B-1 bombers brouhaha: minor dispute, big rift
In a showdown with China, Obama would face a humiliating backdown or an unwinnable war. Does Aussies want to be part of that?
Our government was embarrassed and angry last week when Washington told the world that US B-1 bombers would be placed in Darwin. But why the fuss? The B-1 is a Cold War relic from the 1980s and previous governments agreed to them operating from Darwin a decade ago.
The problem was not the aircraft, but the mission. The man from the Pentagon last week said quite plainly that the idea of sending B-1s to Australia was to counter China's growing military power and assertiveness, especially in the South China Sea.
Our leaders are in denial about a fundamental shift in our strategic circumstances.
This statement of the blindingly obvious upset the Abbott government because it is still refusing to acknowledge the United States and China are strategic rivals, and that Australia's alliance with the US makes us strategic rivals of China, too. Instead, the government wants us to believe that nothing Australia does as a US ally is directed against the strategic interests of our largest trading partner.
That is why Tony Abbott's swift and scorching response to the B-1 story was so strongly focused on rebutting this aspect of the Pentagon's announcement. He repeatedly insisted the Australia-US alliance "is not directed against anyone".
The Prime Minister's problem, and Australia's problem, is that this is simply not true any more. It used to be true back in John Howard's day, when China and everyone else happily accepted US primacy in Asia. But now China is directly challenging US regional leadership with military moves over disputed islands and reefs, and the US is pushing back.
This contest is entering a new and more intense phase as China defies Washington by building military bases on disputed reefs in the South China Sea. Last week's B-1 announcement was part of the US response to this. Much more is at stake here than coral reefs or even freedom of navigation. If China can defy US maritime power with impunity in the western Pacific, the United States' strategic position in Asia is greatly diminished.
So the US now sees itself in an increasingly serious political and strategic contest with China over who leads in Asia. Washington naturally looks to its Pacific allies for support in this contest. So US officials do not agree with Abbott. They think the US-Australia alliance today is most definitely directed against someone. It is directed against China.
For Abbott to continue to say otherwise is either astonishingly naive or downright dishonest, or some strange amalgam of both. To be fair, his political opponents are just as bad. Labor under Julia Gillard absurdly insisted the United States' "pivot" to Asia had nothing to do with China when President Barack Obama announced it in Canberra in 2011, and it has failed to engage seriously with the issue since then.
Our leaders are in denial about a fundamental shift in our strategic circumstances that is happening in front of their eyes. They have no idea what to do as our major ally tries to draw us into a spiralling strategic rivalry with our most important and powerful regional neighbour. They repeat the mantra that "Australia does not have to choose between America and China" because they have no conception of how to manage such a choice, even as events are forcing it upon them. Nor do they have the courage to explain to Australians what is happening around us.
So instead, Australian leaders claim China is not really challenging the US. They believe, or pretend to believe, Beijing will be happy to live under US leadership, even as China's economy continues to surge ahead of the US economy. While Americans are girding themselves for a tough and bruising contest with China, Canberra is still acting as if no contest is happening.
And while Washington is assuming and expecting that Australia will stand staunchly at its side against China, Canberra is still saying it does not have to choose sides at all. Not surprisingly, therefore, despite the warm public words from both sides, a big rift is opening between Washington and Canberra. That is what we glimpsed in last week's contretemps over the B-1s. It would be interesting to know what they are saying about Abbott in private in Washington now. Nothing very complimentary, you can be sure.
Meanwhile, even bigger and starker choices loom. Over the last couple of weeks, it has become clear Washington intends to draw some kind of "red line" in the South China Sea. The US plans a program of military deployments directly to confront China's base-building program there. It is very likely that it will ask Canberra to send Australian forces to join these deployments.
After last week's B-1 brouhaha, Australia's standing as a good ally would be even more tarnished if we said no. But Abbott should think very carefully before saying yes, because US plans to show China who is boss in the South China Sea could easily backfire.
If the US military operations are simply flag-waving efforts, China will ignore them and the US will look weak. If they are more than that, and pose a serious threat to China's presence, there is a real chance the Chinese will push right back at them. Obama would then face an appalling choice between a humiliating backdown and an unwinnable war. Abbott might not want to be part of that.
This shows how difficult the situation we face in Asia today really is. It is absurd to deny the US and China are strategic rivals for leadership in Asia. But it would also be wrong and dangerous simply to support the US in trying to confront and contain China's challenge in the kind of military showdown that Washington no doubt wants us to join in the South China Sea.
Instead, we need to be talking to Washington about a more effective and realistic response to China's challenge to US leadership in Asia. But we cannot do that until we face up to the fact that it is happening.
Hugh White is an Age columnist and professor of strategic studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU.