At the same time, China has become the largest trading partner of Australia, outpacing the United States. The China-Australia economic relationship is mutually beneficial since China gets raw materials and Australia gets manufactured goods. China isn’t a clear and present danger to Australia like Japan was in the 1930s, and Australians want to maintain good relations with Beijing.
Australia has traditionally aligned its defense policies with its larger trading partner, but China is an exception. Australians favor the United States retaining its position as global hegemon as they share Americans’ liberal democratic values. Furthermore, Australians believe they will prosper more in a U.S.-led liberal international economic order than under a Beijing-led system. Australia is geographically remote from the main centers of conflict, but is highly dependent on a benign global order. And Australia has participated in these missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and so on, not to counter a direct threat to Australia, but to support and strengthen its partnership with the United States and its allies.
And what does the future hold? The Pentagon’s rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific region may also cause concern in Australia, since the new strategy could undermine Australia’s elite status as a unique U.S. ally in the region. Australia is becoming just one of many U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific region, and the United States might not always take Australia’s side in disputes among them.
With this in mind, military analysts at the conference also displayed an increased interest in ASEAN countries due to their growing economies and increasing desire to balance China’s rise with closer ties to the United States. Even so, U.S. strategists recognized that ASEAN countries want to avoid being in a position where they have to choose between China and United States. For this reason, they stressed the need to avoid an overly militarized approach toward the ASEAN region.
There was also considerable dissatisfaction with the course of the war in Afghanistan. The current U.S. counterinsurgency strategy can’t work until the government of Hamid Karzai performs more effectively at fighting the Taliban guerrillas. Unfortunately, the feeling was that the United States can’t just pack up and leave tomorrow because Americans will be remembered for the way in which they exit. A pullout that resulted in the massacre of pro-government civilians and the suppression of women’s rights simply wouldn’t be beneficial.
The problem of Pakistan also loomed large at the conference, both in its own right and in terms of the war in Afghanistan. It was difficult to see how the United States could prevail in Afghanistan as long as the Afghan Taliban found sanctuary inside Pakistan. Yet, Army strategists appreciate that, from Islamabad’s perspective, it was somewhat rational to work with these groups since they do help counter Indian influence in Afghanistan. In addition, Washington had treated Pakistan harshly in the past, such as by cutting off arms sales and military training in the 1970s and walking away from the Afghan Civil War in the 1990s.
U.S. strategists said they hoped to work more closely with India in the future. A bipartisan approach toward India had clearly emerged, with most U.S. strategists favoring stronger security ties with India. Unfortunately, India had yet to fully reciprocate American interest and were seen as struggling with their domestic problems – including economic inequality, corruption, political infighting, and the transition to a new generation of leaders – which has made it difficult for India to assume the more elevated global role desired by Washington.
All this said, despite the broad agreement on some key issues, there was an interesting note of discord, with some opposition to the Obama administration’s commitment to a nuclear-free world. Some feared that publicly endorsing a world without nuclear weapons was leading U.S. allies to question the credibility of U.S. extended nuclear guarantees. But they also recognized that the United States needed robust conventional and unconventional forces to give the Pentagon options to respond to various scenarios without leaning too heavily on nuclear weapons as deterrents.
Regardless, it’s clear that the diplomatic conversation has moved on from the grand statements heralding a U.S. “return” to a closer look at some of the nitty-gritty details of what it all really means.