It looked like a raised middle finger. A stark, mocking figure 1 - the number of votes garnered when Australia put itself forward a couple of years ago for membership of the United Nations Security Council. Even Iran found 32 supporters when it stood for election in the same round. Australia, apparently, was friendless. So why did the international community shun Kevin Rudd’s ambitions for greater recognition on the world stage?
A similarly cool response was visible when Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono visited Australia in early 2010. Amid the warm glow of mutual public compliments came a blast of scorn for the Prime Minister’s proposed “Asia-Pacific community”. Yudhoyono’s people declined to be drawn into a debate on the initiative, saying merely that “Jakarta’s foreign policy priority lay instead in strengthening the Association of South-East Asian Nations”, according to the account in The Australian.
There’s an important clue here: Rudd’s use of the word “Pacific”. If governance, even decision-making, for the East Asian region is conceived in a Pacific framework, that is significant, because on the other side of the world’s greatest ocean lies, of course, the United States, its land mass stretching, as the song goes, “from sea to shining sea”.
On America’s further seaboard, US interests extend through “Atlanticism”, notably in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), in which Washington is lead partner with 27 countries of Europe. According to the Pentagon’s (in)famous 1992 memo, Defense Planning Guidance (DPG), Europe and East Asia are two of three regions - the Middle East being the other - in which American dominance must be reasserted.
The challenge, according to the DPG, was how to replicate the existing “US-led system of collective security” in the post-Communist era. Of particular importance, the memo said, was “the sense that the world order is ultimately backed by the US”. To this end, “we must prevent the emergence of European-only security arrangements that could undermine NATO”.
Why bring up an 18-year-old internal memorandum? Defense Planning Guidance still resonates because it reads, in retrospect, like a blueprint for US foreign and security policies in the period since its publication: Sidelining the United Nations in favour of ad hoc “coalitions of the willing” - check. Building up American military might to a sufficient extent to deter anyone else from contemplating renewed superpower rivalry - check; with the US continuing to outspend the rest of the world put together on its armed forces.
So how are the strictures of DPG playing out today in our quadrant of the globe, and what are the implications for Australia?
The Kosovo precedent
Consider, first, an early example of this US strategy in action: the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999. A persistent regional conflict involving the Albanian-majority province of Kosovo turned nasty with the emergence of a well-armed irregular force, the Kosovo Liberation Army. The KLA rapidly sidelined the leading political party in the province by such expedients as “kangaroo courts” and “summary executions” of unco-operative municipal officials: the words of a UN report.
Later, journalists revealed the KLA had been equipped and trained by western intelligence agencies, notably the CIA. A peacekeeping mission, deployed by the Organisation for Security Cooperation in Europe, was given a lopsided brief and failed to suppress guerrilla attacks. The Yugoslav army went back in, with trademark heavy-handedness. UK Prime Minister Tony Blair led calls for “humanitarian intervention” to prevent “repression”. US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright reached a backstairs deal on independence with KLA leaders that effectively scuppered peace talks, and NATO had its pretext for 78 days of aerial bombardment.
What had been a political problem, albeit a knotty one, was transformed into a military problem. In the process, the identity of the obvious candidate to provide a solution switched - from the European Union, a political organisation, to NATO, a military one. The other important difference, of course, is that the US is excluded, by definition, from EU membership, whereas it is the de facto leader of NATO. European-only security arrangements had been, to quote Defense Planning Guidance, effectively “undermined”. To secure continuing US influence in the vital interests of its European allies, conflicts had to turn violent to justify the application of military means.
Implications for East Asia today
A similar syndrome risks being replicated in our own quadrant of the globe. Australia has committed A$16 billion to purchase 100 US-made Joint Strike Fighter planes, with an initial order for 14 of the aircraft placed last year, as part of our “defence” budget (pushing us into 11th place on the global list of arms spenders). The combat range of this aircraft is a little over 1,000 kilometres, which puts, by my reckoning, just two countries within its reach: Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Defence Minister, Senator John Faulkner, gave rather more of the game away as he announced the initial tranche of the order in the federal parliament. It would, he said, position Australia “to join in future coalition operations”.
Coalition operations where? Erik Paul, in his memorable study, Little America: Australia, the 51st State, shows how Australia under John Howard grew into its role as a regional “deputy sheriff” in maritime South-East Asia, coming to be regarded in the process as “an integral part of US-UK global geo-strategy”. The Defence White Paper of 2009, Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030, evokes the possible “threat” of South-East Asia being used as “a conduit for the projection of military power against us by others”, only to then downplay this threat by saying that stability “should” continue in the region. In this and other sections of its rhetoric, however, the White Paper brings to mind George Lakoff’s aphorism: “even negating a frame evokes a frame, and evoking a frame strengthens a frame”. (If you want to test the proposition for yourself, try, as a thought exercise, to comply with the following instruction: “Don’t think of an elephant”.)
If Australia is to make provision against even a faint threat of military power being projected against us through South-East Asia, who would be the most likely antagonist? Not the countries of the region themselves but, according to the White Paper, the Chinese. “The pace, scope and structure of China’s military modernisation have the potential to give its neighbours cause for concern if not carefully explained”, the document declares, “if China does not reach out to others to build conﬁdence regarding its military plans”.
The hawkish view
The above quote marks the acceptance by the Rudd Government of the hawkish view among defence analysts of China’s preparations, exponents of which include the corporate-sponsored Lowy Institute, and advisers to the White Paper drafting process, notably Professor Ross Babbage, a former Defence official and arms dealer, who weighed into the debate with a well-timed newspaper column arguing that Australia needs a force at its disposal capable of “ripping the arm off” an invading “major Asian power”. Babbage heads the Kokoda Foundation, whose website announces it as an “independent think-tank” but whose list of sponsors includes the Department of Defence, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and no fewer then ten companies in the arms industry.
On the subject of China’s intentions, the “Kokoda view” contrasts with that of the government’s own public servants. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute - another Defence-funded body masquerading as an “independent think-tank” - positioned itself as a ring-holder in the debate, noting in a contemporary briefing that whereas “senior Australian defence planners now foresee the rise of an aggressive, hegemonic China in Asia [this is] in contrast to intelligence assessments which see no such China in prospect”.
It’s not surprising that the more hawkish assessment won out over that of the professional intelligence community in drafting the White Paper. The Paper was written following a consultation process, including submissions from major weapons manufacturers, chaired by Stephen Loosley, a former Labor senator who, at the time, had just joined the board of Thales Australia. Company chairman Paul McClintock greeted Loosley’s appointment with a promise to shareholders that the new recruit would help Thales “continue to grow and deliver on its strategies”: which, given that Thales’ main strategy is to snag the biggest possible share of the military budget ($1.1 billion in the period 2006-2009, making it the fifth-largest defence contractor) might be thought to amount to a conflict of interests. The other personnel involved, in both the public hearings and the advisory panel, all came from a similar range of backgrounds: the armed forces and the defence industry.
The unambiguous message to China, in both the White Paper and its accompanying procurement plans - also including new submarines, warships and missile systems - did prompt some perturbations. A front-page story in the Sydney Morning Herald, under the headline, “Rudd accused of fuelling new arms race”, stood out among generally supine media responses in highlighting Chinese concerns:
“A Chinese military strategist, Rear-Admiral Yang Yi, told the Herald recently that Australia had spawned a new variation of ‘the China-threat thesis’ that could be emulated by other nations and encourage them to accelerate their rearmament programs. ‘I really can’t understand this stupid, this crazy idea from Australia’, he said. ‘I am very concerned and worried about it’.”
Since then, China has reacted furiously to the announcement of a new US$6 billion program of American arms for Taiwan, and is a ringside spectator at the ongoing US$8 billion upgrade of the US military base on Guam. Conflicts are becoming increasingly militarised, thus further entrenching US dominance in East Asia.