America Abandons Australia? Unlikely
Suppose Australian Senator Pauline Hanson (Australia’s right-wing answer to Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) proposed the following: Scrapping Australia’s surface fleet, buying a hundred or two F35s, building 36 submarines, earmarking the army for South Pacific constabulary duty, doubling the defense budget, and developing nuclear weapons. And all premised on the clairvoyant certainty the United States will be gone from Asia in 20 years.
Few people would be saying, “you know….maybe she’s onto something.’”
But renowned Australian defense commentator, Hugh White says it in his new book, “How to Defend Australia” – and the foreign affairs and defense policy commentariat (including in America) does back flips.
Others have ably dissected the difficulties and dangers of doing what Mr. White recommends.[ But since the whole thing assumes America will be leaving Australia in the lurch, and since I’m an American, I’ll take a crack at it.
Will the United States depart Asia and abandon Australia in the foreseeable future? Anything is possible. But it’s not possible enough to warrant upending Australia’s current defense policy.
First, where is the evidence of an American drawdown in Asia? Despite Obama’s bumbling, that allowed the PRC to dominate the South China Sea, Trump pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, and the President’s comments about an “unfair” alliance with Japan while picking trade fights with America’s friends, nobody in Washington seriously talks about ending alliances, closing bases, and pulling back to Hawaii.
Indeed, the U.S. military is busier than ever in the Asia-Pacific. U.S. embassies are not emptying out, nor are American businesses giving up on Asia, even as they reluctantly wise-up to a rigged China market.
Second, if the U.S. wants an Asian presence, Australia is indispensable – not least owing to geography – as Australia anchors the southern end of a U.S. “defense line” stretching from Japan southwards. Otherwise, write off the southern Pacific – and forego opportunities to exert influence into Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. And beyond geography, Australia is a trusted, irreplaceable ally that serves as a political and military “force multiplier” – in the region and globally.
Of course, American willingness to defend any country is not “static.” It should not be taken for granted. Several things factor in – strategic geography, economic interests, historic and cultural ties and shared experiences.
There is also the potential blow to America’s global reputation as a reliable ally if Washington stands aside when a friend is threatened.
Australia fares well under these criteria.
And Americans will also sometimes fight just because they think it is the right thing to do. Consider what the U.S. has done for Afghans, Kuwaitis, Kosovars, and others rather less deserving than Australians.
Conversely, a nation can solidify a U.S. commitment by demonstrating its willingness to defend itself. Unlike many of America’s allies, Australia takes defense seriously and will even pay for it. And, after decades of joint training exercises, liaison officer exchanges and suchlike, the U.S. and Australian defense relationship is tight.
Even more, Australian forces have pitched into just about every fight involving America since World War I – and probably some we don’t know about. In Australia’s case, blood buys a lot of commitment.
Admittedly, it is disconcerting to hear Australian politicians talk about relying on the U.S. for security and the PRC for business. And it’s even worse to see some Australian politicians and former politicians – disproportionately, though not exclusively, from the Labour Party – dismissing the PRC threat, and in some cases taking Chinese money. But deep down there are few doubts in Washington that Australia values and wishes to maintain the alliance – regardless of which party is in power in Canberra.
Australia should feel even better about its prospects when considering the solid U.S. commitment to Japan. Despite having some excellent niche military capabilities and a longstanding defense relationship with the U.S., some cynics describe Japanese government support for the Americans as “figuring out the minimum necessary and doing a little less.”
But the U.S. foreign policy community exploded the other day when Trump mused that the defense treaty is unfair – and implied – though not very seriously – that the U.S. might leave Japan to fend for itself.
It’s the same ferocious response to suggestions America pull back even a little from South Korea – where a sizable chunk of the political class and even the public is basically “anti-American” – and sees the U.S. as the reason the Peninsula is divided.
All things considered, America probably couldn’t abandon Australia even if the thought crossed its mind.
America: Willing but overmatched?
While the United States may want to remain in Asia, might Chinese power become so overwhelming that the U.S. is forced to cede the region as Mr. White suggests? That’s possible, but not inevitable.
America has been declared “finished” in Asia more than once.
In 1990, the smart money insisted Japan was going to dominate the region – if not the world. The 7th Fleet would take orders from Tokyo. Hardly. And before that, in 1975, when South Vietnam fell, America was supposedly on its last legs in the Asia-Pacific. Not quite.
But now we hear….”this time is different. China is so big.”
Maybe so. But the United States still has immense military and economic power. It also has allies and geography in its favor. The PRC does not. And despite the handwringing over President Trump’s manner, America has plenty of so-called “soft power.” It will be time to worry only when the long visa lines at U.S. embassies and consulates disappear.
Indeed, the United States will be pushed out of Asia only if it allows it to happen. Abandoning allies like Australia would be a big step in the wrong direction.
If that’s what Washington intends for Australia, its behavior is curious. Exercises between U.S. and Australian forces are increasing. More Marines are coming to Darwin, basing U.S. Navy ships and submarines in West Australia is a possibility, a base on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea is to be jointly developed, and U.S. Army Pacific is on its second Australian General as Deputy Commander.
It appears neither the Pentagon nor the Australian Defense Ministry have gotten the word that the Americans are leaving the region.
A return to a policy of appeasing the PRC seems unlikely. That alone improves America’s odds in Asia.
For the first time in 40 years, a U.S. administration has called the PRC an adversary and laid out a regional strategy coincidentally designed to prevent what Mr. White says must happen.
Ironically, the more aggressive China’s behavior, the more committed the U.S. is to staying in Asia. Beijing probably bared its fangs a decade early – and regional nations now have few doubts about Chinese intentions. And, except for North Korea and maybe Cambodia’s Hun Sen, nobody is clamoring for America to leave.
Even, if in a fit of madness, a future U.S. administration introduces an “offshore balancing” or other economy of force scheme – pulling out large numbers of U.S. forces and using Australia and other regional powers to check the rise of China, this won’t leave Australia isolated – at least not for long.
There is simply no combination of regional nations – even if nuclear armed – that can withstand the PRC.
Try “offshore balancing” – or even discuss it – and before long America will put on the brakes – though with some lost credibility.
Ultimately, it’s hard to understand Mr. White’s fretting over the future of the U.S. – Australian relationship. Rather, it’s a textbook example of a small nation making itself valuable – and even indispensable (or perceived as such) to a larger, more powerful nation.
So if Australia keeps doing what it’s been doing for the last 50 years, and gets the Americans “down under” as often (and as permanently) as possible – it can have American support as long as it wants it.