The Buzz

The Asia-Pacific Challenge: China, Alliances and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

The recent ANU–CSIS paper The ANZUS Alliance in an Ascending Asia is a welcome addition to contemporary thinking on the Australia–U.S. alliance and its prospects over the next couple of decades as China looms ever larger. The even more recent release of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Long-term Macroeconomic Forecasts: Key Trends to 2050 offers a challenging counterpoint to the comfortable policy prescriptions of the ANU–CSIS study.

While it might suit some to dismiss China’s capacity to realize its leadership ambitions, as did the Secretary of PM&C at the Crawford School’s Australian Leadership Forum at the end of June, its growing economic dominance is already affecting the regional strategic balance. And when the relative economic strength of the major global economies is viewed through the lens of demographic change, workforce participation rates, greater capital use efficiency in R&D and adjustments in immigration policies, the mid years of this century look even murkier.

Then there’s the fashionably ignored problem of global warming, which may bring with it significant and adverse security effects, particularly in the riverine deltas and archipelagoes of Asia, with entire communities moving to higher and drier ground. And as the large emerging economies of China and India move away from carbon-intensive energy production, Australia’s relative economic position and associated political throw-weight will decline.

Those combined forces could well stress the alliances that the U.S. already has in place with Japan, Taiwan, Korea, the Philippines and Thailand, and may well impact on its alliance with Australia. The ANU–CSIS paper ignores these factors.

The ANU–CSIS paper does, however, provide a useful overview of the ANZUS Treaty, identifying the key political and military developments that have served to support the continuing relevance of the alliance. Curiously, it overlooks what was probably the most profound change to the operation of the alliance— the re-engineering of the operating arrangements at Pine Gap and Nurrungar—which happened on Kim Beazley’s watch as Minister for Defense. Although that was three decades ago, it inaugurated the integrated cooperation paradigm that continues to define the alliance to this day.

The paper correctly acknowledges that the ANZUS alliance, like most defense treaties, was initially threat-based: Australia and New Zealand needed U.S. military assurances if Japan were to rebuild an independent self-defense capability. It doesn’t, however, come to grips with the significance of how the ANZUS alliance has changed since 1951, as shared strategic aims and values have replaced threat as the driving force of the treaty. AUSMIN communiqués since the mid-90s have reflected this fact.

Sadly, what might have worked in the past is no guide to what might work in the future. The paper’s curious language of hubs, spokes, pivots and rebalances suggests a mindset that remains entrenched in the linear strategic concepts of the past. While the U.S., Australia and New Zealand will continue to coalesce around human, social and political values as the foundation of their long-term strategic relationship, these values are not readily transferable to strategic associations that might be established elsewhere in Asia.

This seems to have escaped the authors of the ANU–CSIS study, especially as they considered the prospective place of both Indonesia and Japan in the evolution of Australian and US strategic interests in Asia. The idea that Indonesia and/or Japan might in some way replace Australia as the U.S.’s preferred strategic partner is ludicrous. What isn’t ludicrous is the interest that the U.S. (and Australia if it can replace a transaction-based Indonesian relationship with an outcomes-based diplomacy) should have in engaging Indonesia and Japan more constructively in the strategic affairs of Asia.

Australia, Indonesia and Japan each bring quite different strengths and benefits to the U.S. as it seeks to secure and manage its global strategic interests. These strengths and benefits are complementary rather than competitive.

The joint US–Australia approach to the emergence of China as a global strategic power cannot rest on some kind of latter-day containment doctrine, or even a policy of constraining China. Nor are the US and Australia in a position to ‘shape’ China’s expectations or ‘permit’ it to take a larger leadership role.

Our joint ability to condescend extends only so far!

Rather, the US and Australia are well positioned to construct a network of intersecting and differentiated relationships that capitalize on the opportunities now on offer in Asia to strengthen and extend a rules-based strategic architecture that engages China, not corrals it. Our collective aim should be to exploit and leverage complexity and ambiguity rather than engage in a form of linear reductionism that misrepresents multi-dimensional strategic opportunities as competitive binary options.

The ANU–CSIS paper questions whether U.S.–China and Australia–China relations might be diverging, but without recognizing that difference isn’t necessarily divergence. While the paper implicitly resolves this artificial dichotomy by proposing a return to first principles—what is the regional and global order we seek, and what are the ways and means we have to achieve and sustain that order—it doesn’t answer those questions.

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