Published daily by the Lowy Institute

From one friend to another after an eventful first month

The US needs to engage with, and make reasonable space for, China.

The West Front of the US Capitol ready for inauguration day on 20 January  2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)
The West Front of the US Capitol ready for inauguration day on 20 January 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Published 22 Feb 2017 

This is an edited version of remarks delivered at the National Press Club in Canberra on 21 February, 2017, in a panel discussion with Rory Medcalf. The full text can be found here, and a video of the event here.

The comfort of post-Cold War US predominance is under challenge on multiple fronts, most particularly from an assertive China in our region and a resurgent Russia in Europe.

In its first month we have seen the Trump Administration tested by competitors. Russia has deployed cruise missiles in contravention of treaty obligations and there has been renewed intense fighting in eastern Ukraine. North Korea has fired a ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan.

After the resolution of the ‘One China’ issue we can expect China to continue its ‘assertive’ behaviour with continued development and militarisation of artificial islands in the South China Sea.

On the other hand, the Trump Administration has also been active. My former colleague and friend, Defence Secretary James Mattis has visited Japan and the Republic of Korea and provided reassurance to these key US allies.

His visit and the visit of Vice President Pence to NATO also emphasised the importance of the alliance and the, quite reasonable, need for members to provide two percent of their GDP for defence.

While in Europe Secretary Mattis also met with Defence Minister Marise Payne for what she described as an extremely positive meeting. Secretary Mattis expressed strong support for ANZUS and spoke warmly about his former relationship with the ADF.

It is, however, clear that Australia’s wider interests will diverge with those of the new Administration in Washington in some important areas, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership.

Following the election of President Trump with his statements during and after the election campaign, there is uncertainty about the direction of US power and engagement. Although the President’s inauguration speech emphasised economic protectionism he also promised to ‘reinforce old alliances and forge new ones’.

If we were to offer an ally’s advice to the new Administration in Washington, it would be, firstly the need for the US to maintain a strong strategic presence in the Indo-Pacific region. Pulling back to Hawaii will leave a vacuum that will be filled by China who will see herself as the predominant power in the region. 

Secondly, it is imperative that the US continues to maintain the long standing alliance strategy that has been so successful in maintaining stability and creating prosperity in the Indo-Pacific. This requires the US to not only engage alliance partners but also maintain the many bilateral security partnerships which the US has developed strongly through recent years. 

Thirdly, the US needs to engage with, and make reasonable space, for China.

This is not about unlimited ‘accommodation’ but about incorporating China into a region of many powers with a large measure of interests in common. Chinese participation in counter piracy operations in the Arabian Sea, the major RIMPAC multilateral exercise, the initial search for MH370 and the China, US, Australia trilateral military exercise KOWARI, are all demonstrations of this inclusive approach. 

Similarly, as was the case with the six party talks in the mid-2000s, any negotiations to resolve North Korean issues will require China as an active and constructive participant.The reported restrictions this week of coal exports to Pyongyang is a reminder that China can make a crucial difference.

We need more cooperation and less competition.

What Australia should do

In terms of Australia’s role, we should continue to influence the incoming administration as to the importance and success of the current US strategy centred on regional presence, strong alliances and a web of trilateral and bilateral security arrangements.

Some commentators in Australia have suggested that with the change of administration in Washington we should recalibrate our alliance with the US. However, now is not the time for Australian policy makers to change ANZUS or imply that we are ready to move away from the US Alliance. We need it more than most people realise and as Alan Dupont has observed: ‘As the world becomes a more turbulent and dangerous place the value of the alliance for Australia will increase not diminish’.

Secondly, we should explain and highlight the mutual benefit of the ANZUS alliance in terms of interoperability, preparedness, intelligence, cyber, technology and logistics and a whole host of other areas. In recent years our contributions to the greater alliance good have been significant, most recently against Islamic State. I might add that we are one of the few nations on the planet who, every two years, allows the United States to conduct a large joint and combined high-end amphibious exercise to land in our territory.

Thirdly, we should strengthen our existing relationships with our regional partners.  This should be done bilaterally and in the case of Japan, South Korea, India and Indonesia, trilaterally with the United States. It is also time for the reintroduction of the 2007 Quadrilateral arrangement between US, Japan, India and Australia, not to contain China but to strategically align like-minded regional nations.

Fourthly, we need to support and assist in further development of the Regional Security Architecture. The East Asia Summit, and the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meetings-Plus are all useful fora but they need to be developed further and made more robust.We need to encourage the United States to invest further in these organisations, alongside its presence in the world’s most dynamic region.

It is critical that Washington continues to have a major presence in our region, and absolutely imperative that the ANZUS alliance continues.There is no practical substitute for it. Australia should also emphasise the importance of the other US alliances – in particular those with the Republic of Korea and Japan.

Going solo is not an option for Australia.The cost of becoming fully self-reliant would be enormous. The government is committed to spending 2% of GDP on defence. If we hypothetically lose the US alliance and the powerful security insurance it provides, we also lose access to enormous advantages in intelligence and technology and the other areas already mentioned. It is likely we would have to increase defence spending to about 3-4% of GDP by my estimate. That would have a dramatic effect on public programs like health, education and infrastructure.

To conclude, Australia should endeavour to continue to quietly engage and influence the Trump administration as to the success of US strategy in the Indo-Pacific and the importance of the ANZUS alliance to Australia’s security. I am delighted Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is in to Washington this week to engage the Vice President, Secretary of State and other senior officials in the Administration. I wish her success on this important mission because, at the end of the day, we must never forget that US presence, alliances and engagement have given Australia peace, stability and prosperity for 40 years.

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