September 27, 2011

Time to Boost US Alliance, Not Weaken It

As Australia and the US reflect on the 60th anniversary of their alliance, the two governments have announced steps to strengthen their security ties. Enhancing joint exercises, battling cyber threats and increasing development co-operation are all steps in the right direction, and the two sides are also negotiating a major agreement that would give the US access to bases in Australia.

While political leaders on both sides, supported by their publics, are pushing our countries closer together, a number of foreign policy experts would prefer that they move further apart. That this would be the case today, as potential security challenges mount in the Pacific and elsewhere, is perplexing indeed. Now is the time to build on the successes of our alliance rather than to view it as a vestige of a world gone by.

Some of Australia's foremost strategic thinkers disagree. In their view, the US is a declining power - "rotting at its core", in the words of Hugh White, professor at the Australian National University's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre - and plagued by intractable economic, political and demographic problems.

Meanwhile, they say, China is on the rise, an economic powerhouse that is Australia's chief trading partner and therefore accounts for a good deal of its prosperity. Canberra, which has instinctively sided with the Americans over the decades, now needs to recalibrate in the face of these facts. It should persuade the US to abandon any hope of primacy in Asia and share leadership with China; if hostilities escalate, Australia should tilt towards neutrality.
To be sure, some top Australian foreign policy experts have rejected this logic. And while an outsider can offer only limited insights into the factors driving core Australian decisions, I would observe that this line of argument relies on questionable assumptions and leads to a conclusion that is antithetical to Australia's natural character.

A key assumption revolves around US decline and Chinese rise. The US has gone through periods of perceived decline before, ranging from Sputnik to the Vietnam loss to the combination of inflation and hostages in Tehran that challenged Jimmy Carter. This time it may be for real; certainly, the US can expect relative economic decline in the face of Chinese and Indian growth rates.

But don't count the US out just yet. Should China overtake the $US15 trillion American economy in coming years, it will have done so with a billion more people than the US and with long-term challenges - including an ageing population, an undervalued currency, insufficient domestic demand and an overreliance on exports - that threaten its growth rate.

In addition, it is often noted that the US spends almost as much on its military as the rest of the world combined. Even with defence spending cuts, the US will maintain unparalleled global reach. And its networks of partnerships and alliances give Washington great advantages over any potential competitors, while China continues to struggle to reassure its neighbours of its benign intentions.

The US and other Pacific powers have wisely chosen to engage China while hedging their bets. In this hedging, the US-Australia alliance takes on great importance. Both our nations, it would seem, should wish China to rise in a region in which the democratic powers are also strong and working together. To face a choice merely between accommodating an adversarial China or resisting its rise would be a major failure of strategy.
That is why Asian powers - including those not traditionally aligned with the US, such as India and Vietnam - are bolstering their relations with Washington. With the possible exceptions of North Korea and Burma, most Asian countries seek a strong, enduring US presence in the region, and they are exploring ways to enhance security ties with the US as their economic relations with China grow.

Should Australia move from a strong alliance towards neutrality just as others are moving to tighten their ties to the US and with one another, it would complicate Canberra's hopes for regional leadership.

Beyond strategic issues lies the question of values. It is sometimes fashionable in rarefied circles to dismiss the role of values in foreign policy. To an outsider, however, it appears they have been at the centre of Australian decision-making for at least a century. How else to explain Australia's joining every major war the US has fought for the past 100 years, including Iraq and Afghanistan? How else to explain polls showing that a majority of Australians would support fighting to repel a North Korean invasion of the south?

Surely, it cannot be based on fear that the Dear Leader would invade Darwin. How else to explain the extraordinary degree to which we cherish our core political and economic values?

The more logical explanation is that Australian foreign policy has been - and will continue to be - driven by a mixture of interests and values, a desire to wield influence commensurate with those interests and values, and a commitment to the rules-based global order and the defence of political liberty. Bolstering the alliance is a good step towards those ends.