Two years ago, Russian Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev announced to European security officials that the world was entering a new cold war. The message has taken some time to trickle through. Just a decade ago, Australia's 2009 defence white paper warned of China's rising military power and political influence, but the idea was unfathomable to most people. Now the recently released unclassified summary of the US National Defence Strategy, and the US National Security Strategy from which it stems, has removed any doubt: we are back in a sharply competitive global era.
The Cold War comparison seems improbable. Unlike the old USSR, the economies of China and the US are deeply enmeshed. And major war has happily been a distant spectre for many decades – few among the West's modern generations wake up worrying about how to prevent it.
But for China and Russia, the revisionist powers that the defence strategy calls out, a win in this new contest means the ability to dominate the regions of Asia or Europe, and so frame global politics. Just as in the original Cold War, a win for the United States comes in the prevention of a major war.
US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, a man not prone to hyperbole, twice announced the stakes of the contest to a Washington audience last Friday: "Simply, we must be the best if the values that grew out of the Enlightenment are to survive."
The strategic direction drafted by America's foreign and defence policy professionals is remarkably clear. The defence strategy's maxim of being "strategically predictable for allies and operationally unpredictable for adversaries" could be read as a jog to the Trump administration in which the strategy has been formulated. And, of course, the strength of the strategy is reliant on the ability of Congress to fund it, and its commitment to sustain it. Both of these are open questions for a government that's been struggling to pay its own employees.
Expanded system of alliances
Two aspects of the strategy are critical for Australia. The first is its emphasis on a potentially expanded system of American alliances in the Indo-Pacific. Secretary Mattis called for "new partners, maybe non-traditional partners". The most likely new entrant is India, which the National Security Strategy indicated would become a "stronger strategic and defence partner" of the United States.
The United States has been drawing India closer since the second Bush administration. The country was given "major defence partner status" under the Obama administration, and the export of military drones was authorised during Prime Minister Modhi's visit to Washington last year. The Trump administration could well go further and consider the sale of F35 Joint Strike Fighters to India, an idea last assessed in 2011.
Whilst the long-mooted Quadrilateral alliance structure between Australia, India, Japan and the United States still has some political road to travel, expect an intensification of the sub-alliance security web between the Quadrilateral countries. The US has this week sent Secretary Mattis to Jakarta to boost strategic efforts with Indonesia. Further foreign military sales are likely for Jakarta, as well as increased counter-terrorism cooperation. These welcome initiatives will need to be closely coordinated with Australian officials – who were surprised by Apache attack helicopter sales to Jakarta in 2012 – and have worked intimately with Indonesia's counter-terrorism agencies for the past decade.
The second critical aspect of the strategy for Australia will be the somewhat cryptic references to "expanding the competitive space".
This is shorthand for ways in which the US might use economic sanctions against security transgressions. For much of the past decade – at least until the Obama administration was trying to sell the strategic value of the TPP – US officials worked to keep economic and security issues with China in separate lanes.
Now, as Australia's foreign policy white paper accurately portended, we can expect spikier geo-economic statecraft.
President Trump has consistently threatened a tougher stance on trade with China, and last month said "I have been soft on China because the only thing more important to me than trade is war". The year-long pause in any economic confrontation with China is more a reflection of the caution required in a mutually dependent international economy, and North Korean negotiations, than a lack of domestic support for Trump's plans. The US government has just launched what could be the first surgical strikes in a trade war with China, lifting tariffs on imported solar panels and washing machines.
Grand strategic scale
Australia has grown unaccustomed to thinking on the grand strategic scale, where competition and conflict must be considered across a range of intertwined domains. Our recent defence and foreign policy white papers, as well as public debates on foreign influence operations, have been an important corrective in this regard. But Australia still needs to augment its own national security staff, potentially with a national security council, before it can look at the long-term competitive strategies its major ally is now openly discussing.
US national security leaders have watched their allies in the Indo-Pacific pursue a mix of strategic options to hedge against a rising China and a distracted United States. This defence strategy acknowledges the decline in power relativities, particularly in its understated acceptance that the United States can now only fight a major war in one theatre, rather than two. That fact is important to Australian defence planning.
Which strategic theatre the US should prioritise – Europe or Asia – is still not settled. But regardless this defence strategy will seek allies willing to more closely coordinate investment in defence capabilities. More importantly though, it will need its allies to accept the strategy's core political premise – that the very foundations of Western civilisation are under assault.