it: “Interstate strategic competition, defined by geopolitical rivalry between free and repressive world order visions, is the primary concern for US national security.”

Australia’s fundamental strategic interests lie in doing what we can to reinforce America’s commitment to Asian security.

Without that commitment Australia will be in a very lonely place, with a defence force that goes nowhere near protecting our strategic interests.

At the G20 meeting in Osaka next weekend it’s likely that some of the most consequential discussions will be happening in bilateral marginal meetings. The agenda for the multilateral gathering of the world’s 20 largest economies is, at best, worthy but doesn’t address the competitive strategic forces that are reshaping Asia.

China’s President Xi Jinping is reported to have said in a phone call last Tuesday with Trump that he was willing to talk about “the fundamental issues” affecting China-US relations, but their planned bilateral meeting will not change much. The two countries are developing a more sharply competitive relationship that will draw in the rest of Asia, Australia and the Pacific islands.

Assuming Scott Morrison will have a bilateral meeting with Trump in Osaka, what should the Prime Minister be aiming to do with that encounter?

First, he should tell Trump that America’s Indo-Pacific Strategy aligns perfectly with Australia’s independent decision to invest in a “Pacific step-up” — Morrison’s plan to regain Australian security leadership in partnership with the Pacific island states.

Second, Morrison should declare that the past seven years of enhanced co-operation with the Marine Corps and air forces in northern Australia have been a resounding success and it’s time for both countries to do more in the north as a major contribution to the confidence and stability of Southeast Asia.

It used to be the case that Australia was considered too far south to figure in the strategic balance of North Asia. That assumption will have to be revised in the context of an American plan that wants to disperse its forces in the face of increased Chinese military reach.

Morrison should privately note that the Indo-Pacific Strategy plans to locate a new “Air Ground Task Force” of 5000 Marines in Guam. Wherever that group comes from, it shouldn’t be at the expense of the Marine presence in northern Australia. Indeed, this would be the moment to suggest to Trump that Australia would welcome a larger US military presence, matched to our own increased efforts.

Australia could go further: with the Pacific step-up now in play, why not discuss an Australia and US shared approach to enhance security co-operation with Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Singapore, which strengthens the independent defence capabilities of these countries?

Southeast Asia remains a central point of competition for influence between China and the developed democracies. If round one in that strategic game was the South China Sea, Beijing decisively won that competition by effectively annexing the region and building artificial islands, now with three well-defended air bases.

The Indo-Pacific Strategy notes with concern “democratic backsliding in Cambodia” and reports that “China is seeking to establish bases or a military presence on its coast”. That development would fundamentally change the strategic balance in Southeast Asia, presenting risks for Vietnam and for Thailand, a formal US ally.

Australia, the US and, indeed, all the developed democracies must do what they can to reassure Southeast Asian countries that there are practical alternatives to turning to Beijing for funding and defence co-operation. Expanded defence and security co-operation between equals would be good for the region, welcomed in Washington and promote a key Australian strategic interest.

In a more competitive strategic age the advantage will go to countries able to think laterally and promote innovative ways to partner with friends and neighbours. This is a time when our political leaders must show courage and imagination or risk losing our ability to shape strategic outcomes to our national security interest.

Originally published by: The Australian on 22 Jun 2019