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Reflections on the 2015 Lowy Lecture: Greater Asia

Reflections on the 2015 Lowy Lecture: Greater Asia

Delivering the 2015 Lowy Lecture in Sydney yesterday, General David Petraeus outlined a thought-provoking grand strategy for 'Greater Asia'. 

Geographically, Petraeus defines Greater Asia along a maritime axis from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Japan, but also overland 'from Western Russia to Southeast Asia'. This is even broader than the Indo-Pacific construct, but conceptually compatible with thinking in Australia, aimed at breaking down geographical silos that have inhibited a more connected view of the Asian macro-region as a strategic continuum.

Petraeus' bottom-line logic is that rather than thinking of the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific as 'two autonomous spheres' we should approach Greater Asia as 'an increasingly integrated and interdependent strategic whole'. Even as US dependence on the Middle East for oil and gas continues to shrink, he highlights Asian countries' economic reliance on hydrocarbons from the Middle East as an enduring strategic connector for Greater Asia.

Another linking theme in the lecture is the indivisible nature of US alliance commitments – and US credibility.

Petraeus considers the US to be a 'permanent resident power' that cannot afford to disengage or withdraw from the Middle East or Asia Pacific. The security challenges facing both regions that he identifies are different but 'equally urgent and important'. According to Petraeus, two big winners have emerged from the struggle for power across the Middle East. [fold]

First, Sunni extremists – manifested in the twin incarnations of ISIS and al Qaeda – have created far-flung terrorist sanctuaries. Second, Iran has exploited the chaos afflicting the Arab world to strengthen its position. Petraeus declined to pass judgement on the recent Iran nuclear deal in his speech, but in the question-and-answer conversation that followed, he argued that the US should explicitly threaten force if Tehran enriches uranium to weapons-grade. In the Asia Pacific, Petraeus focused on the challenges posed by China in the maritime and cyber domains, singling out the militarisation of artificial islands in the South China Sea as 'particularly aggressive'. Russia was also mentioned as a destabilising influence.

Petraeus highlighted a 'zero-sum game' trap whereby US efforts to engage in the Middle East or Asia Pacific are erroneously viewed as mutually exclusive options. Here, he invoked General George Marshall's concept of 'theateritis': 'the tendency of military commanders to advocate for their particular regional area of responsibility, rather than thinking about the global big picture.' Petraeus is supportive of the good intentions behind the US rebalance to Asia, but argues that the roll-out of the policy unnecessarily fanned the fears of Middle Eastern allies about US abandonment. Correspondingly, as the US has refocused on the fight against ISIS, East Asian states have questioned the Obama Administration's commitment to its signature policy in Asia. Petraeus singled out the failure to enforce US 'red lines' in Syria as compounding the concerns of Asian allies about Washington's resolve – further demonstrating how connected the two regions are.

Petraeus drew repeatedly and no doubt earnestly from his personal experience as a coalition commander in Iraq and Afghanistan to underscore Australia's importance as a 'treasured ally' of the US. He said that the alliance is becoming 'even more important', but offered few specifics beyond bullishly predicting that US-Australian strategic cooperation will be undiminished in future – and unaffected by Australia's economic proximity to China. The main recommendation from the lecture was a pitch for Washington to 'follow Australia's example' by increasing defence spending. This is flattering if not misleading, considering that Australia still spends a far smaller proportion of its national wealth on defence than the US. 

While the vision of Greater Asia presented by Petraeus in his Lowy Lecture is certainly expansive, beyond a general plea for increased military resources and confidence in the reliability of stalwart allies like Australia, the question was largely unanswered as to how the US and its partners can effectively counter the various hybrid-warfare challenges being posed, in series, across Greater Asia by Russia, China and North Korea – all of which possess nuclear arms. 

The unfamiliar and daunting nature of this challenge is perhaps sharpened by the fact that Petraeus is representative of the 9/11 generation of US commanders who obtained their combat experience 'in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan'. Despite Petraeus' commendable efforts to link together the US Central and Pacific Command areas of responsibility as a single geo-strategic entity, the question can legitimately be asked: how transferable is the accumulated stock of US military experience from these CENTCOM army-centric environments to PACOM's bigger, more maritime area of responsibility, including more capable potential adversaries than the US has faced on the battlefield in well over a generation?

In that narrow sense, therefore, the strategic geography of Greater Asia is probably more uneven than it appears.

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