A quiet bomb goes off

Tuesday, 5 May 2009 

A coalition opposed to more military spending and a leader who criticises the government’s targeting of China! Who would have thought it? Clearly not Gerard Henderson, who thought Turnbull’s response to the government’s Defence White Paper unexpected and on Sunday, was saying Turnbull’s down-playing of a China threat was overthrowing decades of coalition policy.

In reality, however, the coalition is desperately trying to hold on to a much more fundamental plank in its policy than China-baiting.

To get a sense of the political problem for the coalition, and indeed, for the entire Australian political class, it is worthwhile starting with Turnbull’s speech at the Lowy Institute on Friday. Titled Power balances in Asia: The Coalition perspective, it is supposed to be Turnbull’s first speech on international relations since taking over the leadership. Given the problems he has with it, it is no wonder he has left it so long.

It starts strangely. Reminding audiences of last year’s huge leap in trading with Japan, he complains that “we tend to become a little too fixated on China in our strategic thinking, to the exclusion of other nations and other issues.” But after noting the critical importance of “our strategic partnership with our great ally, the United States – and the web of other US alliances across the region … will remain absolutely critical as far into the future as the eye can see” he then proceeds to take up the rest of the speech talking about China. Why? Because:

… such is the extent to which China has become the headline story in our foreign policy, economic and strategic debates that I feel duty bound to devote much of our time here today to setting out the Coalition’s perspective on how relations with China should best be managed within our broader foreign policy.

Eh? Who is it that has been making such an issue of China over the last few months, that as Turnbull himself has noted, Rudd avoided sitting next to the Chinese ambassador in London, preferring his bestest friend the UK Foreign Minster? The coalition’s attacks on Rudd’s ‘closeness’ to China has now turned into criticism of the government seeing China as a threat, which in Turnbull’s eyes has morphed into one general obsession with China. Yet while accusing the government of singling out China in its defence strategy, Turnbull himself does it in the same speech by opposing Chinalco’s bid for Rio Tinto (it is worth noting that despite Turnbull claiming the problem was Chinalco’s relationship to the Beijing government, all the potential problems with the bid he lists would apply equally to any major privately owned player).

There is no doubt that Rudd has made a big deal of his relationship with China and there is something in Turnbull’s comments that Rudd’s posing of Australia as an interlocutor between China and the US is providing a service that neither power needs.

But Rudd is grappling with an issue that in his first foreign affairs speech, Turnbull refuses to even admit exists. Because the main factor changing the power balances in Asia is not the rise of China. Instead, it is the instability caused by the decline of the most important power in the region, the United States. The waning political influence of the US over the last decade is a global issue. It is an issue in Europe, but is more seen as such because there is no rising power to counterpose it. In the Asian region, however, it is seen through the prism of the growth of what is still a developing country.

It is because this is mainly a political way of getting to grips with the decline of the US, that the focus is almost wholly on China, which has an alternative political system, than say, India, which does not. It is the problem of what to do about the decline in the United States, which is driving Rudd’s ‘middle power’ foreign policy, not because Australia can feasibly act as an independent power but as a way of making itself relevant to the United States as it tries to find an accommodation to the new political realities.

It’s important to note that this is not a straight-forward economic decline. As commentators, especially from the right, like to point out, the US’s economic and military dominance is still there and there is no rival that even gets anywhere near the US in either category. But whereas Britain experienced its political decline long after its economic and military dominance was over, the US is grappling with it prematurely as its ability to impose its political agenda on the global order becomes more difficult, especially since the end of the Cold War. While an open problem during the Clinton-Bush years, the economic crisis has accelerated the process and led to the outbreak of China-fretting amongst our political class.

What is striking about the government’s Defence White Paper, however, is how much this is openly acknowledged. In fact if Turnbull missed it, there it is in the opening preface [TPS emphasis]:

But the biggest changes to our outlook over the period have been the rise of China, the emergence of India and the beginning of the end of the so-called unipolar moment; the almost two-decade-long period in which the pre-eminence of our principal ally, the United States, was without question.

The point is expanded on further in the report:

We also need to consider the circumstances of a more dramatic and, in defence planning terms, sudden deterioration in our strategic outlook. While currently unlikely, a transformation of major power relations in the Asia-Pacific region would have a profound effect on our strategic circumstances. Of particular concern would be any diminution in the willingness or capacity of the United States to act as a stabilising force.

and again:

Since World War II, Australia’s strategic outlook and defence planning have been shaped most fundamentally by the global distribution of power, and in particular the strategic primacy of the United States. The United States has played a stabilising role across the world and especially so in the Asia-Pacific region. This has not, of course, meant that Australia has been able to avoid attending to its own basic defence needs, something successive Australian governments have recognised since the 1970s.

Australia’s strategic outlook over the coming decades will continue to be shaped by the changing global distribution of economic, political and military power, and by the future role and weight of the United States. We are not likely to see the emergence of an alternative political and economic system to rival the network of liberal, market-based democracies that emerged after World War II, as the communist system attempted to do last century during the Cold War. Globalisation will ensure that economic interdependence links states and regions together more closely.

We will, however, see changed strategic power relativities and an increasingly ‘multipolar’ global order, driven by changing patterns of underlying economic power and political influence. Our long-term planning will have to recognise that the range of even moderately likely strategic futures is wide.

and reiterated on page 32, where Australia’s changing role is more clearly set out:

Will the United States continue to play over the very long term the strategic role that it has undertaken since the end of World War II? It remains the case that no other power will have the military, economic or strategic capacity to challenge US global primacy over the period covered by this White Paper. But the United States might find itself preoccupied and stretched in some parts of the world such that its ability to shift attention and project power into other regions, when it needs to, is constrained. This is likely to cause the United States to seek active assistance from regional allies and partners, including Australia, in crises, or more generally in the maintenance of stable regional security arrangements.

Apologies for the slabs of text, but it is just to emphasise how odd it is that the coalition has ignored it, as have the right in the press. From Henderson not a peep, on what just struck Greg Sheridan as incoherence, not a word.

The omission is even more striking because of what this will mean for domestic politics as well. Because this is not just about where or how many Australian ships will be deployed. The decline of the US has profound implications for Australian politics, and not just confined to the coalition that had relied so heavily on it.

From the beginning of white settlement, Australian political authority has relied heavily on overseas power. It is why we are still stuck with a foreign flag in the corner of the Australian one and we can’t seem to shake off that free-loading family from the south-western London suburbs. Nowadays, of course, that authority comes more from the US than the UK and, as we saw with the previous PM, rubbing up close to the US President of the day, can make a conviction politician out of even our most lack-lustre. It is what separates the crowd in Canberra from their increasingly irrelevant colleagues in the state capitals and prevents the Prime Minister from becoming little more than a glorified co-ordinator of hapless State Premiers.

The need of the Dominions for overseas political authority was what allowed Britain to keep the empire charade going well past its sell-by date, but the political authority from the US is becoming less and less available already. It still means Australia is stuck having to haul itself off to every US foreign adventure, like the recent increased commitment to Afghanistan, but the support from Europe, which was supposed to be the precondition for more Australian troops, is not there. In a paper supposedly about military spending, the government has spelled out the number one political problem for the Australian political class over the coming years. Rudd even made a point of it when introducing the paper, although his earlier comments have sunk beneath another wave of China-fretting. But the decline of the US will emerge bright and clear into the sunlight of the Australian political landscape at some point, without a doubt.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 5 May 2009.

Filed under International relations, Key posts

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13 responses to “A quiet bomb goes off”

  1. fred on 5th May 2009 4:44 pm

    Very interesting and thought provoking post.
    Worth a re-read or two I think.

  2. James on 5th May 2009 5:19 pm

    More trouble for Turnbull today, with Bronwyn Bishop saying he’s gone ‘soft’ and people don’t know what the Liberals stand for. Costello must be loving it.

  3. Cavitation on 6th May 2009 11:02 am

    There are three poles that attract or repel us; Britain, the USA and Australian nationalism – Shakespeare, “Batman Returns”, and “Crocodile Dundee”, if you will, or more politically – keep sharing the Queen, elect a president, keep appointing a head of state on the constitutional reform question.

    The coalition have the British pole, the Labor party have the nationalist pole, and the two parties contend over the American pole, normally being anti- when in opposition, but pro- when in power.

    The two parties each have problems because the British and US brands are currently toxic, due to the failure of the ‘war on terror’ (which initially had support from all three poles, but as the US/British overreach in conquering Iraq ended in failure), and especially from the world financial crisis for which Britain and the USA are identified as the source and cause.

    However, the Labor party can still rely on its nationalist stream, for instance, by rolling out a defence plan that returns to the “Fortress Australia” style of the previous Labor government. The Labor party can also renew its pro-American stance now that the USA has a newly elected government which is promoting many of the same policies that the Labor party has been relying upon.

    The Liberal party on the other hand loses the interest of the public, whenever it bangs the drum of the interests of its core supporters. The British model, and the US neo-conservative model, have lost their attraction to the general public, although apparently still keeping their fans within the party’s ranks. The party can only appeal to the public in code, by being anti-China, which pushes the buttons of its pro-British pole, from memories of the British Empire providing support against the foreign so-called “yellow peril”, and also to tap into the nationalist pole and its perceived inherent racism. China is perceived as an American economic ally and so this also reassures its core supporters, who are now turning to anti-Americanism, since the Liberal party is in opposition, and because of the Democratic party government is in power in the USA.

  4. Riccardo on 6th May 2009 2:11 pm

    Interesting comment Cavitation about the Libs turning anti American. They’ve been muted in their criticism of Obama so far (after the humiliation their former leader put them through) but it’ll only take a few months I bet.

    I bet too we’ll see a lot of proxy issues for the main ones – climate change abatement being one of them.

    The Libs have bet on the US taking a less environmentally friendly line than Australia is pushing – but Obama has surprised before and may yet again. What will happen if Obama pulls 25% reduction by 2020 out of his hat? Will it be all the way with the USA?

    Re China, I think the public are seeing that you can’t be both pro and anti China in the same week and that Turnbull isn’t in control of his party.

    What happened to Helen Liu? Supposedly the CCP has a plant inside the Australian Defence Ministers office – but this plant didn’t manage to change the direction of the white paper – or even give the CCP advance warning of what was in it? No amount of favours or free trips managed to get Fitzgibbon to reduce his submarine acquisitions. Liu must have been a very poor investment on the part of the CCP – just like their other poor investment – US Treasuries. Why buy them at the market price when the Bush-Obama currency press prints out US dollars for a few cents a piece?

  5. Riccardo on 6th May 2009 2:15 pm

    Off topic – but if China has pirated Louis Vuitton and Prada and just about everything else – why not do good imitation US Treasury Notes? I remember some 1970s british wartime drama where the hero was a german spy printing british pound notes to cause inflation behind british lines. Economic warfare.

  6. Riccardo on 6th May 2009 2:22 pm

    Sorry for hogging the board – people talk about Australian racism but what is the proportion of Anglo-Celts nowadays? Are they enough to appeal to?

    Many non Anglo people might not care, or positively prefer, if China became more influential and the US less so. Wouldn’t our Arab-Middleeastern-Muslim conglomerate population welcome a decline in US superiority?

    Even our own narratives about what imperialism and colonialism actually mean vary according to who you talk to. Australia becoming a Chinese colony in some distant future might not bother many people. It was afterall, Aboriginal land until taken over at gun point.

    PS, maybe not your expertise, one thing you’ve not mentioned in this post is the CCP’s declining power over the Chinese population. Do people actually fear the Chinese, or as in my case, just fear the CCP, who might do anything to retain power?

  7. DM on 6th May 2009 4:22 pm

    The Liberal party is all confused over this new foreign policy conundrum because as a political party it has never considered seriously the possibility that Australia might actually come of age one day. This is precisely what we are seeing right now, the decline of the last great Western power (the USA) has left our country with no other option but to take the defense of Australia and our own position in the geopolitics of the 21st century into our own hands. What this means is that we will have to forge ever closer ties with countries in our region, especially Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philipines and Thailand as we begin to feel the power of the Chinese hegemon in this part of the world.

    I don’t agree with the comments made above that Australians would not mind becoming a Chinese satelite state. We should be more optimistic than that at this point in our history because for the first time there is no big brother to look over our shoulder, and for the first time we are free to fashion our foreign policy ourselves.

  8. James on 6th May 2009 4:42 pm

    The Liberals have a strategy of trying to create doubts among voters about Rudd’s character and their attacks over his links and responses to China are part of that strategy. It all started in 2007 with their personal attacks over his account of what happened on the farm in Queensland when his father died. Abbott has been particularly vocal about casting dispersions on Rudd’s character. It’s a grubby tactic that’s been spectacularly unsuccessful but the Libs are so desperate, they keep chipping away.

  9. The Piping Shrike on 6th May 2009 6:19 pm

    The argument I am making here is that China is largely irrelevant to all of this. The Australian political class has no choice but to remain close to the US for many years to come, it has no other option. There is no substitute in my view, even regionalism is not an option for any sustained period.

    The question is, what will this mean if the US’s political grip on global politics is faltering? I think the impact on domestic policy is under-rated. Look how Bush’s War on Terror rescued a floundering coalition government.

  10. Tad Tietze on 7th May 2009 8:40 am

    I think you are basically spot-on in your analysis of the White Paper. This is about Australia’s leverage with the US in a time of crisis–what Australia can deliver to them and therefore the greater chance they will deliver to Australia.

    It reminds me of the East Timor crisis in 1989 when Clinton demanded that Howard be willing to commit Australian “muscle” to the conflict before he would throw his weight behind any particular outcome. Now the Australian policy elite is pre-empting any such requests with a fair-sized increase in projective capabilities.

    The relative decline of the US has indeed cracked open the “unipolar moment”. But any Australian military build-up is only likely to increase instability in the region in a situation where the US is no longer as “on-tap” for Australian elite business and political objectives.

    The one thing that most of the analysis got right is that this is a more aggressive *public* stance. The amazing thing is that Australia’s history of military belligerence has been so little criticised in the past.

  11. The Piping Shrike on 7th May 2009 9:50 pm

    The one thing that most of the analysis got right is that this is a more aggressive *public* stance. The amazing thing is that Australia’s history of military belligerence has been so little criticised in the past.

    Yes because it has usually translated through anti-Americanism. I always think of that awful series ‘Vietnam’.

  12. Rx on 8th May 2009 11:06 pm

    When she ceased to be a superpower, the Liberals gave up kissing Britain’s butt. (Except, that is, for the diehard rump of monarchists in the Liberals).

    With America’s days as unrivalled superpower drawing to a close the Liberals will soon find little benefit from kissing Uncle Sam’s bum. In fact, the Rodent’s rather humiliating prostrate sycophancy to GW Bush might well have been the Liberals’ last chance to exercise a crush on a Western superpower.

    They will be on the horns of a dilemma when China takes the mantle. They will be torn between needing to suck up to the new superpower – and Liberals MUST suck up to somebody, living as they do by the mindset: kiss up / kick down … and being loathe to abase themselves before a race and country that isn’t white and doesn’t speak English.

    Just another symptom, among numerous, of the growing irrelevance burying the Liberals.

  13. Ricc on 10th May 2009 10:11 pm

    I’d be happy if they did just call ‘time’ on the whole Anglo-Australian project and just Singaporeanised the whole place. Get the trains running on time. Make the Anglos a significant minority, significant, but a minority.

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