America’s military authority is waning and it is ill-prepared to go to war with China in the Indo-Pacific region, a new report from the United States Studies Centre has warned, arguing Australia must move towards a shared reliance on a network of allies, in particular Asian militaries such as Japan, for its security.
The report, Averting Crisis, says America’s defence strategy in the Indo-Pacific region is in “the throes of an unprecedented crisis”, created by a mismatch between its ambition to remain the region’s dominant military power, and an overstretched armed force with falling and failing resources.
“Faced with an increasingly contested regional security landscape and with limited defence resources at its disposal, the United States military is no longer assured of its ability to single-handedly uphold a favourable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific,” the report, by the US Studies Centre’s Ashley Townshend and Brendan Thomas-Noone, says. “China, by contrast, is growing ever more capable of challenging the regional order by force as a result of its large-scale investment in advanced military systems.”
The US will remain influential – it still spends broadly as much on defence as the next eight largest national defence budgets combined – but its military has been overstretched by two decades of counter-insurgency wars in the Middle East, and faces continuing global commitments, ageing equipment, and training cuts.
And while America wants to remain the dominant military power in the Indo-Pacific region, it faces growing deficits and rising public debt, as well as political resistance to continuing increases in military spending.
The US has been forced to prioritise “the urgent over the important,” Townshend told the Guardian.
“China, by contrast, doesn’t yet have global responsibilities, it has regional responsibilities.”
Australia can no longer rely on the US alone for its security in the Indo-Pacific region, and should boost its “collective defence” networks, aggregating its military capabilities with those of allied nations such as Japan, the report says. Townshend says Australia should also look to increase co-operation with other militaries in the region, such as Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore.
“The US has said Asia is their priority, but they don’t behave like it is. A strategy of collective defence is fast becoming necessary as a way of offsetting shortfalls in America’s regional military power and holding the line against rising Chinese strength.” The report says Australia should also consider acquiring its own land-based anti-ship missiles – a move forecast in the 2016 defence white paper – and increase its stockpiles of munitions and fuel “required for high-end conflict”.
US-China relations have deteriorated over the past year, ostensibly over trade, but the rhetoric over other points of tension – in particular Chinese militarisation in the South China Sea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan – has grown increasingly belligerent in recent months. Australia , a strategic ally of the US, has found itself consistently dragged into the dispute.
This month, the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and the Australian defence minister, Linda Reynolds, had to scotch speculation that America planned to ask Australian permission to station its missiles on Australian territory near Darwin.
Pompeo struck a hawkish tone in Sydney, saying Australia could be forced to choose between its strategic alliance with the US, and its largest trading relationship with China.
“You can sell your soul for a pile of soy beans, or you can protect your people,” he said, arguing that the world had been too passive in responding to China as it “began to behave in ways it had not done before”. “The efforts to steal data across networks … or efforts to militarise the South China Sea, something president Xi promised the world he would not do, or engage in activities where they foist money on nations that are desperate for resources and leave them trapped in debt positions which ultimately aren’t about commercial transactions but about political control.”
He said the US would stand up to Beijing, demanding that it adhere to the global international rules-based order.
The US ambassador to Australia was more conciliatory last week, saying America was not in a cold war with China, and was not seeking to provoke a hot one.
While the US would “call out” Beijing where it felt it necessary, diplomatic engagement would remain primary, ambassador Arthur B Culvahouse Jr said. “We’re not living through a cold war at all – we’ve been there and done that and it was a long, tough slog and an expensive and dangerous situation.”
But Chinese rhetoric has grown similarly strident. In an address to the Shangri-La dialogue in June, China’s minister of national defence, General Wei Fenghe, insisted that its “core interests” must be respected.
“No country should ever expect China to allow its sovereignty, security and development interests to be infringed upon. As for the recent trade friction started by the US, if the US wants to talk, we will keep the door open. If they want a fight, we will fight till the end.”
He said interference over Taiwan would lead to military conflict.
“If anyone dares to split Taiwan from China, the Chinese military has no choice but to fight at all costs for national unity … we can find no justifiable reasons for the US to interfere in the Taiwan question … any underestimation of the PLA’s resolve and will is extremely dangerous.”
On Saturday, a spokesman for China’s ceremonial legislature condemned US legislators, including House speaker Nancy Pelosi, for voicing support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protestors, saying the Americans’ comments were “a gross violation of the spirit of the rule of law, a blatant double standard and a gross interference in China’s internal affairs”.
A military confrontation between China and the US would not automatically trigger Australia’s involvement under the Anzus treaty, but there would be significant political pressure on Australia to support the US in any conflict.
Townshend said it was vital for the US to prioritise the Indo-Pacific region, and for Australia to build a more networked collective defence.
“The cold war stayed cold in Europe because the Soviet Union saw the US deterrent threat as credible and saw the consequences that would come. Deterrence held. Deterrence in the Indo-Pacific is currently holding, but it’s getting shaky.”