Published daily by the Lowy Institute

US pivot is faltering, which might be a good thing

US pivot is faltering, which might be a good thing

By Geoff Miller, former Australian Ambassador to Japan (1986-89) and former Director-General of the Office of National Assessments (1989-95).

In their Interpreter article of 27 March, Bates Gill and Tom Switzer respond to questioning of the durability of the US 'pivot' (or 're-balance') towards the Asia Pacific. They say the US is likely to remain the predominant power in the Asia Pacific across key indicators of national power, and they list a number of areas in which they say the US is showing substantial engagement and commitment. They give pride of place to security, saying that 'perhaps nothing better demonstrates the long-term US commitment to Asia than its enhanced security presence'. As examples they mention enhancements of American maritime air capacity in Japan.

Nevertheless, there is room to doubt whether the US commitment will prove as strong as Gill and Switzer believe.

For example, in his book Duty, former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates speaks (p.582) of the 'paralytic polarization' gripping the US system of government today, and says that 'we (the US) have rarely been so polarized and so unable to execute even the basic functions of government, much less tackle the most divisive problems facing the country'.

One example of US policy paralysis affecting the pivot to Asia was recently bemoaned by Treasurer Joe Hockey, who in a speech in Washington castigated the US Congress for blocking the adjustments to IMF quotas recommended by Fund members and long sought by major East Asian countries.

Furthermore, speaking to the Lowy Institute on 25 February, Richard Haass, President of the US Council on Foreign Relations, said the US is suffering from 'intervention fatigue' after Iraq and Afghanistan, that there is no domestic consensus on the US role in the world, and that he does not think the US is doing enough to flesh out the pivot: 'it doesn't have a champion'.

From an Australian point of view, there may be advantages in a less than whole-hearted or fully effective US pivot to Asia. [fold]

It is interesting that Bates Gill put the security dimension at the top of his list of areas showing enhanced US commitment to Asia, since that contains concerns for us. A series of decisions are making Australia more closely integrated into the US force structure in the Pacific: we have the Marines in Darwin, a seconded Australian Army general holds a senior position in the US Army in the Pacific, and an Australian naval ship has been part of a US Navy task force patrolling the North Pacific.

Each of these activities has its rationale, but the cumulative effect is of our becoming increasingly part of the US force posture in the Asia Pacific. If the US became involved in hostilities it would be difficult for us to opt out, whatever we thought of the circumstances.

Why might or should we want to opt out? Two causes for concern are the tendency of some in the US to demonise China, and one type of conflict which is canvased in US strategic circles, namely the 'Air Sea Battle'.

While in theory 'Air Sea Battle' is an enemy-free strategic concept, it seems clear that, in the minds of its proponents, China would be the target. It has obvious attractions for US strategists, who want to avoid future land wars in Asia. Naval and air power are of course America's strengths. But 'Air Sea Battle' would involve the overwhelming use of these strengths, and the question for us is why we would be interested in involvement with it.

We are of course a US ally, but we also have a strategic partnership with China. Only last week, in what seems to have been a successful visit to China, Prime Minister Abbott not only put an enormous amount of national and personal effort into strengthening our trade and investment relationship, but also made important advances in the security field. According to press reports, Mr Abbott said he was 'quite confident' of building on high-level meetings and exchanges with the PLA through 'multilateral exercises in the months and years ahead'. The first such exercise will take place in July, when China for the first time joins more than 20 other nations in aspects of the RIMPAC exercises to be held off Hawaii. In that exercise, at Beijing's request, the PLA Navy will operate under Australian command and control.

Yet at almost the same time, the Commander of the US Pacific Fleet, Admiral Harry Harris has described China as a 'destabilising influence' and accused Beijing of 'revanchist tendencies'.

The AFR's Brian Toohey, a defence specialist for many years, wrote on 5 April that 'Current US projections for a war with China envisage Australia's key contribution would be naval forces at the southern end of China's trade routes to help block the import of commodities such as Australian iron ore and natural gas'. Wouldn't be easier for us to simply not sell our resources to China, if we decided we didn't want China to have them?

But as the PM's visit showed, we do want China to have them, as we want a peaceful outcome to the re-balancing of forces in the Asia Pacific. In this context, we can welcome a US re-balancing or pivot to Asia even while we may remain somewhat sceptical about it. But we don't want the US re-balance to be over-militarised, involving alarming doctrines which have the potential to involve us through a largely unpublicised process of folding our own defence force into US military plans for the region.

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