Wednesday 02 Dec 2020 | 05:30 | SYDNEY
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About the project

The 2016 Defence White Paper describes a rules-based global order as a “fundamental strategic interest”. 

This project, supported by the Department of Defence’s Strategic Policy Grants Program, aims to lead a national debate on the rules-based order and its implications for Australian security and defence. It will connect the legal, political, and historical debates about the nature of the global order with the practical realities of Australia’s strategic environment. It will address how the order can evolve to meet new technological challenges and modes of warfare, including grey zone operations.

Cover image: Official U.S. Navy / Flickr

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Who will be the 21st century’s rule maker?

Mike Mazarr and I are debating the way Asia will be “governed” in future. That term needs to be placed in quote marks because international affairs aren’t analogous to domestic politics – there is no supreme sovereign authority with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, so states compete for status and influence. And yet the system is not purely anarchic; it has the characteristics of a loosely knitted society whose members subscribe to a common set of rules and practices.

So what is at stake in this debate is the question: who gets to make the rules?

Mazarr argues that the US has an advantage in the contest with China to be Asia’s rule-maker. Washington’s legacy, he says, is an order which has achieved legitimacy and free consent from allies and partners, and which boasts “mutually beneficial economic, business, social and cultural, and military networks”. This, he says, will give the US “tremendous competitive advantages in the rivalry with China – if we do not abandon it”.

I would grant much of that, but there’s a contradiction in Mazarr’s argument. If the post-war US-led order remains as attractive to Asian states as he claims, we wouldn’t need to be debating whether China’s rise poses a threat to that order. Yet clearly there is a leadership contest afoot.

China is unlikely ever to become the dominant power in the region, despite its size. Rather, it is more likely to be first among great-power equals such as India, Japan, Russia, and in future perhaps a unified Korea as well as Indonesia.

The advantages of the American-led order remain clear to its allies in Asia – Japan, South Korea, and Australia have a clear preference for the system the US has built and the liberal principles on which it rests. India and Singapore would doubtless feel the same.

But countries such as Cambodia, Myanmar, and the Philippines can’t be counted in that company – they are already moving into Beijing’s orbit. Why? It may be because they have less affinity for the kind of liberalism America represents, and because they have benefitted less from the rules-based order the US established. But economic leverage is surely a more decisive factor – they cannot afford to exclude themselves from the opportunities offered by the Chinese economy. US-allied powers are also finding it increasingly difficult to reconcile their strategic affinity with the US and their economic ties with China. This is why, in my earlier piece, I argued that the attractiveness of the American-led system won’t be as decisive as Mazarr hopes. Sheer economic weight will be more important in deciding the question.

None of this is to deny Mazarr’s argument about the importance of legitimacy in building a sustainable order. In a 2017 exchange with Professor Hugh White, I made a case for the importance of what I called “authority” in the regional order. For such an order to be sustainable it must be more than an assertion of raw power by the nation which leads it; it must become something like a constitutional order in which power is exercised through settled rules, practices, and rituals.

It was difficult enough for the US to build an order of that kind in Asia. It first had to win a global war of catastrophic scale, then use its economic might to drive the creation of a new economic settlement, and thereafter manage the order through a combination of deft diplomacy and force. It will be even harder for China because, as Mazarr points out, it lacks moral authority as a regional leader.

But more importantly, China is unlikely ever to become the dominant power in the region, despite its size. Rather, it is more likely to be first among great-power equals such as India, Japan, Russia, and in future perhaps a unified Korea as well as Indonesia.

For most analysts, it goes without saying that the US will be part of this group, but to my mind it is an open question, though probably one for another debate. For the purposes of this discussion, it is enough to say that even if the US remains an Asia-Pacific power, it will be relatively diminished, simply because it won’t be able to match the growth rates of the others. In the first instance, by “others” I mean of course “China”, but over the first half of the 21st century, India may well enter the contest for regional leadership.

So for those who, like Mazarr and myself, see the value of a rules-based order when the alternative is a purely anarchical system in which force (of the threat of it) decides the major issues, the question is how you build a legitimate regional order when there is likely to be a perpetual contest for leadership and influence among the great powers.

My answer is that the overarching task of this order must be something that all the major-power participants can agree on. That basically precludes the idea that the rules-based order can be “liberal”, because China will reject this for as long as Western powers insist on it (in fact, it’s not even clear that India could be brought on board with such a project).

But one thing all these great powers will continue to have in common is a desire to avoid war between them, so that’s where the focus ought to be.

Some might say that is a modest ambition, but that’s a criticism reflecting a period of post–Cold War US hegemony in which there were no competing great powers, and more ambitious purposes could be pursued and occasionally imposed on weak states such as Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. But those days are over, and nothing could be more urgent and important today than ensuring that Asia’s major powers never fight a potentially catastrophic war between them. 

Power and legitimacy go hand in hand

I was delighted to read Sam Roggeveen’s thoughtful reply to The Interpreter article by Ali Wyne and myself about the relative qualities of US and Chinese power. Roggeveen makes good points; I agree, for example, that US military power has been critical to the post-war order. But I remain convinced that the United States has a truly distinct approach to power, that it has made all the difference in the post-war world, and that we abandon it at our peril.

Roggeveen makes two basic assumptions. One is that the United States is a merely a standard-issue great power like China, not inherently more legitimate or appealing. The other is that US power stems from military force more than an attractive network.

On the first point, he contends that the US global position reflects “a history of military victories and colonial acquisitions”, and that “America’s support of liberal values has been hugely selective”. That’s true to a degree. But there is still a meaningful, indeed stark difference in the approach to power between the United States and China.

Looking only at US global military posture discounts the fullness of the US-led post-war order. Its international economic institutions and processes encompass most of the world’s nations.

Whatever America’s flaws and crimes – and there are many – it is a free and open democracy; China is an increasingly dictatorial autocracy. America has had episodes of ethnic cleansing in its history; China is pursuing such a strategy today, in Xinjiang. The US government has used propaganda and public diplomacy to advocate for its values; China is actively suppressing contrary views in other countries. The United States is a vibrant, diverse society with literature, entertainment and ideas consumed the world over, a nation whose values serve as a beacon to hundreds of millions; China has magnificent cultural expressions, but no such general appeal.

Roggeveen sees the United States and China as less distinct than this. He argues that, “To a large degree, all great powers act alike.”  To a certain degree, yes, but the more important truths can be found in the distinctions among the beliefs and behaviour of great powers. All of them seek influence; not all seek it like Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan. All desire control over their periphery; not all pursue such control as the Soviet Union did. All seek economic advantage, but not all do so in the fundamentally discriminatory and larcenous manner of China.

As the Lowy Institute’s Michael Fullilove argued in a recent Atlantic article, “The genius of America’s conduct after the Second World War lay in the fact that, as the historian John Lewis Gaddis observed, Washington established ‘hegemony by consent.’” That’s exactly right, and it is the route to a more legitimate form of authority.

Roggeveen’s second point – that “victory in great power games has rested on military might far more than the attractiveness of a leadership model” – doesn’t match the historical record.

First, ample historical evidence suggests that success in great power rivalries stems mostly from domestic economic, technological, and social strength and stability, which provide the fuel for competitive advantage. If modern rivalries were decided by military might, the Soviet Union would have won the Cold War.

Second, looking only at US global military posture discounts the fullness of the US-led post-war order. Its international economic institutions and processes encompass most of the world’s nations. US-based rule-setting processes and organisations govern everything from financial transactions to Internet domain name-setting to quality control standards.

Third, Wyne and I did not argue that military power isn’t important – only that the US approach to power is more about creating networks of mutual benefit and attraction than outright coercion. Military alliances, as well as the broader web of security cooperation and military engagement conducted by the United States, are forms of mutual advantage. They have played a crucial role in those attractive networks; far from denying our thesis, they represent a strong argument for it.

Roggeveen concludes that the competition will not be determined by “whose model of leadership is more attractive, but which of the two competitors is prepared to take the biggest risks, and make the biggest sacrifices, to secure leadership”. But risk-taking alone does not lead to competitive success. It can often backfire, especially if the risks take the form of military coercion and political interference. Russia’s standing is weaker today because of the price it has paid for its invasion of Ukraine; the US competitive position, as Roggeveen rightly points out, was deeply injured by the tragic decision to invade Iraq.

Henry Kissinger, in his latest book World Order, argued for a critical balance in any international system between two critical ingredients – power and legitimacy. Expressed in its best forms, America’s post-war theory of power, embodying a deep concern for legitimacy but backing it with potential military force, has struck this balance extremely well. By serving as the architect of mutually-beneficial economic, business, social and cultural, and military networks, the United States has recruited a set of global allies, partners, and friends, as well as achieved a predominant position in rule-setting networks, that would be the envy of any prior great power. This hugely successful approach can furnish the United States with tremendous competitive advantages in the rivalry with China ­– if we do not abandon it.

US-China competition in Asia: Who risks wins

If Australians could rely on the US to remain the uncontested most powerful state in our region, and the preferred security partner for our neighbours, we would be mad not to want a future like that.

Maintenance of the post-Second World War American-led order in Asia has required major sacrifices at times, most notably through Australian participation in the wars in Korea and Vietnam, but also other conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Yet overall it has been enormously beneficial for Australia. With the US as unrivalled regional leader, Australia has been able to maintain relatively modest defence spending, and enjoyed an extended holiday from having to think about serious threats to its sovereignty and territory. 

All of this illustrates why the argument made on The Interpreter last week by Michael Mazarr and Ali Wyne is so seductive. Mazarr and Wyne argue that in an age of strategic competition with China, the US ultimately has a better and more attractive proposition to sell: “power is likely to be more sustainable when exercised within and reinforced by a shared system of mutual benefit … (and) … the US helped to build precisely such a system in the form of a post-war rules-based order, one that endures as a profound US competitive advantage”.

But Mazarr and Wyne build their case for the sustainability of the US-led order a bit selectively. They acknowledge that …

… the US has often applied overwhelming military force – and used coercion more generally – to maintain its leadership position. More fundamentally, though, it has adopted a persuasive and communal approach to wielding its power, working to fashion a system that others across the world seek to join.

But to say that the US has used military force to maintain its leadership is an understatement. In fact, the US-led order in Asia is impossible to imagine without the use of overwhelming US force because force was so decisive in its very creation. Run your eye down a list of US places, bases, and allies in the Asia Pacific – Japan, South Korea, Guam, Hawaii, the Philippines, even Australia – and you quickly realise that it reflects a history of military victories and colonial acquisitions.

The two key questions for America’s allies in Asia are how long do they want to maintain a US-centred strategic posture, and when do they start preparing for a post-American future?

Mazarr and Wyne correctly point out in the passage quoted above that these arrangements have since been maintained largely by free consent between sovereign governments. Still, they imply that America’s persuasive powers have been more important than its military power, but it’s not clear the historical record can sustain that judgment.

If Mazarr and Wyne have understated the role of military power in Asia’s US-led order, this raises a question: what happens to the order the US created when it is no longer the leading military power? It is tempting to respond that the order will be overturned, because in the end what matters is not norms or values but power. Yet precisely because of the different distribution of power, China can’t do today what the US did in the 19th and 20th centuries, since the US and several regional great powers will constrain its behaviour. As China commentator Tanner Greer puts it, “Beijing is well aware that if it decided to do to Tonga now what the United States did to Hawaii more than a century ago it would mean war.”

Mazarr and Wyne close by arguing that President Donald Trump is undermining the attractiveness of the US leadership model, but this lets Trump’s predecessors off too lightly. It is true that many nations, Australia foremost among them, have benefited from US leadership which has “deepened connectivity between market economies” and that the “norms-based international system has provided the United States with a degree of legitimate authority”. But we shouldn’t overstate the degree of this legitimate authority. America’s support of liberal values has been hugely selective in the post-Second World War period. The most egregious contemporary example, and a continuing stain on American moral authority, is its support of Saudi Arabia. But in Asia, too, the US has lined up with authoritarian governments in Taiwan, South Korea and South Vietnam. The 2003 Iraq invasion is perhaps the biggest blow to the rules-based order in the post-Cold War era.

None of this is to argue that a Chinese-led order in Asia would be preferable than the current arrangement. It is only to point out that the transition may be less brutal than we imagine because to a large degree, great powers all act alike. And yes, there will be a transition, because what will ultimately decide the question of strategic leadership in Asia is not whose model of leadership is more attractive, but which of the two competitors is prepared to take the biggest risks, and make the biggest sacrifices, to secure leadership. 

As I have argued elsewhere, there are five good reasons to think that the US lacks the political will to stage a full-scale strategic contest with China. For Beijing, on the other hand, the motivations are obvious: no nation of its economic rank will want to remain a second-rate strategic power in its own region. The two key questions for America’s allies in Asia are how long do they want to maintain a US-centred strategic posture, and when do they start preparing for a post-American future?

The real US–China competition: Competing theories of influence

Strategic competition between the United States and China has come to dominate US foreign policy debates. That competition is multifaceted – while rooted principally in a quest for economic pre-eminence and technological mastery, it possesses increasingly important military and ideological components. But it may ultimately turn on a basic question: which country has a more sustainable concept of national influence?

The US has often applied overwhelming military force – and used coercion more generally – to maintain its leadership position. More fundamentally, though, it has adopted a persuasive and communal approach to wielding its power, working to fashion a system that others across the world seek to join. The institutions, processes, and rules it has fostered have produced a powerful gravitational effect, largely because they have offered others – even detractors – an opportunity to advance their own security and prosperity. In the 1990s, the attractiveness of the US-led model was even clear to China, which made a sustained effort to join the World Trade Organisation, asserting at the time a willingness to be bound by its rules.

Power is likely to be more sustainable when exercised within and reinforced by a shared system of mutual benefit.

The NATO alliance is another clear example, a mutual defence pact that has attracted many countries. NATO was not designed primarily to give Washington coercive power over other members; instead, its unanimity-based decision-making structure generates the kind of reciprocal and collective involvement that provides voice and a vote to even the least militarily capable members.

The US has accumulated power by facilitating agreements and establishing institutions (including the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the WTO) that have deepened connectivity between market economies. Anchoring a norms-based international system has provided the United States with a degree of legitimate authority – one that others generally accept because they believe its exercise can advance their national interests.

The US has also aligned itself with liberal values (such as, human rights and democratic freedoms) and has tended to oppose large-scale assaults on these values. Its concept of influence assumes that power is more sustainably exercised when tethered to such values.

China’s theory of influence, combining one-party authoritarian rule and a state-run growth model, seeks traction by operating through a transactional foreign policy – one that prioritises bilateral relationships and undertakes to develop an integrated Eurasian industrial zone in which China, as the linchpin, can limit other countries’ choices. Its economic model enables it to provide large subsidies to domestic investments in frontier technologies and gives it a major advantage over the US in building infrastructure and connectivity across the developing world.

China’s approach is deeply hierarchical and increasingly coercive. The more dependent it can make other countries’ economies on its own, the more it can constrain them to its own advantage.

Nor does China’s theory of influence appear to be grounded in any values apart from the notion of economic development. It pays little heed to the domestic affairs of the countries with which it does business. It insists it is committed to noninterference, but many of its recent statements and actions call that pledge into question. In just the past few months, China has demanded that the NBA commissioner fire Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey over his tweet in support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong; threatened that Sweden will “suffer the consequences” for awarding a prestigious literary prize to Chinese-born Swedish publisher Gui Minhai; and warned “there will be consequences” for Germany if it excludes Huawei as a supplier of 5G equipment.

Each theory of influence has its weaknesses. In America’s case, a foreign policy that aims to sustain a global order is inherently susceptible to overreach: a combination of superior power and problem-solving bent has led the US to overestimate its ability to mould the rest of the world in its image. In China’s case, slowing growth and burgeoning debt cast doubt on the durability of its state-centric economic model, and fundamental challenges such as demographic decline and environmental degradation are growing more acute.

US President Harry Truman signing the document implementing the North Atlantic Treaty at his desk in the Oval Office of the White House, 24 August 1949 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Abroad, China’s transactionalism makes its base of support both shallow and vulnerable to political resistance. In addition, the example of its authoritarian system lacks widespread appeal: to the contrary, its repression of Hong Kong, its mass internment of Uighurs, its development of the world’s most sophisticated surveillance state, and its intensifying crackdown on political dissidents and foreign non-governmental organizations have sown growing alarm.

On balance, the US arguably has a more sustainable theory of influence. China has contributed significantly to building infrastructure in the developing world, but its vision of world order is parochial, ethnocentric, and hierarchical, and its infrastructure abroad is vulnerable to political headwinds and economic adversity. Its continued militarisation of the South China Sea, growing use of economic coercion, and conduct of “hostage diplomacy” have all undermined its “peaceful rise” narrative.

With few, if any, genuine allies, China faces a difficult road to claiming legitimate authority – an accepted and welcomed power position – in world politics. A 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center found that a median of 63% of respondents across 25 countries would prefer to live in a world with the US as the preeminent power; just 19% said the same about China.

Observers have long remarked that the US is trapped by reactive, short-term thinking, while China possesses a patient, long-term grand strategy. Yet while China surely has an extended time horizon, its theory of influence actually betrays a short-term approach, favoring immediate, coercive results over shared values and extended cooperation. Power is likely to be more sustainable when exercised within and reinforced by a shared system of mutual benefit.

The US helped to build precisely such a system in the form of a post-war, rules-based order, one that endures as a profound US competitive advantage. The Trump administration has undercut it: exiting from negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, abandoning the Iran nuclear deal, withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, derogating NATO, and effectively ensuring the expiration of the WTO’s appellate body, to name but a few. It has also embroiled the US in trade disputes with longstanding allies and partners and, with its profligate use of sanctions, incentivised those friends, especially in Europe, to fashion payment mechanisms that circumvent the reach of the US dollar.

Both the character of American power and its approach to building communities of shared interests provide it with significant advantages. As competition with China intensifies, abandoning them could be a self-inflicted blow.

Scott Morrison strikes an anxious and inward-looking tone

After a couple of thoughtful speeches to Asialink and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Lowy Lecture last night marked a clear step away from the sort of Australian foreign policy articulated in the government’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper and towards the worldview of Trumpism and Brexit. It looked like the trailing away of a decades-long period of Australian commitment to an open globalising world and a rules-based international order (a phrase not mentioned in the PM’s speech).

As a speech – that is, the persuasive articulation of an argument – it lacked structure or, indeed, much of an argument. It had some of the familiar elements of what was shaping up as a Morrison doctrine – the connection between what happens externally and the practical needs of ordinary Australians.  But the tone this time was much more defensive.

I can’t remember a foreign policy speech by an Australian Prime Minister in which the words “sovereign” or “sovereignty” appear so often.

One thing is certain. No future Australian Prime Minister will be able to outdo Scott Morrison in rhetorical support for the American alliance.

Morrison warned about a “negative globalism that coercively seeks to impose a mandate from an often ill-defined borderless global community. And worse still, an unaccountable internationalist bureaucracy”. This “new variant of globalism”, the PM told us, “seeks to elevate global institutions above the authority of nation states to direct national policies”. This is a strange claim in a period in which multilateral institutions are weaker in almost all regards than they have been for 40 years.

We were offered no examples of how this might be happening to us. We were simply told that it “does not serve our national interests when international institutions demand conformity rather than independent cooperation on global issues”. How “conformity” differs from adherence to agreed rules is left unclear.

As though there were any doubt, the Prime Minister felt it necessary to declare “We will decide our interests and the circumstances in which we seek to pursue them”. It’s not clear to me who we are intended to think was challenging that national right.

The anxious and inward-looking tone continues. To the familiar list of security threats from “terrorism, extremist Islam, anti-Semitism, white supremacism”, is added a new broad category which defies easy response: “evil”. Australia’s freedom, we are told, depends on our “dedication to national sovereignty, the resilience of our institutions, and our protections from foreign interference”.

In any speech of this sort, the listicles – which countries get named and in what order – matter. What is striking here are the adjectives describing Australia’s relations with India, “a natural partner for Australia”, Japan, “steadfast friendship and support”, Vietnam, Indonesia, and ASEAN. China, on the other hand, is left with the official designation “comprehensive strategic partner” and a list of economic achievements which add up to reasons it should take on greater global economic obligations. It’s a balder, less optimistic tone than that of Morrison’s own Asialink speech a few weeks ago.

The word “practical”, a familiar friend in Coalition discourse, gets a good workout. Echoing John Howard’s “practical and realistic” foreign policy and “practical reconciliation”, the Prime Minister delivered us “practical conservation”. He contrasts the “anxiety-inducing moral panic and sense of crisis evident in some circles today” (presumably about climate change, although the phrase is not used) with the “practical resilience, optimism, and resolve” which marked earlier periods of global challenges such as the Cold War nuclear competition. I can’t say I remember it that way myself.

What should Australia do about all this? Mostly, it seems, play a more active role in the setting of global standards (mainly economic). That makes good sense, but beginning the task with a request to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to undertake a “comprehensive audit of global institutions and rule-making processes where we have the greatest stake” might hint at a different agenda.

One thing is certain. No future Australian Prime Minister will be able to outdo Scott Morrison in rhetorical support for the American alliance. “Our alliance with the United States”, he said, “is our past, our present, and our future”. Literally, our Alpha and Omega, our beginning and our end.

That sort of language makes the handling of Australia’s relations with the United States and China so odd. Australia must, the Prime Minister says, “maintain our unique relationships” with the United States and China “in good order by rejecting the binary narrative of their strategic competition”.

Hang on, I thought to myself, flicking back through the speech, didn’t I just read something about that binary narrative? Ah yes. A few pages earlier:

We have entered a new era of strategic competition – a not unnatural result of shifting power dynamics, in our modern, more multipolar world and globalised economy.

The United States government itself acknowledges that strategic competition.

When the Prime Minister concludes that “even during an era of great power competition, Australia does not have to choose between the United States and China”, after a speech that more than any other by a recent Australian Prime Minister has done just that, it seems less like wishful thinking than deliberate obfuscation.

A US view on Australia’s role in the Indian Ocean

Australia plays a critical role in maintaining strategic stability in the Indian Ocean and remains one of the United States’ closest allies on economic, diplomatic, defence, and intelligence matters. Canberra has been a thought leader in formulating the “Indo-Pacific” concept. Yet, even with the shift in US policy focus from the Asia-Pacific to the Indo-Pacific, US regional priorities will remain firmly entrenched in the Western Pacific. As a result, Washington needs Australia to be a leader in strategic thinking on how to approach the management of the Indian Ocean region.

US conception of the Indo-Pacific

Within the first year of the Trump administration, the “Indo-Pacific” phrase entered US policy documents through the December 2017 National Security Strategy, which discussed the importance for US interests of keeping this region “free and open.” The “Indo-Pacific” was subsequently referenced in the January 2018 Summary of the US National Defense Strategy. In May 2018, US Pacific Command was renamed Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM).

US priorities remain mostly the same in the Indian Ocean, despite a broader regional focus. The geographic responsibilities for INDOPACOM, for example, have not changed, and its area of responsibility still excludes the western half of the Indian Ocean. This aligns with the conception of the Indo-Pacific in the National Security Strategy, defines the region as stretching “from the west coast of India to the western shores of the United States.” Consequently, the Indian Ocean remains segmented in US diplomatic and defence bureaucracy and secondary to US priorities in the Western Pacific and the Middle East.

US and Australian troops participate in joint training drills in Hawaii (Photo: US Navy/Flickr)

However, this unchanged state of administrative planning does not mean that Washington will withdraw from the Indian Ocean, as feared by some regional observers recalling the United Kingdom’s actions 50 years ago. Multiple factors make clear that no “East of Suez” departure looms for US presence in the Indian Ocean anytime soon.

Despite former president Barack Obama’s “rebalance” to Asia and the return to great-power competition under the Trump administration, Washington continues to devote significant foreign policy attention to the Middle East and must manage threats to freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz. Bahrain provides a key base for naval operations in the Western Indian Ocean. The base at Diego Garcia is central to US logistical support in the Indian Ocean. The United States’ affirmation of UK sovereignty of the Chagos Islands, despite the growing success of Mauritius’ legal and diplomatic campaign, illustrates continued US determination to maintain a presence in the Indian Ocean.

Australia’s contributions to US goals in the Indian Ocean

The Australian continent is situated between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, which gives the country a direct stake in both regions. As a result, Canberra’s diplomatic, legal, and military approaches to management of the Indian Ocean part of the Indo-Pacific region will continue to be vital for US interests. There are three clear examples.

One is Australia’s support for US interpretations of international law. In particular: Australia’s rejection of the May 2019 UN General Assembly resolution endorsing the International Court of Justice’s advisory opinion on the need for the UK to leave the Chagos Islands. Many US allies, such as France and Germany, abstained on this resolution, and the vote at the UN was overwhelmingly against the UK: 116 in favour, while only six were opposed. Australia’s vote against the resolution was welcomed by US policymakers seeking to maintain the United States’ presence in this vital location in the Indian Ocean.

Second, Australia’s military operations in the Indian Ocean advance US goals to ensure regional stability. In the western Indian Ocean, Australia is a member of Combined Maritime Forces, having both participated in and commanded the counterpiracy and counterterrorism task forces. Canberra lent crucial support to Washington by agreeing to contribute to a new mission to ensure safe passage of merchant vessels in the Strait of Hormuz ­– one of the few US allies that publicly declared its willingness to back this operation.

Finally, Australia has used its prominent roles to advance regional institutions such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) – chairing the renamed organization in 2013–14 and drawing attention to illegal fishing in the Perth Communiqué – and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), chairing it in 2014–15 and finalising the IONS Charter. The US understands the limits of its standing in each of these institutions (being only a dialogue partner in IORA, and not having even observer status in IONS). Consequently, Australia’s role in participating in regional architecture is critical for promoting the US vision of a free and open region.

The years ahead

The US will continue to rely on its treaty alliance with Australia for assistance in maintaining regional stability. Beyond Australia’s role in sharing the US interpretation of international law in the South China Sea and support for military operations in the Middle East, its diplomatic and military activities are important for laying the foundation of Indian Ocean security and advancing norms for an open international order in the coming decades.

An emerging issue is in Antarctica, where Australia is playing an active role in conceptualising upcoming security issues in the nearby Southern Ocean, especially with regard to increasing Chinese equities.

Australia continuing to play this strategic role in areas outside the Western Pacific advances US goals for stability in the Indian Ocean and beyond.

This piece was produced as part of a two-year project being undertaken by the National Security College on the Indian Ocean, with the support of the Department of Defence. The views expressed are solely those of the author and not of any organization with which she is affiliated.

Why the US and its allies should keep ASEAN at the centre

Southeast Asia is a region crucial to China, the geography creating what is known as the “Malacca Strait dilemma” – a strategic chokepoint located between the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, it provides China with its shortest maritime access to Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Some 80% of China’s total energy supply passes through the Malacca Strait. 

Given China's limited control over the passage, any disruption – ranging from piracy to fears of a potential naval blockade by the US lead allies – will create an adverse impact on its long-term food and energy security. Beijing’s flagship development project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is largely an attempt to escape this dilemma, constructing alternative routes west of the Straits by highways, railways, ports, and oil and gas pipelines.

But Southeast Asia has its own interest in maintaining the free flow of trade in the region. Despite the individual interest of the caucus of Southeast Asian states, uniting them under some basic principles would be helpful.

Over the past couple of years, the US government has begun fleshing out a vision for the Indo-Pacific region, which was first publicly unveiled by President Donald Trump at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in November 2017. This vision has rightly recognised the importance of Southeast Asia in what has been dubbed a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy. This strategy was broadly conceived as an effort to defend freedom and the rules-based order in a region where Australia, India, and Japan are expected to play a leading role, along with the United States.

Although it runs against the grain of the current US administration’s foreign policy, the US should not be the odd one out, but instead play a leading role by prioritising an effective free-trade agreement with ASEAN to enhance economic ties.

Southeast Asian nations, under ASEAN, should support this vision.

For one thing, a unified ASEAN is not likely to allow China to project its unchecked influence throughout the region. As a collective entity that consists of both small and medium-sized countries, a united ASEAN will also help balance the economic power not only of China but also India. Individually, ASEAN countries are too small to be important players in the economic and security game in Asia, but as an integrated group of over a half-billion people, they would be in the “major leagues”.

For the US and its allies, the rise of ASEAN as a significant economic power will help to bring greater symmetry and balance to managing this critical period of transition in the Indo-Pacific region. The countries share much in common, demonstrated by the recent release of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, which was accompanied by a statement noting the convergent interest of “inclusivity, openness, a region based on the rule of law, good governance, and respect for international law”.

The US and its allies can also help strengthen ASEAN.

This starts by displaying a genuine interest in Southeast Asia for its own sake. More government-to-government meetings are needed between the US, Japan, and Australia and the ASEAN members, along with regular summits consisting of senior civil and military leaders to confirm the importance of their partnership and to coordinate positions in other international organisations. Moreover, if it appears that the FOIP simply aim to counter China rather than to support the region’s development, they will be unconvincing as strategic partners.

This is particularly true of infrastructure development, whether in roads, ports, or telecommunications. These are essential regional needs, and all Southeast Asian governments seek international assistance where it is available. China is capitalising these needs and offering finance through the BRI. Although BRI financing has many alarming elements, without offering a viable alternative to these financial needs, simply discouraging Southeast Asian countries from taking BRI finance seems unconvincing.

The newly initiated US-Japan-Australia lead trilateral infrastructure mechanism is an appropriate approach. It allows the private sector to invest in infrastructure projects for countries in the Indo-Pacific region. The first joint mission of this initiative took place in Papua New Guinea, where this trilateral venture will be finding a new liquefied natural gas (LNG) project value of $1 billion. Investing through this mechanism in Southeast Asian could convince ASEAN countries that US lead allies are a true development partner.

More can also be done to support trade. ASEAN already has five free-trade agreements covering six countries – China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand. Although it runs against the grain of the current US administration’s foreign policy, the US should not be the odd one out, but instead play a leading role by prioritising an effective free-trade agreement with ASEAN to enhance economic ties.

The same need holds true for strengthening “soft power”. Achieving the objectives of FOIP will require the full engagement of civil society, meaning much more can and should be done across all dimensions of society, from culture and sports to science, to build trust. The US and its allies should establish a meaningful partnership fund to provide support for a wide range of projects, programs, and activities.

Well-coordinated policies among the US and its allies can overcome the challenge to integrate ASEAN into this FOIP strategy. As leading regional power in Asia, US still is the key, and with coordinated efforts among other regional players such as Japan, Australia, ASEAN will join in the work together to maintain a rule-based system to defend freedom and promote development. Then, there is no dilemma to escape.

Australia in the Gulf: The order-based rules

Back in December, Scott Morrison went halfway in following Donald Trump’s change to the diplomatic recognition of Israel, deciding to leave Australia’s embassy in Tel Aviv while formally acknowledging “West Jerusalem” as the capital. But at the same time, Morrison decided not to follow Trump at all on the question of Iran, declaring Australia’s continued support for the nuclear deal that Trump had unilaterally abandoned.

Morrison’s reasoning when backing the Iran deal was fascinating, not only for Australia’s approach to the Middle East, but broader foreign policy goals. He explained:

It serves our interest in encouraging rules-based approaches to resolving other issues of international concern, including the South China Sea.

This emphasis on “reinforcing the rules-based international system” now sits somewhat awkwardly with the government’s decision this week to go all the way with Trump in deploying military force to the Persian Gulf. Awkward, not so much for sending the navy to the Gulf region, where it has been an off-and-on presence for decades, but for the signal it sends about Australia’s support for the rules.

Fairly or not, it will appear that Australia is comfortable supporting the rules so long as its allies are writing them – or rewriting them, as the case may be.

The government will argue its decision to contribute to what is being called the “International Maritime Security Construct” is focussed on the threat to ships in the Hormuz Strait, where about 20% of the word’s oil supplies transit each year. Morrison said on Wednesday, “This is about freedom of shipping,” and he insisted Australia was not signing up to a US mission to exert maximum pressure on Iran, which he described as a “completely separate” issue.

Trump might present that participation differently, but regardless, the present tension cannot be divorced from the fast-collapsing nuclear deal. Before Trump’s decision to abandon the arrangement and impose additional sanctions, Iran had been exporting an estimated 2.5 million barrels of oil per day – Iran’s exports have since suffered a staggering drop to about 100,000 barrels per day.

None of which excuses the harassment of ships in the area. But from Tehran’s perspective, it had been given the tick by international monitors for following the rules set down in the nuclear deal, only to be punished for doing so.

British-flagged Stena Impero being seized and detained by Iranian forces in July (Photo: Getty Images)

Morrison has acknowledged the complaint that the nuclear deal with Iran was too narrow – the problem, as he put it in December, was “not to what is in the agreement, but what’s not in the agreement”. The nuclear deal was about the nuclear question and did not address Iran’s support for proxy militias in the region or clamp down on ballistic-missile technology. The argument could also be made that by settling at least one aspect of a long-standing problem in the Middle East, the deal offered the US a chance to achieve its goal of shifting more attention to the Asia-Pacific.

But Morrison still backed the nuclear deal for its “worthy achievements” and the bigger picture that countries should be able to rely on the sanctity of the rules. Only the government has since played an increasingly ridiculous pantomime, issuing warnings against Iran for uranium enrichment in breach of the nuclear deal, without directly pointing the finger at Washington for breaking the arrangement in the first place.

Which is the way of the world. The nuclear deal is as good as dead, and Australia must respond to the world as it is, not just as it would like to be. But the precedent won’t go unnoticed, especially when it comes to those other tricky international problems, such as the South China Sea.

Fairly or not, it will appear that Australia is comfortable supporting the rules so long as its allies are writing them – or rewriting them, as the case may be. To borrow a phrase, the emphasis appears to be on the US-based order, rather than on the rules themselves.

And this latest move adds to a pattern. Australia has already effectively ignored Japan’s willingness to thumb its nose at the established rules when it didn’t suit Tokyo’s desire to keep hunting whales after losing a case at the International Court of Justice. Carving out yet another exception only adds to the challenge. It was tricky enough for Canberra to insist that Beijing respect the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea when its principal security ally in Washington maintains it follows the treaty but has never ratified it.

Yet if there is a rule about respecting rules, it’s that consistency matters.

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