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Tony Abbott hedging Australia’s allies in Asia

Date

Peter Hartcher

<i>Illustration: John Shakespeare.</i>

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.

102 comments so far

  • I am a bit nervous about the trade deal with Japan. To date our PM has displayed an unerring merdeas touch.

    Commenter
    Hacked off
    Date and time
    April 08, 2014, 12:06AM
    • i think it will be a highly beneficial deal, for Japan.

      Commenter
      Tin
      Date and time
      April 08, 2014, 6:52AM
    • I'm with you Hacked off,

      Two times Tony has secured a FTA with a country that is our second ( correct me if i'm wrong) biggest trading partner anyway, though as always devil is in the detail.and further

      Australia still needs to build “a credibly strong force to deter anyone who might think about taking advantage of us”. How ?

      Abbott and co are putting on hold any more subs, we have a dud of and F35 that cant fly near or in thunderstorms and we have a very small population so we cant deploy overwhelming force, the best i guess we could do is fight a guerrilla style war.

      Commenter
      Buffalo Bill
      Location
      Sydneys Northshore
      Date and time
      April 08, 2014, 6:59AM
    • The trade deal with Japan is a positive development, Australians can safely ignore the nervous ninnies of the left, their Abbottphobia is so all consuming they can't see the anything else.

      Similarly the best interests of democratic nations lies in strong defence alliances,
      history repeatedly teaches us that lesson.

      Commenter
      SteveH.
      Date and time
      April 08, 2014, 7:04AM
    • I think the only problem for you guys is that Labor did a lot of the hard work but Tony Abbott gets the credit, thats, it's just the way these things work. You really have to get a grip The LNP have been in for 6 months and are travelling fine. The ALP... not so much, and looks like it will get worse with the Royal Commission starting soon.

      Commenter
      morph
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      April 08, 2014, 7:32AM
    • @Hacked off: Asia despite all the positives for Australia is in danger of becoming a diplomatic minefield. The simmering and historic unrest between China and Japan has the potential for Australia to become the meat in the sandwich. How lucky we are to have our illustrious leader at the helm at this critical time in our history. Not to worry though, the yanks are coming.

      Commenter
      JohnC
      Location
      Gosford NSW
      Date and time
      April 08, 2014, 7:46AM
    • @ SteveH, 7.04. It is not a phobia (as I do not fear him). To me, it's more 'nausea' (a strong distaste felt in the gut).

      Commenter
      Jump
      Date and time
      April 08, 2014, 8:10AM
    • An interesting article but one that fails to look at the emerging geopolitical situation of shifting alliances from China's perspective. Our deepening trade relationships with South Korea and now Japan, along with our well known security pact with the USA means Beijing's mandarins could well feel that their country is being encircled by a hostile US alliance. Their answer could mean a deepening strategic alliance with Russia as it expands west but needs development of its abundant oil and gas resources (and minerals) in the east. The same resources needed by the Chinese as they move another 270 million rural workers into urban conurbations by 2025. A stronger Russian-Chinese alliance could result in less resource sales to China and a fall in our living standards. Australian politicians need to be very careful about prattling on about shared western values seeking instead to deepen only trade relationships in order to build up a strong, independent military force to deter any aggressor (on a cost benefit basis) whether it be India, China or Indonesia - countries with large populations, scarce or undeveloped resources base and outside the formal US alliance.

      Commenter
      AlanG
      Date and time
      April 08, 2014, 8:11AM
    • SteveH - yes, this is the 'free' tade deal, the one where Australia cuts its tarriffs to zero (trashing the last vestiges of local manufacturing jobs) while Japan maintains tarriffs to protect Japanese farmers from agricultural produce imported from Australia. I think you and Abbott will find that it won't be just the 'ninnies of the left' pointing that out.

      Commenter
      rudy
      Date and time
      April 08, 2014, 8:37AM
    • The US - Aus FTA was said to be a massive boon for Australia. Last count, it costs us $100-150 million a year.
      I won't believe this is beneficial until I see it.

      Commenter
      Eyes Only
      Date and time
      April 08, 2014, 2:26PM

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