Commentary | 21 November 2018

Beware of joining US in a cold war it can’t win

Published in The Australian on 21 November 2018.

Published in The Australian on 21 November 2018.

Australia made a mistake at the APEC summit, a mistake that tells us a lot about how the China challenge is being mishandled.

First, the good news. The agreement announced earlier this month to develop a naval base at Lombrum on Manus Island, which might be home to a permanent Australian naval presence, is a welcome display of initiative from Australia and Papua New Guinea.

The contest for influence and maritime advantage in this region has worked its way into a pattern of action and reaction, with Beijing acting and everyone else reacting. This announcement marks a new stage in the contest, one in which Beijing too will have to respond rather than constantly setting the agenda. But we learned at APEC that the agreement to develop Lombrum was not a bilateral initiative — the US is taking part, too, though we don’t know yet exactly how it will be involved or how much money it is stumping up.

Scott Morrison told the media in Port Moresby at the weekend that the decision to involve the US was a Papua New Guinea initiative. It’s hard to believe, though, that Australia didn’t also have a hand in that decision.

At the very least, we can say with certainty that it wouldn’t have happened without Australia’s consent.

Why was this a mistake? Because it ties a worthy initiative to an American agenda that is high on ambitious and provocative rhetoric but low on substance.

On his way to APEC, US Vice-President Mike Pence told The Washington Post that if China wanted to avoid a Cold War with the US and its partners, Beijing alone must change. The US position, Pence said, was not up for negotiation. China alone had to offer concessions on market access, the South China Sea and on its political interference in the West. And if China was not prepared to concede?

“Then so be it,” Pence said. “We are here to stay.”

Let’s be clear about the full connotations of the term “Cold War”: it means a geopolitical struggle between two great-power rivals competing over spheres of influence, fighting in proxy wars, engaging in arms races, competing ideologically over the political character of the region and even attempting to change each other’s political systems.

Pence’s comments were surprising only in their bluntness. He had made his views on China clear in a speech last month: “China wants nothing less than to push the United States of America from the western Pacific and attempt to prevent us from coming to the aid of our allies. But they will fail.”

Nor is he the first US leader to use a Cold War ideological framing with regard to China. In November 2011, almost exactly seven years ago, president Barack Obama launched America’s pivot to Asia. He said “history shows that, over the long run, democracy and economic growth go hand-in-hand. And prosperity without freedom is just another form of poverty”.

That speech was delivered in Canberra with the Gillard Labor government in office, so there is bipartisan consensus on tying Australia to this Cold War framing.

One wonders, however, if Pence really knows what he is signing his country up to. The same question could be asked of the Morrison government.

Economically, China is much bigger than the USSR ever was, and by some measures it is already the biggest economy in the world. Its military capabilities are growing along with its economic might.

A report released last week by a high-profile independent bipartisan commission in the US concluded: “China already presents a severe test of US interests in the Indo-Pacific and beyond and is on a path to become, by mid-century, a military challenger the likes of which America has not encountered since the Cold War-era Soviet Union.”

The commission may have understated the problem. US naval analyst Andrew Erickson assesses that on present trends, China will have a fleet that its quantitatively and even perhaps qualitatively on a par with that of the US Navy by 2030.

Then there is the question of America’s resolve. There is not much evidence that the US is readying itself for a contest on this scale. Both Pence and Obama have issued strong words when travelling in Asia, but has US policy in the region matched that language? And has any recent US president delivered a speech to his own people to prepare them for a struggle that could be tougher than the 40-plus year Cold War against Soviet communism?

None of this to say Australia should raise the white flag. Australia can still protect its interests in a world in which China has a much bigger say and a region in which it has a much bigger presence. The proposed naval base in Manus can play a part in a defence posture that would make it very costly for China to militarily coerce us — but that’s a much more modest ambition than Pence articulated.

Nor is this an argument for excluding the US from the Manus initiative — PNG and Australia could easily have invited the US to use the new facility once it was constructed.

But before it is even built, we have now associated the Manus base with a struggle for which the US is not equipped and which it is perhaps not even motivated to win.

Sam Roggeveen is director of the Lowy Institute’s international security program