The concept of the ‘Evil Empire’ galvanised the renewed tensions between the US and Soviet Union following a period of detente. Today, many within the US are using similar rhetoric to step up their campaign against communist China as great power rivalry continues to evolve, but is it accurate? Australia’s leading strategist, Paul Dibb, poses an interesting question.
Australia as both a continent and a nation is unique in its position, enjoying relative geographic isolation from the flashpoints of global and regional conflagration of the 20th century.
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, oscillating between policies of forward presence, active intervention and comparative regional isolation and withdrawal post-Vietnam.
Across the Indo-Pacific, competing economic, political and strategic interests, designs and ambitions are beginning to clash, flying in contrast to the projections of many historians at the end of the Cold War – further compounding these issues is the continued instability caused by the coronavirus and concerns about ecological collapse.
Driven by an unprecedented economic transformation, propelling once developing nations onto the world stage, the region, the globe and its established powers are having to adjust to a dramatically different global power paradigm – one committed to undermining and influencing the fabric of Australian and Western democracies.
With the spectre of COVID-19 far from diminished across the globe and waves of civil unrest and violence tearing their way across the US, and the UK still under strict lock downs, these two great powers are limited in their capacity to actively and assertively intervene on behalf of their allies around the world, despite intent.
The fragility of these two nations has prompted many global dictators to take advantage of the absence, as the old saying states: "When the cat is away, the mice will play", leaving Australia and many other allies, including Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, exposed to the whims of nations dedicated to the end of post-war order.
Nowhere is this more evident than across the Indo-Pacific as an emboldened Beijing continues to punish Australia for pursuing a global inquiry into the origins and China's handling of COVID-19, while also leveraging the diminished presence of the US military in the region to project power and intimidate both Japan and, critically, Taiwan.
Additionally, as the global balance of power – across the economic, political and strategic spectrum – continues to evolve, Australia's position in the global order is in a constant state of flux. Most notably, the nation has received the tap on the shoulder, with US President Donald Trump calling for an expansion of the G7, with Australia the top of the list.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, via a spokesperson, confirmed the request from the US President, saying, "There has been contact between the US and the Prime Minister about a G7 invitation.
"The G7 has been a topic of recent high-level exchanges. Australia would welcome an official invitation. Strengthening international co-operation among like-minded countries is valued at a time of unprecedented global challenges."
Australia's inclusion in the G7 would mark a major milestone in the nation's position as a post-Second World War 'middle power' essential to the longevity and sustainability of the economic, political and strategic order that all nations, including China, are dependent upon for the current status quo.
The President's calls for a greater Australian presence and effort on the global stage and admittance to the G7 are just an entry point for a US-backed increase in Australia's presence within the international community.
Supporting this, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, addressing the Henry Jackson Society in London, highlighted a need for greater Australian participation and support, telling a gathering of UK political, policy and intelligence leaders, "We just have to decide if any of those [multilateral institutions] are fit for purpose ... I also think that they're not shaped right for this current confrontation.
"We're going to need the 1 billion-plus people in India, we're going to need the Australians – it's going to take all of these democracies together."
Rhetoric signals paradigm shift
For Australia's premier strategist, Paul Dibb, this growing positioning by the US as it rallies allies and like-minded nations in the Indo-Pacific harkens back to the waning days of the Cold War and former US president Ronald Reagan's famous "Evil Empire" speech, which is held up as a turning point in the Cold War.
Dibb explained, "US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a landmark speech on 23 July titled ‘Communist China and the free world’s future’ in which he made it plain that China was now America’s main national security threat. The central theme of his speech was the Chinese Communist Party’s — not the Chinese people’s — designs for global hegemony.
"This was clearly a well-prepared and strongly positioned speech. Pompeo said that it was the fourth in a series of China speeches; the other three were delivered by National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, FBI Director Chris Wray and Attorney General William Barr. All this points to a coordinated position in the US administration on the threat from China."
Expanding on this, Dibb states, "This is not the first time that America has launched such a provocatively worded policy against its main adversary. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan made his infamous ‘evil empire’ speech, which identified the Soviet Union as ‘the focus of evil in the modern world’ and characterised the US conflict with the USSR as a battle between good and evil. Some commentators believe that Reagan’s speech and his subsequent ‘Star Wars’ threat laid the groundwork for the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union."
In doing so, Dibb also states that while Australia's policymakers continue to reaffirm the nation's independence in responding to Beijing's regional assertiveness, saying, "But nobody should expect the Australian government to endorse Pompeo’s speech or use his ideological language. Indeed, at the recent AUSMIN meeting, which occurred five days after the speech, Foreign Minister Marise Payne made it plain that Australia’s positions on China are our own and ‘we make our own decisions, our own judgements in the Australian national interest’. Even so, careful scrutiny of the joint AUSMIN statement reveals that it is overwhelmingly about both the coercive and the assertive threats from China."
However, this raises an important question, how long can Australia maintain its independence in policymaking as the competition between Beijing and Washington continues to gather pace?
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 Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s 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.