Commentary | 16 June 2014

Abbott visit will reboot US pivot towards Asia

Abbott visit will reboot US pivot towards Asia

Rory Medcalf

Australian Financial Review

16 June 2014

Please click here for full online text. 

  • Rory Medcalf

Abbott visit will reboot US pivot towards Asia

Rory Medcalf

Australian Financial Review

16 June 2014

Please click here for full online text. 

  • Rory Medcalf

Executive Summary

The idea of an American strategic pivot or rebalance towards Asia found early expression when President Barack Obama spoke in Canberra in 2011.

Now an Australian leader's trip in the other direction may help renew Washington's seriousness of purpose in this region.

President Obama's remarks after meeting Tony Abbott last week send important signals about the United States' long-term commitment to security in the Asia-Pacific, whatever the present crises in the Middle East and Ukraine.

Obama and Abbott are becoming increasingly concerned about armed tensions in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, where China has put intense pressure on Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines over disputed maritime territories.

The message, confirmed in an opinion article by the two leaders, is that the United States and Australia "strongly oppose the use of intimidation, coercion or aggression to advance any countries' claims".

The leaders also endorsed international arbitration in Asia's maritime disputes. This seems uncontroversial.

But in practice it means support for the Philippines' ongoing action in taking China to the United Nations' International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea – a stance the Gillard government was too timid to take.

It also amounts to Australia and the United States encouraging Vietnam to follow suit after China placed an oil rig in disputed waters.

China will not be pleased. Mr Abbott's talks in Washington coincided with a meeting in Tokyo to consolidate security ties between Australia and Japan. Foreign and defence ministers endorsed Japanese efforts to become a normal military power, while advancing an agreement to co-operate in military technology.

The Australian government has shown interest in advanced Japanese technology as one option to meet this country's submarine needs.Backlash to follow?

Critics of US-led efforts to balance against Chinese power will likely depict Australia's latest moves as bad for relations with China, with a backlash from Beijing to follow.

Such claims would underplay the complexity of Australia-China relations. Mr Abbott urged his American hosts to be positive about China's historic achievements with regards to economic growth and human development.

Australia recognises China's legitimate interests across our shared Indo-Pacific region. Our defence force is proving itself a partner for China, including in exercises, dialogue and the search for the missing Malayan airlines plane.

And China would hurt its own material interests if it punished Australia economically for foreign policy stances it does not like.

Critics of Canberra's diplomacy in Washington and Tokyo will doubtless also say that this makes Asia more dangerous, by reinforcing Chinese fears of "containment" – as if Chinese military modernisation and assertiveness would not happen otherwise.

Such a view misreads China's strategic imperatives and what much of Asia wants.

Most south-east Asian countries want the US in Asia. In recent months, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia have quietly found ways to work with the US Navy. Each knows it would not stand a chance negotiating alone with China. The Association of South-East Asian Nations is faring little better in its bid for a code of conduct with China for managing sea disputes.

Efforts to paint Japan as the problem also warrant scrutiny. Contrary to Chinese propaganda, by reinterpreting its constitution to let its defence forces work with partners like Australia, Japan is not reverting to militarism – as if decades of pacifism and democracy count for nothing.

Deepening security links with the US and Japan does not mean that Australia wants a permanent military face-off between China and the rest of the region.

Instead, as one of Asia's leading bankers has recently argued, new endeavours are needed to reduce the risks of conflict. The chief executive of the ANZ Banking Group, Mike Smith, has rightly warned of the perils to regional prosperity and trade routes if a maritime incident gets out of hand.

As Obama and Abbott put it, the chances of "miscalculation and, in the worst case, of conflict" are growing. Dangerous, close-range encounters between vessels or aircraft are becoming all too frequent. These include Chinese and Japanese jets, Chinese and Vietnamese coastguard boats, Chinese and Philippines fishing craft and Chinese and US warships.

The question is whether Chinese forces will co-operate with the rest of the region on hotlines and protocols to stop incidents occurring or escalating.

So far, there has been little sustained or demonstrated Chinese interest in this – as if risk itself were a tactic China is loath to give up.

In the absence of solidarity among other countries to put pressure on China – through norms, international law and military balancing – it is hard to see why China's calculations would change.

 

Rory Medcalf is director of the international security program at the Lowy Institute.