Getting to know you: Two militaries that must get along
Wherever you look in our near region, the shadow of the elephant walking the room is everywhere.
It may not always be voiced, but the US-China relationship and its future stability hang heavy across most discussions, whether at multilateral forums like ASEAN, the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum or within regional bilateral talks.
Every commentator of note has given voice to this challenge, some good, some simply nonsensical. I find myself on unfamiliar ground agreeing with Defence Minister Smith when he called on the two great powers to match their military dialogue with their economic engagement.
His is a voice of reason calling for engagement, and the Minister is on firm ground as his words match his actions.
Australia is one of only two countries to conduct joint live fire naval manoeuvres with the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Further HMAS Ballarat recently returned from a very successful ship visit to Shanghai, following a similar visit to Australia of the PLAN training ship Zhenghe and the frigate Mianyang in 2010.
I find myself on very familiar ground however disagreeing with Dr Hugh White. Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, some still argue that the US has just woken up to the China reality, evidenced they contend by the US President’s proclaimed Asia pivot as part of his Canberra Declaration.
Paul Keating whilst launching Hugh White’s book The China Choice boasted that only he saw the China rise in the early nineties and then questioned “why it took the US until 2011 to make the so-called ‘‘pivot’’ back to Asia; to acknowledge the centrality of Asia in the new strategic settings is a matter of wonderment.” This is both historical revisionism and hubris.
Likewise Dr White’s gratuitous advice to the US that they have limited choices when dealing with China is simplistic. This is a dynamic region and simplistic choices for the US to either remain, leave or change do the region no justice. Nor does a one sided argument focusing solely on US responsibilities. Julie Bishop was right to distance the Coalition from this view and I agree.
There’s no doubt the region is changing. The GDP output of Asia exceeded that of Europe only within the last 24 months. The new world has gone past the old. The Asia we knew, shaped in some part by western influence is changing, and changing rapidly. Asia’s economies are all hedging their bets, all modernizing their militaries and engaging more earnestly. Growth precipitates and necessitates resource demands, and such demand creates tensions. There is nothing new about this, though the pace is certainly quickening.
The US, rather than respond to one of Dr White’s choices, is instead quite rightly playing a long game. As should Australia as this region is our home. We not only have a stake in it, our very futures are enmeshed.
Yes, our neighbours hedge through military modernization and trade, so must we and so must the US. Recent ASPI publications calling for Australia to limit our ADF are unhelpful. The emphasis must be placed on engagement amidst the change and it is here that the US has been playing a much longer game than Dr White and his acolytes give them credit.
The level of US engagement with China has been significant and ongoing. President Obama has met with President Hu Jintao at least seven times, run at least three major US-China dialogues and in the words of senior US embassy officials, at least half the Cabinet visits China every year.
The number of high level US Defense visits and exchanges is ever increasing and the recent meeting with President-in-waiting Xi Jinping and President Obama followed by the Vice President’s extensive engagement is testimony to that.
It would be great if the US became the third nation to do joint live fire naval exercises with the PLAN and for the US 7th Fleet to sail into Shanghai on a goodwill visit rather than to just Hong Kong, followed or preceded by the PLAN Carrier ‘Varyag’ to Honolulu.
This deeper level of military engagement to match the economic engagement would be enormously welcome. Not just because of the optics, but importantly it would lead to the development of naval protocols for incidents at sea, something the US and the USSR always maintained, yet don’t exist between the US and China. It would lead to further discussions towards agreed ‘freedom of navigation’ in the South China Sea, rather than China’s insistence on merely ‘freedom of passage’.
Importantly there is something unique about relationships that develop when you’re both live-firing and have to rely on each other’s professionalism. This year has been a watershed for such engagement.
For the first time Russia was included in RIMPAC, the world’s largest live fire naval manoeuvres out of Hawaii and Indonesia sent their advanced Russian Sukhoi SU-30 fighters to Australia for Exercise Pitch Black.
It’s easier to trust economically than militarily, but the bonds of trust militarily are always much stronger than economically. The future key to regional co-operation and stability does not lie in simplistic choices, but in deeper sustained engagement that gives flesh to the Chinese term guanxi.
Relationships that are both inter-personal, morally obliging and deeply attaching. The US gets this.
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