Home .Governing globalization Is Australia merely America's poodle in the Asia-Pacific?
Is Australia merely America's poodle in the Asia-Pacific?
Thursday, 29 March 2012 10:15

Australia is indeed too much of a poodle of the US in the Asia-Pacific region, according to Professor Alan Dupont and many of his Asian interlocutors.

While the US/Australia Alliance is very valuable, Australia needs to be more independent in its defense strategy, and to develop better defense relations with our Asian neighbors, especially Indonesia and China.

Ever since the end of World War 2, the US has been the key to maintaining peace and security in the Asia-Pacific through its alliances and relationships with Japan, Australia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan and so on.  China was basically irrelevant for much of this period, until it started its economic rise.

In tandem with its growing economic power, China has been massively expanding its military spending in recent years. This has made both its Asian neighbors and the US nervous, especially in light of China's bellicose behavior in the South China Sea.  China would be able to project its force into the strategically important Malacca Straits which carry 40% of global trade and 50% of energy trade.  The Malacca Straits and South China Sea are also vital conduits for Australia's trade.

The US is responding to China's increased economic, political and military power by re-centering its military posture towards the Asia-Pacific, as it is winding down its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And Australia's 2009 defense white paper basically identified China has a threat.

In this context, Australia has agreed to a major strengthening in its long-term alliance with the US by buying 12 new submarines and allowing the rotation of 2,500 US marines through Darwin and ships (including nuclear submarines) through Perth.  On top of this, it has just come to light that there is now talk of the US using Australia's remote Cocos Islands territory (which is closer to Indonesia than mainland Australia) for surveillance aircraft and spy flights, including by drones.

These decisions appear like ad hoc responses to US requests, rather than being part of a strategy.  China, which is Australia's most important economic partner, has reacted with displeasure to these various initiatives.  And Australia's Asian neighbors, who are happy to have the US in the region as a check on China, think that Australia has been too quick to accommodate US wishes.  Australia has for some time been regarded as the US's deputy for Asian defense issues. Clearly, Australia has not been active or effective enough in communicating with China and Indonesia on these issues.

So how should an Australian defense strategy, that served Australia's interests, rather than being subservient to the US, be calibrated?

The Asia-Pacific region has seen the virtual disappearance of traditional inter-state warfare.  And yet, Australia's existing military equipment, and planned purchases of submarines and fighter planes are more designed for such inter-state warfare, and may be of greater interest to the US than Australia, with a view to a possible Taiwan Straits conflict.

Now that Australia is transitioning out of Afghanistan, and also facing budget cuts, it is time to be more strategic. Australia's defense forces are likely, as in the recent past, to be called on for messy, complex, irregular conflicts in fragile or failed states.  There will always be surprises like for example East Timor, Bougainville, or the Solomon Islands.

Australia is unique among the advanced economies, in terms of inhabiting a region of the world that is overwhelmingly comprised of developing states, many of which are fragile or vulnerable to internal conficts.  But Australia is under-invested in the necessary equipment (and accompanying logistics, training and extras) for such activities and over-invested in hardware for inter-state conflict.  It needs to strengthen its capabilities for dealing with for messy, complex, irregular conflicts in fragile or failed states.

In its defense strategy, Australia needs to hedge against the possibility of Chinese aggression, even if it is unlikely.  At the same time, however, Australia needs to deepen its defense partnerships with China, Indonesia and other Asian neighbors, in particular, by doing joint exercises and cooperating on natural disaster relief.  Above all, Australia needs to communicate more effectively with China, and to impress on China that it is not considered an enemy.

Many people have different views on the possibility of Chinese aggression.  But what about the risk of external problems caused by possible internal instability in China?

China's political system is on an unsustainable course in light of its rapid economic development and growing complexity of its society. Pressures for a transition to a more pluralist system will only grow.  It is unclear how this will play out.  Internal conflicts and refugees could always spill over borders.  We also need to be prepared for such unpredictable eventualities.  It is not clear to me that much attention is being directed to this question.


Dupont, Alan.  Inflection Point: the Australian Defense Force After Afghanistan.  Lowy Institute for International Policy.  Policy Brief, March 2012.


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