Sam Roggeveen, in Sydney Morning Herald, 16 June 2021, with this Headline: “The West is not coming to Australia’s rescue. We need new alliances”
The summits of the G7 group and the NATO alliance over the past few days have produced an avalanche of headlines about a growing anti-China mood among Western nations and an appetite to stand up to Beijing’s assertiveness.
Let’s hope the Australian government is not taking these headlines too seriously, because the harsh truth is that there will be no Western alliance to contain China, and no united democratic front against Beijing’s authoritarianism. The sooner we realise this and build it into our foreign and defence policies, the safer we will be.
It’s important to stress that this is not an argument about Western “decline”, which is a vastly overstated prospect. The European Union is a massive and vibrant economic actor, and NATO is one of the most successful alliances in modern history. The United States remains fantastically powerful, and that won’t change in our lifetime. It has a resilient and growing economy, favourable demographics (lots of young people), tremendous capacity for innovation, a huge military, and it is surrounded by vast oceans to the east and west and friendly neighbours to the north and south.
But of course, China is huge too. Even if we accept all the pessimistic prognoses about China’s economic future – ageing population, ballooning debt, environmental disasters – it is safe to assume that a country which already boasts the world’s second-largest economy will hold on to that mantle, and might even ascend to first place.
Doesn’t Europe have an interest in protecting democracy from the rise of authoritarianism? Perhaps, but China is not an ideological exporter. While it certainly wants to defend its own political system from Western liberal influences, it shows no signs of wanting to impose its model on the world as the Soviet Union once tried.
Many of these same arguments apply to the United States, but the difference is that Washington already has a substantial security presence in Asia and a network of alliances. It is trying to defend a position of leadership which it has held for decades. That is a powerful motivation. The United States may decide that holding on to leadership in Asia is so important that it ought to engage in a fierce contest of economic and political systems in order to defend its status.
But is leadership alone enough of a motivation? Will the US engage in such a costly contest, and risk a potentially catastrophic war, just to preserve its status? Because there really is no other pressing reason for the US to go all-in. China is no more of a threat to America’s cherished democratic principles than it is to Europe’s political systems. America is also one of the most secure nations in the world – it cannot be invaded or militarily coerced. And as for protecting its economic interests: well, if Europe can grow its economic ties with Asia even though it has no military presence there, why can’t the US do the same?
None of this is to say Australia is friendless and that our alliance with the US is worthless. An American withdrawal from Asia is a very distant prospect. But while the US will remain an important partner, the Morrison government should assume that the credibility of America’s alliance commitments in Asia will diminish over time. China’s rise means the costs to America of meeting its commitments to allies have risen sharply, while the incentives for doing so are diminishing. And that means allies will no longer believe, deep in their bones, that the US will be there for them in a military emergency.
Does that mean Australia is entirely on its own? No, the United States, and to a lesser extent Europe, will remain important partners, particularly when it comes to selling high-tech weapons and sharing intelligence. But if there is a natural security partner for Australia in this era it is not to be found among the Western nations with which we have traditionally partnered. The obvious candidate is Indonesia, south-east Asia’s leader and future economic player of global standing. Jakarta and Canberra should work towards a new era of strategic co-operation built on the common objective of keeping maritime south-east Asia free of domination by China.
The days of Western dominion in Asia are over. Australia’s security must rest on a deep and enduring connection with its neighbours.
Sam Roggeveen is Director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute. Connect with Sam on Twitter.