Saturday 24 Feb 2018 | 13:44 | SYDNEY
Saturday 24 Feb 2018 | 13:44 | SYDNEY

Rudd's Asia: Truth and politics



12 September 2008 16:42

Let’s play truth and politics with Kevin Rudd’s recent foreign policy/security forays.

In this game, one arm of the graph rates the factual strength of the Prime Minister’s words, with the parameters running from true to false. The other arm of the graph plots the political dimension, running from  obvious/continuity at one end to surprising/change at the other end.

The highest surprise score goes to Rudd's enthusiasm for US military attacks from Afghanistan into Pakistan. This is how the Prime Minister responded to a question from the ABC’s Chris Uhlmann last Friday.

UHLMANN:   And one last thing Prime Minister, do you support the US incursions into Pakistan when you are fighting the Taliban, do you think that, that’s something that needs to be done?
PRIME MINISTER: Well that’s an interesting question from left field. Ok Chris in dealing with the challenges of the Taliban in Afghanistan this is not a simple, neat military operation where problems concerning the Taliban’s ability to operate across the border with Pakistan can simply push to one side. We need to adhere to the principals of international law, but I am confident that our American ally has acted appropriately in its dealings with the Government of Pakistan. It’s difficult, it’s hard, but my responsibility together with other heads of Government of those participating in the war against the Taliban is to be effective. And to be effective means dealing with the challenge that a number of Taliban continue to find safe haven across the border in Pakistan.

Remember the storm that broke around John Howard when he announced what was rather grandly dubbed his pre-emption doctrine? Howard was musing hypothetically about Australia’s willingness to strike at terrorist bases in neighbouring countries if a terrorist attack was imminent. There is nothing hypothetical about Australia backing the policy of US attacks and missile strikes into Pakistan. Rudd knows he is signing up to what the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff calls 'a new, more comprehensive military strategy' that 'covers both sides of the border' between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Compare the Rudd words to the warning issued by the French Foreign Ministry after US missile strikes this week. Paris is worried that American attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas are politically 'counterproductive' and 'undermining international efforts' in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Asian reaction to the new US strategy in Pakistan is going to be the French position stated in much stronger language.

This brings us to the Rudd speech on national security policy and national defence policy. On the true-false measure, the Prime Minister was stating the facts when he set out 'the full breadth of the threat spectrum that now confronts us:

  • Responding to the increased militarisation of our own region
  • Dealing with the continuing threat of terrorism
  • Acting on the challenges to sovereignty facing the Pacific Island countries
  • Preparing for the new challenges of energy security
  • Anticipating the impact of climate change on long-term food and water security

Note, however, the changes from how the Howard Government presented these issues. Terrorism and the South Pacific 'arc of instablity' were Howard staples. But 'increased militarisation' of the region would not have been the number one point in the Howard list. This is one area where the Coalition Government’s public language failed to follow the semi-public thinking of  the bureaucracy and the chattering classes.

The Howard emphasis was to talk up the big spending increase on Australian defence and security, not to compare it to changes in Asia. In the years after the 1999 East Timor intervention, the Howard Government emphasised Australia’s ability to act in the region when ASEAN could not, and how Australia’s economic strength meant it sailed through the Asian financial crisis.

The impact of climate change on long-term food and water security started to creep into the official language of the Defence Department last year. It was a tougher fit for Howard’s Ministers, however, because until nearly the end the Prime Minister was a climate change sceptic. If it wasn’t really an environmental problem, how could it be a security problem? For Kevin Rudd, the politics of climate change mean making it one of his five big threats is almost an imperative.

In proclaiming that the 21st century looms as the century of the Asia Pacific, the Prime Minister is having a wonderful bet each way. He is offering us the Asian century and the American century combined. Using the APEC definition of the Asia Pacific, it is not much of a risk to argue that the US and Asia will be the alliterative sources of most of the world’s income, investment, ideas and innovation. (Oh, and technology.)

The judgement of 'possibly true, possibly false' (Who can say for sure?) can be applied to Rudd's endorsement of the prediction that China will replace the US as the world’s largest economy by 2020. This is based on  a purchasing power parity  (PPP) model in opposition to the old exchange rate measure. Using PPP, Australia’s Treasury predicted in 2006 that China would overtake the US to become the largest economy in the world within 15 years, while India would soon overtake Japan to become the third largest.

The Prime Minister’s description of a 'substantial arms build-up' in Asia can be marked as factually correct and consistent with some of his previous positions. He didn’t use the term 'arms race', but in his press conference on 10 September he referred to 'huge increases in military spending' and 'an explosion in defence expenditure' for most of the last decade.

Perhaps Rudd is guilty of getting the chronology of his Asian speeches mixed up. His Asia arms build up speech would have helped prepare the ground for his March proposal for a broadened Asian security mechanism, based on the 6-Party Talks, and the push launched in June to develop an Asia Pacific Community.

The structure of the Rudd speech this week meant the media were entitled to report that he was pointing at China as the looming danger — he moved directly from Asia’s strategic risks to discussing the rise of China.

The speech considered China first, dismissed Japan in three sentences, then devoted some discussion to why the US will remain 'strategically dominant'. Howard’s speeches, by contrast, were usually structured to deal with the US and Japan before moving to China. And despite the Asia Arms Race headlines, the tenor of Rudd’s speech was probably more optimistic than the conclusion regularly offered by Howard over the past few years.

The Howard formula was that conflict between China and the US was not inevitable or unavoidable. This was the Howard version, as offered to the Lowy Institute in 2005:

It would be a mistake to embrace an overly pessimistic view of this relationship, pointing to unavoidable conflict. Australia does not believe there is anything inevitable about escalating strategic competition between China and the US.

But if only death and taxes are inevitable, did this mean war between the US and China should be viewed as highly likely or merely just a probability?

The milder version offered by Rudd this week is that – as with politics and economics — the Asia Pacific will become a much more contested region militarily. The Prime Minister promised strengthened security cooperation with Asia – naming Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. The surprise was the omission of the Philippines, a departure from the Howard Government effort to lift security relations with Manila. The Rudd sense of adventure about Pakistan’s tribal areas may be chilled by prospects in the southern Philippines.

Finally, there was an interesting difference in temperature in the language applied to India and China. The Prime Minister wants to expand security cooperation with India. For China, the aim is a security policy dialogue.

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