A caricature of Australian strategic policy since Federation is that we slavishly attach ourselves to the dominant Western naval power of the day in the hope great and powerful distant friends will protect our vast island nation against whatever Asia might throw at us.
These include critics such as Paul Keating, who delivered a scathing assessment of our contemporary foreign policy in his interview at the National Press Club on Wednesday.
These critics argue this might have worked when Britain and then the US were the dominant military and economic powers in the world. But clutching a security blanket from the previous century is unsuitable in an era defined by China’s rise.
Obsolete devotion to the Anglosphere is an easy line to run. However, those who believe agreements such as AUKUS are a foolish retreat into the past tend to treat alliances as if they are as breezy and informal as choosing a new best friend in primary school. The confluence of values and interests that ground genuine alliances does not happen easily or quickly. Japan is the closest we have to an Asian ally and that relationship has taken decades to nurture and mature.
Moreover, the renewed emphasis on our alliance with the US immeasurably enhances our standing and relevance in the Indo-Pacific. It is one reason our strategic relationship with every Asian maritime nation, except for China and North Korea, is in rude health and heading in positive directions. This includes those with which we once had difficult relations such as Indonesia and India. All agree the only great power in the region demanding subservience, and threatening revision of boundaries and maritime territories through force, is China.
Neither is China standing still. Aggressive strategic intent alongside the growing capabilities of a People’s Liberation Army engaging in the most rapid military build-up in peacetime history demands a response.
China spends more on its military each year than the combined outlays of the rest of Asia and Oceania. As the gap continues to grow, there is no prospect of the stability that comes from balance without the US, and the latter needs the territory and assistance of regional allies to remain in Asia. If Britain seeks to add what strategic and technological weight it can through AUKUS, then all the better. The worry for most regional countries is not the unexpected formation of AUKUS but that the latter will amount to less than it is promising.
As for the hardening mood in Australia towards Beijing, there is bipartisan agreement that a region characterised by Chinese pre-eminence might have been tolerable in the past. But Beijing’s determination to exert its influence over the decision-making of sovereign countries is no longer acceptable. Most of the 14 grievances issued by the Chinese embassy as justification for the economic punishments against us concern domestic policy settings. Remaining quiet about issues beyond our borders will not save us from Chinese retribution.
It is not as if Australia is crazy brave and fighting the good fight against the inevitability of Chinese dominance. Along with others, we have agency in determining what the future looks like, whether Beijing can be deterred and smaller states retain their independence of action.
Regional countries fear Chinese coercion but cannot afford to be on the losing side. They are watching and reacting to whether the US and allies such as Australia can provide an effective check against Beijing when the latter is not standing still. The American and allied calculation is that the longer we wait to counter and balance, the more difficult and costly it will be to do so in a future time.
Then there is recent history, which reveals that China ruthlessly pushes forward regardless of the policies pursued by the US and its allies. It’s not as if previous softer mindsets encouraged Beijing to slow down or change course. From this perspective, there is no downside for countries moving urgently to counter the worst excesses of Chinese action.
To submit to a Sino-centric hierarchical order is to accept and internalise the right for Beijing to coerce, dictate and define the terms of any bilateral agreement. Unless Beijing changes, which is not likely in the foreseeable future, an unequal grand bargain will not deliver security, prosperity or stability. Better to stick with old friends and work with new ones to persuade or else compel China to come to a more even-handed and reasonable set of arrangements.