America: Australia's Dangerous Ally

Australia should not embrace America, writes its former prime minister, but preserve itself from Washington’s reckless overreach. 

January-February 2015

So America, Australia, Britain and others have embarked on this new war. We have been told it will take many years, but without troops on the ground, which I agree should not be ours or American, the chances of a peaceful outcome or a defeat of the Islamic State are slight. We have pliantly followed America into a war where the United States has acted without marshaling the necessary forces, the necessary coalition and the necessary assets to achieve a military and strategic victory. The reality is, at this stage, that there is no achievable and defined “end point”—no real characterization of what success will look like. Radical groups have emerged, designed to end Western influence throughout the region. Does this mean that such groups represent an existential threat to people further afield? So often, as we have learned more, and tragically often in retrospect, we have found that our basic assumptions were wrong. What we do know is that the Middle East is now more dangerously poised than at any time in the postwar years for further conflagration.

In Afghanistan, while most NATO forces are withdrawing, about ten thousand American troops are going to remain. We are likely to see increased attacks by the Taliban, who do not appear to have been particularly weakened by the long years of warfare. The way in which war has been conducted through South Asia—especially the use of drones, which have killed significant numbers of civilians—provides the extremists with a welcome and potent recruiting tool. Nor is this all. Events in the Middle East between Israel and Palestine also represent a grotesque failure of U.S. diplomacy and a reduction in American influence worldwide. This has so often occurred because the United States (and, indeed, the West generally) interprets events through its own eyes without taking historical circumstances into account.


THERE HAVE also been significant strategic changes much closer to Australia, in the Pacific and throughout East and Southeast Asia. Here, too, we have increasing tension. Western commentators tend to say that the rise of China and its growing military power are at the center of that tension. Unfortunately, Chinese and Asian perceptions of what is happening often differ from American or Australian interpretations of events.

The United States has sought to counter China’s military buildup and what it regards as growing Chinese assertiveness in the East and South China Seas. It is worth putting these matters into a broader context. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Chinese military expenditure in 2013 was 11 percent of the world’s total. America’s was 37 percent. There are vast differences in the circumstances of the two countries. America has no military problems on its borders, but claims to have worldwide responsibility and a need to exercise force anywhere in the globe. China has traditionally been, and continues to be, more concerned with its own region. It does have a number of unstable situations on its borders, problems between India and Pakistan, and difficulties with Iran and Iraq, to say nothing of an unpredictable North Korea. These factors alone give China a reason for a significant military force, a reason that the United States does not have.

But, as with Ukraine, relationships with China are also a function of history. The “unequal treaties” forced upon China are distant in our memory, but are deeply relevant to the way China deals with issues at the present time. Because of Chinese withdrawal then and in the years after World War II, during which much of China was ravaged and brutalized by Japanese imperial forces, China has not participated as much to help solve major international problems as a country of its size and stature might be expected to do. What’s more, from China’s perspective, a number of events would be regarded as provocative. First, the United States’ handing of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands back to Japan in 1971 occurred at a time when Sino-American relations hardly existed. There was little thought of the fact that Japan had taken those islands from China in 1895, and it has turned out to have been a provocative decision. It was an event that was ignored at the time, though, as China had no means then of asserting itself.

More recently, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s attempt to get Cam Ranh Bay reopened as a U.S. naval base would surely have been seen by the Chinese as provocative. This was something the Vietnamese had the good sense to reject, on the grounds that Cam Ranh Bay was open to the navies of many nations who might wish to use it. It should not become a base for the United States—or any other country, for that matter. China has welcomed U.S. diplomatic engagement, but at the same time wonders what policy America is actually pursuing—one of consultation and discussion and perhaps collaboration, or one of rearmament, encirclement and containment. Which America is going to win out? The one that wishes to talk, or the one that relies on military solutions?

Many have written about the possibility of war between China and the United States. If left to the two great powers, war could probably be avoided, but with Japan in the equation, it is a different matter. Japan has become more assertive. Far more nationalistic, if you like, with a growing militarism. It already possesses very powerful military forces, with a capacity to develop, in short order, effective and long-range nuclear weapons. Japan claims there is no dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. But this is unpersuasive. For one thing, the United States recently affirmed that its defense guarantee for Japan extends to those islands, thus effectively siding with Japan in that particular dispute. That act was a major strategic mistake by the United States, one that will encourage Japan to be increasingly assertive.