Australia’s Abbott government, the Asia-Pacific region and the ‘China Divide’

South Korean Guardians. Image : Dawn Whitehand

South Korean Guardians. Image : Dawn Whitehand

Prime Minister (PM) Abbott arrived in China after a somewhat successful mission to Japan and South Korea recently, in acquiring trade benefits on some Australian exports. Broadly speaking, his visit to parts of the Asia-Pacific (AP) region has been hailed in the popular press as a high exposure trip, one which offers considerable benefits to Australian merchants in the future and significant prosperity over the next two decades. There have been some losers in the deal such as the dairy trade and of course, rice growers have been essentially ignored, which in some ways is to be expected (especially from Japan) as there is a cultural issue at stake and therefore, rice falls into the zone of being an untouchable and sacred foodstuff that has considerable emotional baggage. In order to understand this precept it’s relevant to ask: “Do Australians have a similar product with the same emotional content? Although not with the same amount of emotional collateral attached, wheat and sugar farmers do lay a substantial claim to their products going beyond just being an export or domestic foodstuff and constantly announce the superior elements of their product; and its connection to Australian farming’s ‘worth.’ Australian wool-growers are another group which offer an emotive-bonding to their product in tune with the ‘sheep’s back’ historical-economic factor.

This is all well and good, however China has been a harder nut-to-crack, notwithstanding the comment about Japan being Australia’s “best friend in Asia”.[1] This was a truly ridiculous thing to say (or imply) by PM Abbott as all it succeeded in doing was overtly singling out a ‘favourite’ in a region that has seething historical animosities, and because of this must demand an incredibly high level of tact, discretion and sensitivity from Australian politicians. This comment was an insult to South Korea and was met with a furious response with the implication that South Korea would essentially find it difficult to engage with Australia on broader security issues in the future.[2] When you need—as Australia does—as many friends in the A-P region as it can get this was a shocking outcome, made all the more problematic when bearing in mind the undeniable fact that the region is incrementally becoming more fractious and tension-filled. Moreover, it is one more step toward a very bad outcome for Australia’s future security, and it is here the reasons for this belief can be examined.

Whilst the above comment has the potential to make future security negotiations more sensitive than they previously would have been with South Korea, it also offers an insight into the naivety of PM Abbott with regard to international diplomacy. However there is a more important issue at stake here. Australia, during the rise of China, will need all of the help it can get when dealing with this massive rise—which to date, the people of Australia, including its politicians, seem to not fully realize the immensity of the issue-at-hand—and moreover, Australia will desperately need every friend it can get in the process of negotiating future outcomes with China. A case in point and good reference here with regard to making friends is to observe how Western governments had to deal with each other during the Cold War during the making and then sustaining the ongoing viability of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). This is made even more relevant when observing the tensions in the Ukraine and NATO’s involvement in the region with the recent incursions by the Russian military. Constant awareness and respect is the key to having the most successful outcome and NATO is constantly aware that negotiation and not ‘playing favourites’ is the key to success for both the warring countries; and the survival of NATO. To be sure, the unified front that will be required in the A-P region, I argue, will dwarf arrangements that have gone before and whilst making and keeping allies remains in the tenet of applying forethought, being respectful, acknowledging inter-region tensions, not igniting old animosities and numerous other social niceties, it is also the actual job of a politician to be acutely aware of their role in any given scenario.

From this point we can return to the issue of why is it of the utmost importance that Australian politicians be mindful of both current and past occurrences when dealing with Japan, South Korea and the People’s Republic of China (PRC)? Especially with the PRC. There are obvious diplomatic criteria which interweave throughout simple decency and respect which Australia demands within the region and therefore it is obvious that South Korea should ask for the same tenet to be applied. There is however, much more at stake for Australia than a ‘mutual respect’ factor being the most important element in regional dialogues, and it is timely to offer a ‘what is about to take place’ some perspective as the A-P region seems to have escaped the focus of politicians—especially the current PM and his foreign minister. There are two issues that will come to the fore and they will place Australia in danger if politicians are unable to negotiate their way forward. The dyad is and remains: as China rises, the United States of America (US) will decline. This will have a remarkable effect on Australia and it needs to be taken much more seriously than has been shown in recent times. A forecast of the future was given a succinct and erudite perspective by the international economist David Hale on Lateline as recently as February 2014. Hale avers

“So there’s no doubt going forward China will be by far the most important military power in this part of the world, and the question is: will the US be in 10 years’ time an effective deterrent? And because of all the pressure on US Defence spending because of the politics in our Congress, we may well fall behind China and have in fact a military capacity inadequate to guarantee Australia’s security or the countries of the region. Here are the numbers. On the current trend line, America’s Defence share of GDP [Gross Domestic Product] will fall from 4.8 per cent of GDP two years ago to 2.6 per cent in 2023. That would be the lowest ratio since 1940, when it was 1.7 per cent of GDP. We had big cuts in Defence spending after the end of the Cold War, but we never went below three per cent. Now we’re going to 2.6. And given all the pressure on Defence spending from the growth in Medicare and other entitlement programs, that number could be by 2030 down as low as two per cent. So it’s a very, very significant change in both countries – China spending more and more, the US spending less and less.”[3]

The issue at hand here is not how much the US spends on its defence budget, as this by definition does not refer to capabilities, but where and when it deploys those assets is what is of interest. The US deploying assets in both Iraq and Afghanistan have been very limited compared to what it is capable of and herein is the problem for Australia. The US deploys the amount of assets it sees fit and is acceptable to the American population just in case the US takes casualties—and the body bags begin to mount—Operation Restore Hope in Somalia (1993), is an example of a deployment gone wrong the body bags coming home. This was followed by a seismic political change by a US administration and the US pulling out. The issue for Australians to understand is if there was a collision with China in the future there is no way Australia could guarantee the US will come to its aid, and moreover if it does, there is also no way of knowing how much the US would commit—and for how long. Hence, the Australian government should not engage in activities that have a negative ripple effect on Australia as this will create future animosities in the region and force China’s hand.

An example of this can be observed in the ongoing tensions between Australia and Indonesia, when the (rightful) anger of Indonesians percolated to the surface in the recent information gathering (read: spying) scandal. Keeping Australia’s neighbours close should be foremost in the mind of this and future the governments, and talking in the way the PM Abbott does offers nothing to encourage respectful political closeness, nor does it pave the way for future meaningful dialogues on issues which Australia and Indonesia may disagree upon. To be sure there has to be at some point, and at some level, an understanding that it is China that is rising in the region—and based on the history of Western governments, in particular the speed with which Great Britain went to war over the Islas Malvinas/Falkland Islands and the demand of the US after the World Trade Center disaster with President Bush’s mandate of you’re either “with us or against us”, it should be further noted and more fully understood that the PRC will be calling Australia to account for its actions. Japan and South Korea, whilst they have been faithful allies will have their hands full with China’s rise which essentially means, they will not be able to come to Australia’s aid militarily if there is any threat of retaliation posed by China, they simply will default to what is good for their populace. More to the point, they do not have the military capacity to enter a long and sustained conflict with such a powerful neighbour.  There is also another reason why Australia-China relations should be treated with the utmost respect, as the situation unfolding in our near-north requires Australians to come to terms with a simple geographical reality: the US is not our near-neighbour This also seems to have escaped the attention of Australia’s politicians and populace however, whether Australians likes it or not, it is and remains a fact.

There is a need at this point introduce and explore another perspective in order to gain a clarity to China’s current and future actions. This can be done by once again offering a perspective to what has become a well-known term: globalisation. What will this mean to the A-P region? Given the large-scale acceptance that the region’s ‘time has come’ a history of what a strong maritime presence offers from an historical perspective can be introduced to highlight the coming dangers for Australia; and to observe what force projection/s can be attained by utilizing this modus operandi. A history of maritime preponderance and the reasons why countries pursued it with such vigour is what needs to be incorporated in any underpinnings of contemporary times as by doing this offers a perspicacious understanding of how it all ‘came about.’ Whilst politics is a global event, and has been since the implementation of sea-faring, the breakthrough came with the invention of what became known as ‘capital ships’[4] or ‘ships of the line.’[5] These ships came to the forefront of power-stakes in the Seventeenth century, in events such as the Anglo-Dutch wars of the mid- to late-1700s. The types of ships which had replaced the galleon were not only singularly a powerful entity but when used as a fleet were able to travellong distances and therefore, were constantly able to maintain and reinforce the power of their admiralty; and the ruler who utilized them. The extraordinary power of these vessels is able to be shown by the English who controlled what was essentially a ‘globalized environment,’ due to the proficient use of their navy established, and then reinforced, their superiority in the world’s sea-lanes. As such sea-lanes became one of the most powerful expressions of control for a country and the corresponding needs and wants of their geo-strategy remained in place. A powerful navy became a defining instrument of a nation-state wishing to exercise influence over others.

The use of sea-power as a weapon of preponderance accelerated after World War One and gained more momentum during and after World War Two (WWII) due to the obvious advances in technology, mechanization and industrialisation. Hence, geo-strategies shifted from Great Britain after WWII and were centred on a new superpower—the US—and with the corresponding containment of the Soviet Union within the framework of preponderance, a powerful navy—especially with aircraft-carriers and their associated battle groups—became a critical part of control and containment exercises within sea-lanes. The US learned the value of the combination of sea-power and mobile carrier-based air-power in the Pacific phase of WWII and it sought to, and been successful at maintaining this from this time. Security issues abounded for those that remained powerful after WWII and the actual and/or perceived rise of Communism were shifted from the spheres of Europe to Asia, essentially because the Soviet Union would not acquiesce to the demands of the West and of course Cuba remained ‘recalcitrant,’ as did the Democratic People’s Republic Korea (North Korea). The British and French too adopted the model of air- and sea-power combinations and were active after WWII–often to appease American demands—however Britain and France did not rise to the stratospheric military heights of the US in the post-WWII world. Briefly, the use of sea-power for instance was put into place in attempting to contain Communism, and the corresponding use of sea-power expanded out from the containment of the Soviets to the Southeast Asian regions. This can be seen in the advent of ‘shooting wars’ such as the Malayan Emergency or the ‘War of the Running Dogs’ (1948-1960) which involved British and Commonwealth forces, followed by the First Indo-China War (1946-1952) which included France, and then the Second Indo-China War—or what the West calls the ‘Vietnam War’ (!962-1973)—to name only a few.

To be sure, the term coined by President Eisenhower of the ‘Domino Principle’[6] fuelled the fires of response that democratic countries should do something about this ‘rising tide’ of Communism before it ‘swept’ through Southeast Asia. As insulting as this term is to the nations of Southeast Asia—in that all Southeast Asians were drawn together or ‘homogenised’ by Eisenhower’s statement—I would argue however, in using this term its ramifications went further, deeming the nation-states of the A-P to be steadfastly incapable of defending themselves against the ‘Communist threat,’ and of taking a different path than their neighbours. Put simply, Asian governments and peoples were, as far as the US was concerned, fundamentally incapable of thinking for themselves and/or acting independently. The ‘herd mentality’ that the West had created with regard to Asians from the 1950s and beyond came to fruition in the 1960s. Whether this attitude evolved through the use of tactics such as ‘human wave’ frontal assaults that the Japanese had used in the Pacific theatre of WWII, or that the Communist forces had used in the Korean War is not a debate that needs to be had here, however it is safe to argue that due to Eisenhower’s statement—one which was reinforced by Kennedy during a speech in the United Nations in 1961 in which he stated if Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam fell to Communism, the gates of defeat for liberal-democracy would be ‘open wide’[7]—the attitude had taken hold in the mindset of the American elite.

Nonetheless, what did US forces utilize in their war on the enemy? Sea-power combined with air-power from both sea- and land-borne assets, such as carrier-based aircraft off the coast of Vietnam and land-based aircraft from as far away as Guam were deployed. This was accompanied by an invasion force of infantry and armour, and assets from other allies. At the end of the day it would fail due to numerous differences in the way the North Vietnamese forces fought back in the South, in terms of waging ‘asymmetrical warfare’; of US aircraft losses in the north; the convincing political suasion in the international arena by the North Vietnamese government; and of domestic unrest in the US socio-political and political environments in the US to name only a few. Other countries took lessons from the Vietnam War, and although some nation-states such as the US (and their allies) in Afghanistan, and Russia in Chechnya, have clung to the fiction that a populace can be supressed for an indefinite period of time, the truth is that ongoing limited wars wear down even the most powerful belligerent both fiscally; and emotionally.

The above examples highlight the intersection of globalisation, the use of sea-power and how the decline of the US, at least in terms of its overarching presence on the world stage, developed and became manifest. There were also other contributing factors which deserve a mention and to round out the analyses of this essay that it was not only a military issue that exhausted the Superpowers. The Soviet Union (in part) collapsed due to Russia having to support its satellite-states and also having to bear the enormous cost of exercising its power preponderance far beyond its borders both in terms of air- and sea-power. The US (in part) collapsed financially from the blowback of recalcitrant populations in Iraq and Afghanistan which refused to see them as saviours and only as invaders; of waging a never-ending war on terror in Pakistan; and the intricacies of the international monetary system placing more and more stressors on the US dollar, which in turn was a blowback from the Clinton administration’s relaxation of financial regulations.

The above can now be seen to neatly conjoin to why China is able to move so directly into its new role as a regional superpower. The above template of the West forcing its hand in the A-P region and beyond has provided a learning experience for an exponentially intellectually growing, global politically active, militarily responsive, and savvy country—at least since the mid-1990s. China slowly and incrementally began to establish itself as a forthright regional actor and is now effectively putting into actions what the West—particularly the US—has taught it. China has begun to lay claims to its ‘historical’ lands and sea-lanes, which in recent times has led to an increased military presence in the South China Sea, Western Pacific, the Taiwan Strait, and the East China Sea. Back to the original point, what does this mean for Australia? China is using a maritime force to establish a significant and ongoing presence in the region, and its extramural incidences will only grow throughout the next decade (and beyond). Crucially though, like America, Britain, France, Portugal and Spain beforehand, China has in mind a long-term vision for the rise of its status as a nation; and its people. The People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) movement into the A-P region in a forthright manner is now a cornerstone of its future plans and moreover, as with the US after WWII it does not see its role as that of having a decade-long agenda, the agenda China has for its dominant role in the A-P is more as a century long timeline—once again not dissimilar to those Western powers that have gone before.

Australia after WWII saw itself as an upcoming regional power, as did the US in terms of a global power. Victory does this to countries in general, and in its aftermath countries jockey for position/s as in this case their post-war ambitions were played out and in the US case this has gone on for decades. Russia also expanded under Communism and drew in other nation-states as it stormed across the Balkan states, eventually culminating in a Soviet Union. Levels of force vary and are used by countries at numerous times in order to express their preponderance. Why would China be any different than those that have gone before with such shining examples as the US re-flagging of tankers in the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Kuwait crisis and, as previously stated, the United Kingdom immediately resorting to force rather than diplomacy in the re-taking of the Islas Malvinas/Falkland Islands. These are just two examples of preponderance manipulation; and of force overriding negotiation.

So what is the main point here? China has learned from these examples – the PRC government is not stepping back from forcing its hand in the A-P region and what is more, it has a long-term plan for regional dominance and this will mean the use of force if the PLAN is ordered to by their government. Moreover, China is fully aware of the perils of the US in terms of its war-weariness as the failures of Iraq and Afghanistan bear out, the immense fiscal problems in the US economy, the belief in the American population that their efforts are under-appreciated if not downright scorned by their allies and their enemies, and the immense friction in both the Middle East and Central Asia that ongoing drone-strikes have caused. China for instance is very active in both soft and hard diplomacy in Central Asia—as it is in other regions— and it is exponentially benefiting from the internal chaos that the strikes are causing and is riding on the back of the hatred the strikes are generating in the domestic populaces of numerous countries. China’s presence in the A-P is not only increasing it is here to stay and it an astute actor and observer in a globalised world. Australians should not underestimate the intensity and the determination China has and will continue to exercise as it mimics those powerful nation-states that have indulged in ‘pax’ before them.

Recently on several programs such as Lateline and Foreign Correspondent the para-navy abilities of the PLAN have been shown and what this underpins is the PRC is deadly serious about making its presence known and of protecting what it believes is its territories and/or rights. The difference between the A-P region and Central Asia is China is beginning to show signs that it is increasingly willing to use force andas such, its para-navy abilities have been utilized against both Vietnam and the Philippines recently. To be sure Australian government needs to interpret this in the most serious of ways and to give it critical thinking far beyond the ‘economic benefits’ that a rising China will bring. This requires the Australian government recognizing that it should not place its A-P neighbours in descending orders of worth as this will create animosity—from which will come a backlash. This is not the 1950s anymore, an era in which Australia could essentially dictate to its poorer regional neighbours about what they ‘should do’ and ‘not do’ and moreover, Australia should become familiar with the idea that if China is not treated with respect it will retaliate and the PRC will not ask Australia’s permission of how hard it will need to act; nor will the PRC take kindly to the notions of Japan and South Korea being given regional preferential treatment. And more to the point, China also understands that there is no solid agreement between the abovementioned nations and Australia that if China chooses to exercise limited force against a Royal Australian Navy vessel or a Royal Australian Air Force aircraft—whilst it would initiate strong condemnations—there is no agreement that demands an instant military response.

China continues to rise and is the ‘elephant in the room,’ of which there has been very little acknowledgement of by the current PM. What if China places pressure on the nations of the A-P to not involve themselves with Australia, and bearing in mind this is a billion-plus people backed up by an extremely effective and forceful navy, what if in order to keep a semblance of regional peace they side with China and exclude Australia from issues such as free trade, ocean access and flight corridor access? Can’t happen? The countries of Africa during the apartheid years refused flight corridor access to South African Airways (SAA) which meant SAA had to fly down the coast of Africa—a costly, long, and fuel-burning haul.   Refusal to let Australian aircraft and shipping could happen. If this were to happen the political immaturity of the Abbott government will have contributed to the state-of-affairs by only concentrating on the economic ‘benefits’ rather than treating the region with the respect it deserves; and the PRC government the dignity it deserves as a country that has excelled in nation-building and has gone on to mirror the ways of the West. The malaise the Abbott government continues to show China displays an incredible naivety with which it treats the region and the abject poverty-of-mind that it has toward the future of the A-P; and Australia’s place in the region.

Footnotes:

[1] John Garnaut. ‘Japan: Tony Abbott must tread lightly on his North-east Asia trip.’ The Age, Fairfax Media http://www.theage.com.au/comment/japan-tony-abbott-must-tread-lightly-on-his-northeast-asia-trip-20140407-zqrwr.html 7, April 2014.

[2] ‘Japan: Tony Abbott must tread lightly on his North-east Asia trip.’

[3] Australian Broadcasting Corporation. ‘China’s economy could overtake the US in ten years.’ Lateline, 12, Feb 2014. http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2013/s3943580.htm

[4] Geoffrey Parker. ‘Ships of the Line.’ The Cambridge History of Warfare. Edited by Geoffrey Parker. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, 120

[5] The Cambridge History of Warfare, 125.

[6] Hugh Brogan. The Penguin History of the USA. London: Penguin Books, 1999, 649.

[7] John Kennedy. ‘Address in New York City before the General Assembly of the United Nations.’ September 25, 1961. United States Government Public Papers. <http//www.jfklinl.com/speeches/jfk/publicpapers/1961/jfk387_61.html>

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One Response to Australia’s Abbott government, the Asia-Pacific region and the ‘China Divide’

  1. A good discourse, and an accurate analysis of the current state of Australian foreign policy in Asia – or lack thereof.
    As you correctly point out, the Abbott government suffers not as much from naivety but a heavily entrenched cultural chauvinism (“They’ll never beat a white man, and besides the Yanks will come rushing to our aid.”)

    Wrong on both counts, especially the latter as even a cursory examination of the ANZUS (AUSMIN) treaty reveals (Article Four).

    Similarly, the Abbott government’s ill chosen strategy of ‘playing favourites’ especially with Japan, seemingly based on Abe’s posturing – which no doubt is spurred on by Washington as part of a revived ‘containment’ policy of the PRC, risks very serious consequences for Australia in the long term.

    As Abe is no doubt privately aware, in the nuclear age it is most unwise to make big noises when you live on a very small island.
    The far right of the PLA would have little hesitation in launching a limited nuclear strike on Japan should tensions lead to armed confrontation, if only to even the score for the ‘carve up’ of China in 1901 and the subsequent invasion by the Japanese in the ’30s.
    Neither the Chinese nor the Malaysians have forgotten the results of the ‘Greater East-Asia Co-prosperity Sphere.’
    Abbott and his predecessor Gillard, seem(ed) blissfully unaware of the ‘abandonment or entrapment’ dangers inherent in smaller power alliances with larger powers – especially superpowers.
    As Malcolm Fraser recently observed, Australia has become firmly ‘entrapped’ in its approach the alliance with the US and should distance itself as soon as possible in order to avoid the very scenario which you have described above.

    Despite what Abbott (or Kerry) might want to believe, China will not be thwarted in its efforts to establish hegemony in the A-P region and will implement its own form of the Monroe Doctrine – declared or undeclared.

    Finally, one can not help but wonder who is advising Abbott on foreign policy? Whoever it may be, they seem to lack not only the analytical ability to plan for long term but also an appalling lack of knowledge of history.
    It would seem at present that there are no longer academics or analysts of the caliber of C.P. Fitzgerald, Percy Spender, Hugh Dunn or even Bruce Grant, but rather advice is drawn from that mythical Australian figure of ‘Snowy on the tram’.

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