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China’s military and the plan for dominance

Jul 22, 2019 • 17m18s

As China seeks to assert dominance, Australia finds itself upping the stakes in a game it doesn’t want to play.

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China’s military and the plan for dominance

40 • Jul 22, 2019

China’s military and the plan for dominance

[Theme music]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am.

ELIZABETH:

As China seeks to assert dominance in East Asia and the Western Pacific, Australia finds itself wedged between two powers and ill prepared to deal with change. Hugh White on why playing both sides isn’t a policy and how we might have accidentally upped the stakes.

[Theme ends]

Archival tape — Unidentified Man #1:

“It’s been revealed China has approached Vanuatu about building a permanent military presence in the South Pacific”

Archival tape — Unidentified Woman #1:

“We should regard this as a potential game changer, it would have not only security but economic consequences for the region.”

Archival tape — Unidentified Man #2:

“Vanuatu’s government denies it’s considered any proposal for Chinese military basing on its soil.”

Archival tape — Unidentified Woman #2:

“We have very good relationships with Vanuatu and I remain confident that Australia is Vanuatu’s strategic partner of choice.”

ELIZABETH:

Hugh, there were reports last year, which were quickly denied, but they suggested that China was looking to build a naval base in Vanuatu. What would that have meant?

HUGH:

It's certainly true that China is putting a lot of effort into building infrastructure in the Southwest Pacific and so far as I can see, people in government in Canberra do believe that China is seriously looking for some kind of military access in the Southwest Pacific whether it's in Vanuatu or somewhere else.

ELIZABETH:

Hugh White is an Emeritus Professor of Strategic Studies at ANU. His latest book is How to Defend Australia.

HUGH:

And I suspect that the most credible reason for China to want to do that is not that it actually wants to base forces there, but it wants to show the rest of us that it can and in a sense the more we say “please don't do that” the stronger the incentives for them to do it, because that's the way power politics works.

ELIZABETH:

And what is it that China wants?

HUGH:

I think China wants what every other great power wants, that is it wants to control its international environment as much as possible. I think at the very least China wants to be the primary power in East Asia and the Western Pacific, that means it dominates that part of the world - the way for example, America has dominated this part of the world since the Second World War.

ELIZABETH:

So if China did build this base it would be the first base close to Australia that had been built by a non-ally since Japan was pushed back after the Pacific War...that’s a big deal.

HUGH:

If we think about how you defend Australia, the fact that all of our immediate neighbours except Indonesia are smaller and weaker than us and the fact that they don't have other major powers - potentially hostile major powers - with military access to their territory is one of the things that makes us feel so secure. So we would I think quite naturally feel a lot less secure, if a potentially hostile major power had bases there. Now, the great thing about Australia and it's the old sort of you know tyranny of distance thing, is that our remoteness is both a strength and a weakness. The good news is we're a long way from potential enemies. The bad news is we're a long way from potential allies. And th-- part of the drama of Australia's strategic history is that whereas if you're a country like Canada for example and you’re depending on the United States for your security, you know no Canadian ever lies awake at night wondering whether America will come to their aid if they're attacked, whereas Australia has always been completely different.

ELIZABETH:

So basically from Federation to the 60’s we had largely the same approach to the Pacific?

HUGH:

Exactly.. And that core of that approach was colonisation. You know we wanted to make sure that no other countries got into this part of the world. The best way for us to do that, we thought, was either for us to colonise them or for the British to colonise them on our behalf, and that's the long backstory to Australia's colonial position in Papua New Guinea, for our very strong encouragement of Britain's colonial position in the Solomon Islands and in Fiji. So that tradition of colonialism was very much, from Australia's point of view, a strategic response to the strategic imperative to deny those islands to other people, rather than because we're particularly interested in them ourselves. And the question is does that old methodology still work for us? And I'm not sure it does.

ELIZABETH:

But these countries gain independence from the 60’s onwards, what did that then mean for our security and our relationship to the Pacific?

HUGH:

Well, what it meant was that we had to start thinking of managing our relations and managing our interests... Not on the basis of us controlling those territories as the colonial power, but as us managing it as a bilateral relationship with independent countries. And at first we were pretty optimistic about that. Their relationship was very intimate. But since independence that intimacy has fallen away. Very few Australians have much knowledge of Papua New Guinea...

ELIZABETH:

...or the Pacific generally.

HUGH:

Or the Pacific in general. That's exactly right. And so the whole sense of engagement and interest that for you know our grandparents generation was very natural, is today you know virtually disappeared for Australia...just to sort of take it for granted that we were the primary power and the best friend of these countries. That presumption was easy to preserve as long as it wasn't seriously challenged, but now it is being seriously challenged and it's looking pretty threadbare.

ELIZABETH:

And with that shifting attention, what is China doing in the region?

HUGH:

I think there are three dimensions to it. The first is that China is obviously looking to build a bigger economic position in this part of the world. It's becoming a bigger and bigger trading partner, it's becoming a bigger and bigger investor, it's becoming a bigger and bigger aid donor and that is partly motivated by straightforward economic desires.

But there's also, and the second element is that it is seeking to build a bigger diplomatic position there. I do think it seeks to challenge Australia's position as these countries most important international relationship.

But the third element is, I do think there's a reason for China to take a particular interest in the Southwest Pacific and that is because it is so important to us and Australia is an important part of China's agenda to challenge United States leadership in Asia. From China's point of view to persuade Australians that they have no choice but to accept a bigger strategic role by China in the Southwest Pacific is to demonstrate both to Australians and therefore to Americans just how far China's power and influence is growing. This is a classic struggle between two great powers as to which is a dominant power in the region. In that sort of contest this kind of status game is quite an important part of it. That is, I demonstrate that I'm a rising power over the other guy by showing that I can do things that he doesn't want me to do...

ELIZABETH:

...and get away with it.

HUGH:

And get away with it. And you know the old schoolboy taunt of you and whose army? And so I think quite apart from their direct economic and diplomatic and political interests in the Southwest Pacific, I also think there is an element which the Southwest Pacific has become, if you like, a testing ground for which of the US and China is the more powerful state in Asia and in the Western Pacific.

ELIZABETH:

Huge, there’s a logic in geopolitics that a power will spread until it essentially hits the wall or the boundary of another power...

HUGH:

Well yes. One of the big questions is how far does China's ambition spread?

I think sensible people in China are likely to understand that they won't succeed in establishing primacy beyond East Asia in the western Pacific. If they try to extend further west they're going to run into India. Now India is not yet the kind of power that China is but it's clearly heading in that direction. Now the exciting, demanding, frightening but also perhaps quite beneficial factor for Australia, is that we may well be on that boundary. And, living on the boundary between spheres of influence of two great powers like China and India is, as I say, it’s a bit scary but it's also got opportunities, because we can rely on India to try and offset China's influence on us, and China to offset India's influence on us, it’s classic buffer state border diplomacy.

ELIZABETH:

But even within that, there’s a calculus that this country has not paid much attention to historically….

HUGH:

Absolutely.

There is no country in the world probably that has a stronger emotional attachment to the idea of being an ally. And the idea of loyalty as an ally, whereas the whole art of sitting on a boundary between two great powers is you’re not loyal to anyone, requires a certain coldness.

[Music starts]

ELIZABETH:

We’ll be right back

[Music ends]

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ELIZABETH:

Hugh, there are huge shifts happening in diplomacy for us between China and the US, do you think Australia has been slow to recognise the rise of China and also that our position or our response, is it going to have to change as a result?

HUGH:

When the historians look back at the last 20 years they'll be completely bewildered at how determined Australian political leaders and the broader so to speak policy community has been, to keep on believing that somehow China won't end up changing the way Asia works. So when political leaders keep on saying, “we don't have to choose between America and China’”-- what they really mean is “we won't have to choose between America and China because America and China won’t be strategic rivals, because China won't bother challenging the United States, because the United States is too powerful.” And you know, how we could keep on believing that as we saw China's economy just keep on growing up to and then past America's and our own government acknowledges that China's economy is going to end up being almost twice as big as America's in 2030, just eleven years from now. So they -- it seems very unrealistic to expect that America is going to continue to play that position and yet Australian governments have not been willing to acknowledge that either to the public, but more importantly I think even to themselves, and that means we haven't begun to frame the revolution in Australian foreign policy. I think it's no exaggeration to say this is the biggest shift in Australia's international setting since European settlement.

ELIZABETH:

There are some responses and beginnings to try to respond to this. Can we briefly look at what we're doing in response to this right now?

HUGH:

Well, there are the very beginnings of responses but I think they're still very hesitant. One part of it has been a determination over the last couple of years to start talking more to other countries in Asia about what's going on. So we saw, for example, last year that the then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull convened an Australia ASEAN summit for the first time. The rationale for that was that Turnbull wanted to deepen our conversation with ASEAN countries about what's happening in Asia and how we should respond. But I think it was entirely ineffective... partly because it was far too big and far too public, and because it was far too big and public no one was prepared to be really frank about it.

What you need in this is not grandstanding with you know tonnes of flags of all the ASEAN nations lined up in front of the hotel. What you need is some really deep, earnest, private conversations in which we start frankly acknowledging to our neighbours how much the region is changing and what kind of choices we really face. And that gets to the second point that is that because our governments haven't acknowledged to themselves how big the shifts are, they haven't been able to conduct serious conversations with our neighbours. Now there was a very important speech given in Singapore at the beginning of June by the Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, which for the first time from an Asian leader really acknowledged how serious the challenges in Asia are and how misguided a lot of American responses are.

Archival tape — Unidentified Woman:

“Mr Lee’s speech addresses the US China rivalry, a relationship that’s expected to dominate talks. Now let’s listen in.”

Archival tape — Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong:

“Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, Australia, as well as many of its friends and partners, including Singapore, have China as their largest trading partner, their all allies of the United States, friends of the United States, but their largest trading partner is China. They all hope that the US and China with resolve their differences, they want to be friends with both, to nurture security and economic ties with the US, as they grow their business links with China. In a new Cold War, there can be no clear division between friend and foe. Nor is it possible to create a NATO or Warsaw pact equivalent, with a hard line drawn through Asia or drawn down the middle of the Pacific Ocean…”

HUGH:

And it was very interesting to me that Scott Morrison went out of his way just a few days later to praise that speech. Even though in Washington people were very surprised and distressed and disappointed by it. So that's just the beginnings of an adaptation.

ELIZABETH:

And nonetheless, at the same time Morrison seems to still be working with Vice President Mike Pence in the United States to talk about things like a base on Manus Island. So it's almost like that old habit hasn’t... it dies hard.

HUGH:

That's exactly right. I think we're only we're only one tenth of the way towards an effective adaptation and I think one of the things that's happening is that Morrison, like his mentor and inspiration John Howard does very much like to see himself as a foreign policy operator close to home, keep it small and local. He seems to me that he's very reluctant to really challenge China's rising power in East Asia as a whole, but he does have this idea of challenging it in our own backyard. I think he's also - like many other people - trying to ride both horses at once but I think it's a big mistake for duplicity not to become an instrument of policy but a substitute for one. And that's where we are at the moment.

ELIZABETH:

And in fact this proposal for the base on Manus Island, it’s an interesting example of the point you just made: where duplicity becomes a substitution for sensible policy. What are the implications of that base?

HUGH:

I think the base is a really dumb idea. The first is that I don’t think it’s going to achieve anything militarily. People often focus on the symbolic value of military moves like that. But in the end, symbolic value depends on its practical value. What will this actually do for it? And I don't believe it will do anything for us. The second point is that I do think it provides an added incentive for China to counter us. If we build a base there, it actually provides an incentive for the Chinese to do the opposite and say “OK well you’ll build a base in Manus, so we'll build a base in... somewhere else”. In a game that we don't want to play, we've raised the stakes ourselves. I don't think that was smart.

[Music starts]

ELIZABETH:

Hugh, you've worked in this space for many years as an advisor and as an analyst. What do you think now is likely to happen?

HUGH:

Look I think there's a real challenge for Australia's policy community to really come to terms with the scale of the changes that we're facing. And one of the interesting questions is: what will it take for Australia to break out of the complacency about the future of American powers? Either it will take a genuine piece of political leadership. The other way it might happen is that there'll be some major catastrophic event. For example a flare up over Taiwan. And the Americans will be faced with a really tragic choice as to whether to go to war to support Taiwan against China or not. Whichever they choose, it'll be a disaster. Because if they don't go to war to support Taiwan, America's credibility in Asia will be shot.

And then I think Australian political leaders will start saying, well what do we do? And if they do go to war with China, then there's a question as to whether Australia would support them in doing that and if they didn't then the Americans would walk away from us. So, if we don't get either very strong and effective political leadership on this issue, or a major crisis which, if you like, forces everyone's hands, the very real possibility is that as America's influence -- as I'm pretty sure it will -- just continues steadily to decline, if our dependence on them doesn't decline, then our position in Asia will deteriorate to the point where we find ourselves facing a very different Asia 20 or 30 years from now. And we will be much, much worse off.

ELIZABETH:

Hugh White, thank you so much.

HUGH:

My great pleasure.

[Music ends]

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[Music starts]

ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

Parliament resumes today, with legislation to be debated on laws to punish protest on agricultural land, a response to vegan actions in the sector. The laws would harshly criminalise trespass on all land deemed agricultural.

The government will also deal with repeal legislation for the so called Medivac laws passed by the last parliament, which compel the minister to heed the advice of medical experts.

It will also look at an extension of powers to halt the citizenship rights of Australians suspected of terrorism abroad, blocking their re-entry to the country for a period of two years. This legislation has been criticised by constitutional lawyers and security experts.

This is 7am. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. See you Tuesday.

[Music ends]

As China seeks to assert dominance in East Asia and the Western Pacific, Australia finds itself wedged between two powers and ill prepared to deal with change. Hugh White on why playing both sides is not a policy and how Scott Morrison accidentally upped the stakes.

Guest: Professor of strategic studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU Hugh White.

Background reading:

In denial in Australian Foreign Affairs
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz and Atticus Bastow. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Equate Studio.

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40: China’s military and the plan for dominance