Suppose Pauline Hanson, Australia’s populist Senator from Queensland, proposed the following: scrapping the surface fleet, buying a hundred or two F-35s, building 36 submarines, earmarking the army for South Pacific constabulary duty, doubling the defense budget, and developing nuclear weapons. And all premised on the clairvoyant certainty the Americans will be gone from Asia in 20 years. Few Australians, or Americans for that matter, would be saying, “you know….maybe she’s onto something.” Yet, such recent proposals by Hugh White have caused quite a stir in the Australian foreign policy community. Numerous and highly capable Australian analysts have dissected Mr. White’s recommendations. However, since we are Americans, our analysis will focus on the underlying premise of U.S. abandonment of Australia.
It is rational for Australian defense planners to contemplate potential scenarios where Australia may need to provide for its own defense without the U.S. being in the fight. But planning for an increasingly multipolar Asian order doesn’t require that one must assume U.S. abandonment. To be sure, the specter of abandonment has haunted security alliances throughout the history of international relations, including the U.S.-Australia security alliance. However, it would be strategic malpractice for Canberra to radically shift its national defense strategy based on such tenuous assumptions without empirical evidence and compelling logic. While we can not eliminate uncertainty, we can objectively assess risk and there are no foreseeable scenarios involving U.S. abandonment of Australia to which one can assign a high degree of probability.
In short, for the U.S. to abandon Australia is to abandon its national interests, strategic position and credibility in Asia. Indeed, the U.S.-Australian alliance has long served as an essential component of American grand strategy in Asia that seeks to prevent another great power from establishing regional hegemony, maintain an open multilateral trading system, and guarantee the freedom of navigation and overflight. The foundation of U.S. power in Asia for over 70 years has been the so-called hub-and-spokes security architecture consisting of bilateral defense treaties and forward deployed military forces – of which Australia is an indispensable partner.
As long as U.S. security treaties remain in force and America maintains its forward deployed force posture in the Asia-Pacific, it is highly likely if not a near certainty that the U.S. would intervene militarily to defend Australia in the event of a direct attack by China – or even the threat thereof. Despite the hand wringing over U.S. credibility and resolve, the enduring strategic value of the U.S.-Australian strategic alliance is something Australia can count on.
So what is the probability of the U.S. terminating its regional security alliances, withdrawing all forward deployed forces, and abandoning its strategic position in Asia to China in the next 20 years? Such a such a scenario is not inconceivable but is highly improbable. Even if peace breaks out between Seoul and Pyongyang setting the stage for the potential withdrawal of U.S. military forces from the Korean peninsula, or as the U.S. distributes forces from Okinawa to Guam and beyond, there is still the problem with China seeking to dominate the region. Thus, the U.S would still maintain its regional security alliances with a forward deployed force in mainland Japan and rotational forces in Australia. The alternative is to acquiesce to PRC pressure – and slink back to Hawaii or the West Coast. Washington shows no sign of doing that.
But what if the U.S. radically shifts to an “offshore balancing” or other economy of force strategy with the expectation of using Australian and other regional powers such as Japan to check China’s ambitions? Since there is no combination of regional powers – even if nuclear armed – that could withstand an onslaught from the PRC, the U.S. would soon find itself backpedaling to reassure nervous allies. The alternative is at best fighting its way back across the Western and South Pacific – assuming that’s possible once the PRC fills the void – including political and psychological – caused by talk of or an actual U.S. “downsizing” in the region. Ultimately, the U.S. will continue to have vital national interests to uphold considering the importance of Asia to American prosperity and economic security. And it cannot maintain these interests without something akin to the existing regional defense arrangement.
Washington is Getting Real, Will Canberra?
Even more to the point, while domestic political fights in Washington over Asia policy are inevitable, there is no broad-based and powerful coalition hell bent on dismantling the U.S. security architecture in Asia or upending the U.S.-Australia security alliance.
Over the past few years the naively optimistic yet Wall Street friendly “responsible stakeholder theory” has been discredited and grandiose dreams of a G-2 world mugged by reality. In their place is a growing bipartisan awareness in Washington that the U.S. and China have entered a protracted period of strategic competition across multiple domains (i.e. geopolitical, military, diplomatic, economic, financial, technological) that will likely last decades. The question has become not whether the U.S. should check the PRC’s revisionist – and potentially violent geopolitical ambitions, but how and at what cost?
But is it possible the U.S. could inevitably find itself so overmatched by Chinese power that it is ‘bulled’ out of the region – even if it wishes to remain? This is not inevitable and is only likely to happen if the U.S. allows it to happen. Despite the PRC’s rapid military buildup and attendant economic growth over the last twenty years, the United States still has a strong hand to play.
Besides having considerable military and economic power of its own, the U.S. network of treaty allies and security partners along with forward deployed forces overcomes the otherwise daunting tyranny of distance and provides several geographical advantages. While China has the geographic advantages of being a resident power with shorter lines of communication and continental strategic depth, it has long been “hemmed in” by the First and Second Island Chains which are controlled by the U.S and its allies. The PRC also has fewer friends willing and able to fight and die for Chinese hegemony. In fact, Beijing bared its fangs about a decade too soon – and few regional nations have doubts about Chinese ambitions and even fewer are asking the U.S. to withdraw from the region.
A shift to offshore balancing would flip the current geographic advantages in favor of China and substantially raise the costs in both blood and treasure for the United States to intervene military to fulfill the role of balancer. Instead, Washington should strengthen its web of treaty allies and emerging security partners – facilitating greater cooperation and interoperability between and among them – with the key objective of holding the line at the First and Second Island Chains.
The Mateship Starts To Thicken
Rather than planning for U.S. abandonment and Chinese hegemony as inevitabilities, Australian defense strategists should become advocates for an even stronger U.S.-Australian alliance. Beyond an already solid, decades-old defense relationship, recent developments suggest that Australia’s role in the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy is set to deepen and that the U.S. is digging in rather than withdrawing. The large-scale biennial Talisman Sabre exercise that kicked off recently in Queensland involving Australian and US Navy and Marine forces with its largest ever Japanese amphibious contingent highlights increasing interoperability. This display follows the respective naval and air forces of Australia, the U.S. and Japan working together during the recent Pacific Vanguard and COPE North exercises in Guam. Expect more of this, not less.
Meanwhile, the Marine Rotational Force – Darwin is picking up speed and within a few years will fully expand to 2,500 U.S. Marines on the ground for six months of training during the dry season. And there is talk of building a port about 40 km northeast of Darwin – ostensibly for civilian-military use – that will allow U.S. Navy amphibious ships to port nearby the Marines. One can foresee a year-round American presence with U.S. amphibious forces operating farther afield in SE Asia during the wet months – and it’s likely Australia’s and possibly Japan’s amphibious force will be linking up. And, don’t be surprised if longstanding talk of basing US submarines and surface combatants for rotations at HMAS Stirling in West Australia comes to fruition.
It is also possible the historic “mateship” will grow beyond traditional defense and intelligence cooperation and include the realm of geoeconomics. There are positive signs that is already happening with Australia, Japan and the U.S. signing the Trilateral Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to operationalize the Trilateral Partnership for Infrastructure Investment in the Indo-Pacific in late 2018. Related to these efforts, the U.S. announced that it will also partner with Australia and Papua New Guinea in upgrading the Lombrum Naval Base on Manus Island in addition to the goal of increasing electricity connectivity of PNG from 13 percent to 70 percent by 2030. Many more such initiatives and committed funding are needed to promote high quality energy and infrastructure projects as an alternative to China’s Belt and Road program with a particular focus on Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.
All things considered, if the US is planning on retreating from Asia – and leaving Australia in the lurch – it has a strange way of showing it. A great strategic opportunity is in play if Washington and Canberra choose to seize it. But for Australia to operate based on an unfounded fear of abandonment is not a strategy for victory or perhaps even survival.
Jeremy Maxie is a policy analyst and political risk consultant. He is currently an Associate at Strategika Group Asia Pacific.
Grant Newsham is a retired U.S. Marine Officer and is currently a Visiting Scholar at National Chengchi University in Taipei, Taiwan.