Inside Story

Punching at exactly our weight

How should Australia respond to the changing power balance in the region, asks Brian Toohey

Brian Toohey 8 September 2010 1832 words

US defence secretary Robert Gates has cancelled production of the F-22 fighter (above), the plane best suited to air-to-air combat against the Chinese air force. Matt Hintsa/Flickr

“The government is of the opinion that discussion of [the ANZUS treaty’s] meaning is almost certain to narrow its meaning… We will only tend to embarrass each other if we try, whether in public or private, to explore such topics. In the government’s view such exploration is bound to weaken rather than strengthen the reliance we can place on ANZUS.”
— Sir Garfield Barwick, Minister for External Affairs, October 1963

IT’S A PITY Sir Garfield didn’t share this powerful insight with the Australian public rather than confining it to a minute to his department. His candid assessment of the elusive meaning of the ANZUS treaty has ongoing relevance to the current Australian debate about the challenge posed by China’s growing economic and strategic power. Barwick wrote the minute after American officials made it plain in high-level talks that ANZUS did not oblige the United States to send troops to help Australian forces during Malaysia’s “confrontation” with Indonesia. His department didn’t really need to be told. Senior diplomats were well aware that the United States had been a reluctant party to the 1951 treaty and only signed after ensuring that the wording precluded an automatic security guarantee.

The only clear obligation imposed by the treaty is in Article One, which forbids the “use of force in any manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations” – a prohibition that George Bush and John Howard violated without a moment’s thought when invading Iraq in March 2003.

As Barwick acknowledged in the minute, “In practice, each of the parties to the ANZUS Treaty is going to decide whether to take action under the treaty according to its own judgement on the situation that exists.” The Menzies government did not invoke ANZUS when it committed troops to the Vietnam war, even though many Australians wrongly assumed the deployment was required by the treaty. Starting on a small scale in 1962, the commitment eventually involved 60,000 troops, 521 of whom were killed and over 3000 wounded. In this context, perhaps Barwick was politically smart not to let the public know that the United States had refused to provide troops to support our diggers in Malaysia in 1963 – or share his conclusion that any attempt to discuss the meaning of the ANZUS treaty would only weaken the reliance we could place on it.

But this is no excuse for today’s political leaders not being more forthcoming. It is difficult to think of a prime minister who has behaved in a more pragmatic manner than Julia Gillard. She would have no trouble understanding that future US presidents are likely to act, first and foremost, in their own political interest (depicted as some version of the national interest). There is nothing wrong, or surprising, about this. It is simply naive to expect a future president to say, “This will cost me the next election. But let’s save some Aussie butts because a prime minister, whose name I’ve forgotten, once sent a handful of troops to a war that we were stupid enough to waste trillions on thirty years ago.”

If a future president does commit troops, it won’t be because Australia paid an insurance premium for US protection by sending troops to Iraq or Afghanistan. Howard got a typical taste of presidential reluctance to despatch troops to every hot spot around the globe after he said he wanted US “boots on the ground” in East Timor in 1999. President Bill Clinton refused, but his officials still played a highly effective role by warning the Indonesians not to escalate the violence committed by its militia groups in East Timor.

There is no question US forces could have intervened decisively, if needed. But the uncontested ability of the United States to project power to the four corners of the globe is gradually fading, not least because it can’t afford to keep borrowing huge sums from China to fund a sprawling military empire that includes more than 700 overseas bases. No one who wants to see a socially cohesive and culturally vibrant America can reasonably demand that its political leaders should damage the economy by continuing to spend more on defence than the combined total for the next thirty-four biggest spending countries.

According to London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, the United States spends 4 per cent of its GDP on defence, Australia 1.9 per cent, NATO (excluding the US) 1.6 per cent, Russia 1.5 per cent, China 1.4 per cent, Canada 1.3 per cent, Indonesia 1 per cent and Japan 0.9 per cent. Although it is often claimed that China spends a lot more than 1.4 per cent, this figure is roughly in line with the estimate of Australia’s Defence Intelligence Organisation.

China has no overseas military bases. Although Beijing vigorously asserts its longstanding territorial claims in the South China Sea against counter-claims by Vietnam, the Philippines and others, the CIA assesses Beijing’s overall military stance as defensive, including its development of naval forces to ensure that choke points along its shipping lanes remain open. So do Australian intelligence agencies. Likewise, US defence secretary Robert Gates says he’s unconcerned and has cancelled production of the F-22 fighter, the plane best suited to air-to-air combat against the Chinese air force. For its part, China seems relaxed about the vulnerability of its small number of long-range nuclear missiles to the combination of the United States’ growing missile defence shield and its massive first strike capability.

AGAINST the backdrop of the non-binding nature of the ANZUS treaty, two former Australian defence officials, Hugh White and Mark Thomson, recently made important contributions to the debate about how best to respond to the changing power balance in the Asia Pacific region (assuming China does not collapse).

White, now a professor of strategic studies at the ANU, argues in the latest Quarterly Essay that Australia should try to persuade the United States to relinquish its position of primacy in the region and share power with China and other major countries in a “Concert of Asia,” based on the principles of the charter of the United Nations. Titled Power Shift, the essay doesn’t treat China’s rise as a threat to Australia, but says it will involve some discomforting changes for policy makers after decades of US primacy. Thomson, who is now a military analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, agrees that US power is declining relative to China’s. Even so, he argues in a recent conference paper, Australia is spending too much on defence.

White admits that his argument about why the United States should voluntarily share strategic leadership in Asia won’t go down well in Washington. And it will also be hard to get Gillard to engage with the argument when her instinctive political reaction is to stress her determination to march in lockstep with the United States. Yet, White says, “As Asia’s strategic plates shift, trying to preserve the order that has worked so well for us until now might be worse than futile.” He sees five options for Australia – remain allied to America, seek another great and powerful friend, opt for armed neutrality, build a regional alliance with our Southeast Asian neighbours, or do nothing and hope for the best.

Although White is ambivalent about the best course of action, it’s hard to see any urgent need to embrace neutrality while the American alliance contains ample scope to do what we want. We can refuse to participate in acts of strategic folly such as the invasion of Iraq and withdraw Australian troops from Afghanistan. If Washington applies unacceptable pressure then White’s other four alternatives can come into play.

He points out that a lot would change if we remained a close American ally while it was perennially at risk of war with China. “The costs would be enormous,” he writes. “In an intensifying conflict, our trade relationship with China would, of course, collapse, and relations elsewhere in Asia would become more complex. We would need to do more to support the US militarily… and, if war came, send big contingents of our armed forces to fight.”

Seeking other allies also involves the risk of being dragged into conflicts we would rather avoid, he adds. At least for the present, the US alliance can provide some advantages in terms of intelligence sharing and access to military technology. But the value of this material should not be overstated. Shonky intelligence can be used to manipulate Australian policy and public opinion, and the rubbish masquerading as US intelligence played this role before the invasion of Iraq. Not that Howard needed much manipulating; he didn’t even bother to ask the Defence Intelligence Organisation, which would have given him a far more accurate picture.

White wants the arguments for armed neutrality, or even a drift to unarmed neutrality, to be taken seriously. Although defence department strategic analyses over many years have concluded that a successful invasion of Australia would be a massive task, complete disarmament would not seem a prudent option. But there is no reason to expect that armed neutrality would require an increase in the level of military spending to provide a highly formidable deterrent against attack.

Mark Thomson makes the point that the fears of many Australians are unwarranted. “None of the countries in our region have a snowball’s chance in hell of mounting a serious attack on Australia,” he says. “And even if we were to slash our current air and maritime capabilities in half tomorrow, that would not change. What’s more, and contrary to breathless tales of rampant military modernisation, most countries in the region are making minimal investments in the sorts of capabilities that could be used to attack Australia.”

Thompson rejects the 2009 defence white paper’s claim that Australia could be attacked by a major power such as China during a war with the United States. “If the US is fighting a war with China, the last thing that the Chinese are going to do is waste resources and launch physical attacks on us 7000 km to their south,” he says. “To do so would be to abandon all of the limited advantages they have due to geography and expose themselves to all of the strengths of the US. We are simply not that important, nor are they likely to be so stupid.”

The white paper also justifies expanding Australian forces on the grounds that it would to add weight to the US military position in the region. Although Australia can’t make a difference, argues Thomson, “Notions of ‘punching above our weight’ pervade our self-image as a nation.” In his view, Australians find it difficult to accept that “we have as much chance of using armed force to shape the future of Asia as Belgium has of doing so in Europe.” He ends his paper with this warning: “Unless we admit this to ourselves, and adjust our defence plans accordingly, we will spend a great deal of money in the years ahead for no appreciable benefit to our security.” •