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Walking the tight rope: Calls for Australia to increasingly balance Washington and Beijing

Increasingly, Australia’s relationships with the world’s two superpowers is going to require nuance, balance and pragmatism – it is also going to require a consistent, coherent and distinctly Australian approach to ensure that the nation maintains its sovereignty and promotes its national interests in the Indo-Pacific.

Increasingly, Australia’s relationships with the world’s two superpowers is going to require nuance, balance and pragmatism – it is also going to require a consistent, coherent and distinctly Australian approach to ensure that the nation maintains its sovereignty and promotes its national interests in the Indo-Pacific.

Australia as both a continent and a nation is unique in its position, enjoying relative geographic isolation from the flash points of global and regional conflagration of the 20th century, which reshaped global history in the most calamitous manner since the fall of Rome. 

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Blessed with unrivalled resource wealth and industrial potential, the nation has been able to embrace vastly different approaches to the nation’s strategic role and responsibilities, with the most dynamic shifts occurring in the aftermath of the Second World War.

The experience of direct threat to the Australian homeland served to dramatically impact the nation's strategic doctrine, alliances and force structure in the immediate aftermath of World War II, resulting in not only a shift towards the US as strategic benefactor, but also an interventionist policy of 'Forward Defence'. 

'Forward Defence' enabled Australia to take a more direct, engaged hand in regional security affairs – where it sought to actively deter aggression and hostility in Malaya during the Konfrontasi and communist aggression in Korea and Vietnam as the domino theory mimicked the war-time advances of Imperial Japan. 

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However, this doctrine was short lived as increasing domestic political unrest in response to the nation's costly involvement in the Vietnam conflict saw a dramatic shift in the nation’s defence policy and the rise of the “Defence of Australia” doctrine.

The doctrine advocated for the retreat of Australia’s forward military presence in the Indo-Pacific and a focus on the defence of the Australian continent and its direct approaches – deferring true regional security and engagement in favour of dependence upon the broader US strategic umbrella, ironically something the doctrine was established to limit. 

Implementing the 'Defence of Australia' doctrine saw the nation return its roots of complete strategic dependence upon 'great and powerful' friends, in this case the US, which, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, paved the way for an era of unrivalled global economic liberalisation, market access and exploding wealth and opportunity throughout the Indo-Pacific, but most transformatively, China. 

While Australia's tactical and strategic security and mobility has been guaranteed by the US, the nation's economic prosperity has been driven by a bipartisan focus on the easiest wealth-generating prospects on the back of China's economic transformation, while clinging to the now completely disproven belief that as the rising superpower's wealth and prosperity grew, so too would its shift towards democracy. 

As China continues to assert its influence, economic and rising strategic power and territorial claims in the Indo-Pacific bringing the nation into direct confrontation with the US, many within Australia's public policy, media and strategic policy communities are calling for Australia to increasingly balance it's relationships with the two superpowers. 

The latest of which is Peter Hartcher, writing for The Sydney Morning Herald, who has called for Australia to avoid blindly following attempts by the US to contain China, while also avoiding kowtowing to the increasing antagonism and bullying tactics of the rising superpower. 

We agree on the assessment, but the solution needs to be clarified

Hartcher is quick to identify that there is agreement between the US and Australia on the affliction, that of Beijing's increasing assertiveness and attempts at economic, political and strategic coercion in the region, particularly towards nation's who dare to question the 'official' narrative of President Xi. 

Australia has emerged as one such target for these tactics, particularly in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic, political and strategic chaos wrought by the global pandemic and the uncertainty it begets. 

Hartcher expands on this bilateral realisation, saying, "In fact, Pompeo demanded that countries pick a side. 'The division,' he said, 'is between freedom and tyranny. I think that's the decision that we're asking each of these nations to make'. What should Australia reply to this invitation from Trump's America?

"Australian ministers are in the US now. Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds are to meet Pompeo and US Defence Secretary Mark Esper late on Tuesday night, Australian time, for the annual AUSMIN consultations.

"Australia would agree with Pompeo's portrayal of Xi Jinping's regime as authoritarian at home and increasingly hostile to freedom elsewhere. That's not news."

Expanding on this, Hartcher moves quickly to point out that for all of America's military prowess and seaming capacity to unilaterally throw its weight around, China represents a very different beast to that of previous decades, President Xi's China is not Nazi Germany, nor is it Saddam's Iraq or Gaddafi's Libya.

And unlike these specific examples, the global community is not as galvanised against Beijing, despite ongoing attempts by Washington to persuade friendly nations, and in spite of growing antagonism, adventurism and coercion. 

"But there is a big difference between describing a problem and prescribing a solution. The first fatal flaw of Pompeo's speech is that he glides seamlessly, illogically from one to the other – as if the only and inevitable response to China's authoritarianism were regime change," Hartcher explains. 

"The US was unable to achieve regime change in poor, weak Iraq. Even with Britain and Australia joining the invasion. What makes Pompeo think the US can achieve it in a near-peer, nuclear-armed competitor such as China?

"Payne and Reynolds should make it plain that Australia has picked a side – the side of freedom. But that Australia is rising to the China challenge by defending liberty at home, not by advancing adventurism and aggression abroad."

Economic interests and sovereignty need to be accounted for

Australia's dependence upon China is by now well known, particularly as the nation scrambles to adjust to blatant threats of economic coercion in the aftermath of Prime Minister Scott Morrison calling for an independent and international inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 following its cost of life and continuing impact on the global economy. 

COVID-19 also served to dramatically highlight the lack of true economic sovereignty and resilience within the national economy, as well as the impact the nation's limited economic diversity has upon national security.

Hartcher comes to the conclusion some prominent members of the Commonwealth government have come to, when he articulates: "Indeed, Australia should embrace a full work program of measures to protect its democracy from Xi's efforts at influence and interference. The Morrison government has only just started to enforce its foreign interference laws – the investigation into NSW Labor politician Shaoquett Moselmane is its first such effort.

"Other vital measures await. These include tightening Australia's absurdly ramshackle political donations laws, introducing security screening for new MPs and senators, and developing a national resilience agenda.

"Australia's vulnerability to China for critical medical supplies has been newly exposed, for instance. So, too, its over-reliance on China as an export market."

This point is further enhanced by a poignant and timely question raised by senator for NSW, retired Major General and long-time advocate for a holistic National Sovereignty Strategy, Jim Molan, AO, DSC, who recently told Sky News: "The point that I make is that if we need to put $270 billion over the next 10 years into defence, what other parts of our society, of our nation do we need to address to match whatever this $270 billion is going to buy us in the end?

"The basis for our national security is the economy. The problem I have is how does a government know risks it is taking by not funding certain aspects of national security, if it doesn’t know what we absolutely need?"

Your thoughts

Australia is defined by its economic and strategic relationships with the Indo-Pacific and the access to the growing economies and to strategic sea lines of communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport.

Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the 21st century’s era of great power competition and global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and chokepoints of south-east Asia annually.

For Australia, a nation defined by this relationship with traditionally larger yet economically weaker regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build-up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities, competing geopolitical, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century’s “great game”.

Enhancing Australias capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australias sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia. 

Australia is consistently told that as a nation we are torn between our economic relationship with China and the longstanding strategic partnership with the US, placing the country at the epicentre of a great power rivalry – but what if it didn’t have to be that way?

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of shaking up the nation’s approach to our regional partners.

We would also like to hear your thoughts on the avenues Australia should pursue to support long-term economic growth and development in support of national security in the comments section below, or get in touch with This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Walking the tight rope: Calls for Australia to increasingly balance Washington and Beijing
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