Illustration: John Shakespeare.
The world is seeing the triumph of brute force as strong nations help themselves to the territory of the weak.
Russia took Crimea in a single gulp. China is taking ownership of other countries’ seabed resources and territorial waters slice by slice, salami style.
Russia used blatant invasion. China’s technique was described by a prominent Indian strategic analyst, Brahma Chellaney, as “creeping, covert warfare”.
And the US? It is standing by anxiously, wringing its hands.
“You cannot go around the world and redefine boundaries and violate territorial integrity and sovereignty of nations by force, coercion, and intimidation, whether it's in small islands in the Pacific or large nations in Europe,” thundered US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel in Tokyo on the weekend.
But, of course, that’s exactly what’s happening. And while America dithers, everyone else is getting nervous. There is no system of international rules for the Russian bear or the Chinese dragon, only the law of the jungle.
“Force never went away, but perhaps it was localised in the Middle East,” remarks Australian Strategic Policy Institute executive director Peter Jennings, the man tasked with writing the Abbott government’s new white paper on defence.
“People didn’t think it would rear its ugly head in other parts of the world, certainly not in Europe. But it’s back with a vengeance.”
The US has also been guilty of acting according to the law of the jungle in recent times. Its invasion of Iraq, with Australia a prominent accomplice, was a blatant act of unprovoked aggression.
It invaded Iraq without the approval of the UN Security Council. The main architect of the post-war system of rules was wantonly vandalising its own creation.
That makes it easier for Moscow and Beijing to shrug off Washington’s angry accusations today.
“Our Western partners, led by the US, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun,” Russia’s neo-emperor Vladimir Putin said in a speech last month.
Now Putin is demonstrating dab use of the rule of the gun. The question now is: how far is he willing to go? How far is China willing to go?
And how far can they go before the US and its allies intervene to halt their advances?
“The US is not wanting to intervene unless it identifies a really deep national interest at risk,” Jennings says. He’s not critical of this approach: “If Obama is putting a higher threshold on the use of military force, I think that’s a good thing.”
But how high is the current threshold, exactly? Obama said besieged Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad must not cross the “red line” of using chemical weapons against his own people. But he did, of course. It was not a red line, after all. Obama was left with a red face.
As a result of this and other decisions, “there is creeping doubt in the minds of all the countries in the Asia-Pacific” about the reliability of the US as an ally, says an expert on the region, Mike Green of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
This is the world that Tony Abbott has walked into on his trip this week to Japan, South Korea and China.
Two of these countries, Japan and South Korea, like Australia, are treaty allies of the US. They permanently host big deployments of US troops. China, however, is both an economic partner to the US and its strategic rival. Last month, the commander of the US Pacific Fleet, Admiral Harry Harris, described China as a “destabilising” influence.
It was the reason that maritime tensions in the Asia-Pacific region were at their worst in 30 years, he said in Jakarta. He accused Beijing of “revanchist tendencies”.
The question Abbott faces is what to do about it. Jennings, formerly deputy secretary of Defence responsible for strategy, is the man charged with answering that question through his lead authorship of the forthcoming defence white paper.
“This is not the world of the Asian Century white paper,” delivered by previous prime minister Julia Gillard. “It was based on the assumption that there’s a 20-year path of unbroken economic growth and all Australia has to do to be a top-10 world economy is to hitch itself to a rising Asia.
“There’s a far more complicated set of risks and opportunities than that.”
Australia, surely, needs to hedge its position – that is, work for the best possible outcome and prepare for the worst?
“In China,” Jennings says, “we engage deeply economically and push for a closer relationship, and the cooperation in the search for MH370 is an example of how you can find opportunities to improve the relationship. That’s not hedging, that’s engaging.
“And in a military sense, I don’t think we should design our military force around a conflict with China. The key to hedging is to build our alliance relationship.”
In other words, the US alliance. Nonetheless, Australia still needs to build “a credibly strong force to deter anyone who might think about taking advantage of us”.
This is the same conclusion Japan and South Korea, and other pro-US nations of the Asia-Pacific region are coming to. China’s assertiveness is having the effect of driving US allies in the region closer to Washington and to each other, even as they worry about American reliability in a crisis.
The Abbott government is exploring ways of intensifying the relationship not only with the US but also with its other treaty allies in Asia, especially Japan but also South Korea.
Even on a trip where Abbott visits China, he is working with the other two nations on his itinerary in a search for common security against the rising China risk. It’s a jungle out there.
Peter Hartcher is the international editor.