War games could inflame what they aim to prevent: conflict with China
Australia is sleepwalking along a path of military expansion and confrontation in line with US security priorities, instead of setting our own security policies
Stuart Rollo is a writer focused on Asia-Pacific politics
We are now in the second week of Exercise Talisman Sabre 2017. This year is the largest ever of the biennial training and interoperability exercise hosted by Australia, with more than 30,000 troops, including personnel from the United States, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and Canada participating.
The massive set of month-long war games demonstrates Australia’s firm place within the system of US regional military dominance and alliances that has underpinned regional stability since the Vietnam war.
However, as China continues to grow, and the United States continues to pursue total military supremacy, the system now threatens to inflame the very thing it was designed to prevent, large-scale conflict between the region’s most powerful states. The very scenario simulated in Talisman Sabre.
With conflict of this scale considered likely enough to necessitate such enormous preparations, Australian politicians, policymakers, and media outlets should be deeply engaged in a public dialogue centred around defining national interests, defence priorities, and how our relationships with other states reflect these. Instead, Australia sleepwalks along the path of military expansion and confrontation, incapable and unwilling to diverge from American security priorities where they do not reflect our own.
While the public relations branches of the defence forces involved only ever refer to the objectives of the exercise with ambiguous terms like “high end warfighting”, in bare fact, Talisman Sabre simulates a large-scale confrontation between conventional forces, requiring coordination between all branches of the US military, as well as those of their Asia-Pacific allies. It is a dress-rehearsal of the new American battle doctrine, the Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons (JAM-GC), which was developed to ensure continued US military dominance of the Western Pacific and the South China Sea, in the face of growing Chinese military capabilities.
In 2015, during the last iteration of Talisman Sabre, the Australian public was treated to a rare moment of political candour when Greens Senator Scott Ludlam publicly criticized the event, stating that he did not believe that it was in the nation’s best interests “to be preparing for a war with China”.
The reason why most other Australian leaders view preparation for war with our largest trading partner as an indispensable pillar of Australian foreign policy lies in Australia’s unique history of strategic dependence upon our more powerful Anglo-Saxon cousins, and in the foundations of our national psyche.
Hedley Bull, Australia’s best known international relations theorist, believed that Australia’s existential anxiety stemmed from its small population, vast resources, and conviction that our more populous and poorer Asian neighbours would at some point seek a redistribution of Australia’s bounty.
Other scholars have argued that the illegitimate nature of the acquisition of Australia by British colonizers under the legal fiction of terra nullius has informed and amplified our persistent fears of our own dispossession at the hands of an Asian state.
Whatever the origins or legitimacy of these fears, it is this perception of the region and our place in it that necessitates an iron-clad alliance with the United States, and legitimises Australian participation in the ongoing American military containment strategy directed at China, known as the “pivot to Asia”.
The pivot, announced in 2011 by Barack Obama, was billed as a comprehensive strengthening of US diplomatic, economic, and security ties in Asia. But, at its core, the pivot aims to prevent China from overtaking the United States as the region’s preeminent power.
While the diplomatic and economic initiatives of the pivot have always played second fiddle to the security component, the decline of American diplomatic prestige under the Trump administration, and the shredding of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, have now left the military expansion with overwhelming responsibility for upholding American power in the region.
Australia has played a crucial role here. Darwin is now home to a fully-fledged US marine air-ground task force (MAGTF), with convenient access to the South China Sea and all of the Indonesian straits through which most Chinese seaborne trade and energy imports pass. The joint signals intelligence base at Pine Gap, having expanded dramatically in recent years, now plays a crucial role in tracking Chinese missile launches, intercepting data from Chinese satellites, and mapping Chinese radar installations.
It is easy to understand why the United States seeks to extend its regional dominance into the foreseeable future. The last time a hegemonic challenger emerged in Asia, the nation was drawn into the second world war. But American security will never be stable if it depends on perpetual global dominance. Indeed the ballooning of an already overwhelmingly powerful American military apparatus in the region will only feed a rapidly accelerating cycle of military expansion on both sides.
The Chinese government is not saintly, but neither is it territorially revisionist on anything like the scale of imperial Japan, and its growing power should not be viewed in the same light.
Australia should wholeheartedly support an American strategy that recognises this, and works tirelessly to accommodate reasonable Chinese power while also undergirding the rights of other states in the region.
But we must also maintain the ability to diverge where American power is being perpetuated for its own sake, and where it threatens to inflame rather than reduce tensions and security competition. Our eager hosting of exercises simulating war with China are one small indicator of how far we are from such a position of security policy independence. ■