Two events in recent days highlight the extent to which Australia is caught up in our region’s geopolitical structure but seemingly bereft of the capacity for a coherent and nuanced response.
The first was US President Donald Trump fulfilling a campaign pledge to scrap US participation in the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). Notwithstanding that the other two main contenders for the presidency, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, had made identical pledges, the government seemed unprepared for Trump’s signing of the relevant Executive Order.
Only hours before Trump affixed his signature to the Order, Turnbull was “confident” that Trump would change his mind. So confident was the Australian government, and so out of touch with the new realities out of Washington, that they had not instructed DFAT to prepare a Plan “B”.
Labor’s Trade spokesperson Jason Clare had made two FOI requests for evidence of a Plan B only to be told that no such Ministerial request had been made. This is stupidity of a new order of magnitude.
When confronted with the reality of an American withdrawal from the TPP, Turnbull and Trade Minister Ciobo further detached themselves from reality by claiming that China and Indonesia could step in to fill the gap created by the departing Americans.
Having spent the last seven years negotiating an agreement that had at its core a plan to isolate and exclude China, did Turnbull and Ciobo seriously expect China to step in and rescue Turnbull from his own hubris and incompetence?
The Chinese have in any case spent the past several years far more productively, fashioning a series of trade, infrastructure and financial arrangements that are transforming the geopolitics of Eurasia and the Pacific. (1) These include the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) consisting of the ten ASEAN nations plus China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand representing 46% of the world’s population, 40% of world trade, and a combined GDP of $17 trillion dollars.
Other initiatives include the Chinese led Free Trade Area of Asia and the Pacific (FTAAP) which Australia has studiously ignored,; the Asia Investment Infrastructure Bank (now with 70 members) and most importantly the huge One Belt One Road (OBOR) developments which I have examined elsewhere (2).
The second incident illustrative of the alarming blindness of our politicians was Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s visit to the US this past week for what can only be described as the ironically entitled US-Australia Dialogue for Co-operation in the Indo-Pacific.
Urging Mr Trump to boost “American engagement with the major grouping of South-East Asian countries” she said that “most nations wish to see more US leadership, not less, and have no desire to see powers other than the US calling the shots.” Those ‘other powers’ is presumably an allusion to China.
Just who those “most nations” were was unspecified. In the southeast Asian region it would be exceedingly difficult to muster a majority who wanted greater American involvement.
Former UN Assistant Secretary-General Dr Jomo Sundaram (Malaysia) was interviewed on ABC National Radio on 27 January 2017. His much more realistic view was that Asian problems must be sorted out by diplomatic negotiation between the countries of the region, which the US manifestly is not. China, he said, was an essential and integral part of any negotiations.
Later in the same speech Ms Bishop said: “If we seek an Asia in which mutual respect and the rule of law prevail, as we do, then we should work in the fields that ASEAN and its partners have cultivated for 60 years.”
Ms Bishop is obviously working from a different set of historical notes than those of us who inhabit the Asia-Pacific region of the world. During those six decades that she refers to we have seen, inter alia, the violent overthrow of the Indonesian government and the massacre of half a million people, many of them courtesy of a CIA supplied kill list.
During that same 60 years the US invaded, bombed or otherwise destroyed Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, killing at least three million people in the process and wreaking environmental damage on a vast scale.
More recently there has been an expansion of the US military presence to the extent that there are 400 US military bases encircling China. Military exercises, such as Operation Talisman Sabre, with Australian participation, practices blockading the Malacca Strait, a vital waterway for china’s trade, including more than 70% of its oil.
The Obama-Clinton “pivot to Asia” was nothing less than a major shift of US military resources to further the goal of preventing the rise of China as the pre-eminent power of the Eurasian and Southeast Asian spheres of influence.
As Hugh White recently noted, the dispute in the South China Sea is not about reefs, atolls, artificial islands or even international maritime law. It is really about whose power prevails in the region: the US or China. (3)
The ill-considered remarks of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at his confirmation hearing amounted to a threat of war with China. Mr Tillerson may have been telling his audience what he thought they wanted to hear, but since his confirmation he has not resiled from those remarks in any way.
Is it really the case that Australia wants to go to war with its largest trading partner by a significant margin, and the foundation of our prosperity for the past 30 years? In the context of the recent reported remarks by Turnbull and Bishop it is difficult to accept that they even begin to understand the complexities of our Janus-like foreign policy.
Australia is assuredly an integral part of the American military build-up, from Pine Gap’s role in missile and satellite guidance technology, the recent announcement of an expanded US military presence in Darwin (“the land-based aircraft carrier”) and a long history of following the US into endless wars of choice such as Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria.
Overlaying all this, as evidenced by the remarks made when US Admiral Harry Harris (4) was in Australia last December to more firmly tie Australia to the American war machine, was a delusional capacity to overlook the reality of Chinese military power and their capacity for retaliation if the US and Australia persist in their dangerous game of chicken in the South China Sea.
This capability includes for example the DongFeng41 ICBM with 10 independently targetable nuclear warheads. Their range, contrary to the nonsense spoken during Harris’ visit, encompasses the whole of the Australian mainland. The DongFeng41 travels at supersonic speed and would eliminate Australia as an effective participant in any US led war in less than 30 minutes.
The Chinese have also developed the DongFeng21D, a cruise missile capable of being launched from a submarine, with an accuracy of less than one metre. US aircraft carriers are billion dollar sitting ducks. It is one of the probable reasons, along with superior Russian military technology, that led to the sudden withdrawal of the US aircraft carrier fleet back to the US for urgent upgrading.
As noted above, instead of waging endless war and threatening its neighbours and not so near neighbours, China has pursued a wholly different set of foreign policy priorities. It is China that has become the “indispensible nation” through massive developments in OBOR, the RCEP free trade agreements, foreign aid and investment, and a preference to negotiate settlements to outstanding issues.
This is not the image the western media likes to present, as it does not suit their preferred narrative of “Chinese aggression” when an objective analysis of the facts points to a very different ‘aggressor’ for the past 70 years in the Asian region.
Although it received very little coverage in the Australian media, President Xi’s speech to the Davos meeting on 17 January 2017 perfectly encapsulates the two different models of the superpower’s role in the world.
Australia has what White accurately calls a stark choice. On the one hand it can maintain its obeisance and fealty to the declining American empire and its attendant dangers, or it can opt to play a role in the emerging Eurasian world better suited to its geographical position and one suspects, the overwhelming preference of its people to be part of Xi’s “win-win” new world.
*Barrister at Law and geopolitical analyst. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org