A Few Marines Won't Upset the Asia-Pacific Balance
The strategic balance between China and the US, and Australia's place in it, has become the subject of acute debate in Canberra.
The issue is whether Australia could support an American "containment of China" policy, even if that ran the risk of war, or whether Australia could help persuade the US and an inevitably rising and assertive China to agree on a "balance of power" between them in the Indo-Pacific region.
The oddest thing about the debate is that most of it is out of date or has lost touch with realities.
The top Chinese leadership, while understandably keeping a firm hold on land and waters it thinks it owns, has very little interest in foreign affairs just now. Korea is safely divided. No threat looms. The really major problems for China are all domestic.
The country is working its way through a number of difficulties. The most obvious is the changing of the guard at the top of the Communist Party and government.
Another is the massive and extraordinarily complex social change involved in the transformation of the economy. The rules laid down by Deng Xiaoping in 1978 must be jettisoned to accommodate patterns stemming from China's contemporary demographic and political problems.
A third is social unrest bubbling under the surface in popular resentment at massive inequalities of wealth as well as local brutalities by arrogant CCP officials. On average, China now has 500 protests a day against such local thuggery.
There are other difficulties, brought on by the very growth of the Chinese state. Massive state-owned banks and industries have become semi-independent fiefdoms. So have elements of the People's Liberation Army. Is there really, in operational and administrative terms, a Chinese navy?
China's North Sea Fleet, East Sea Fleet and South Sea Fleet seem to have many views and activities of their own.
Of course after the coming October-December CCP realignments, there will again be a supreme command, with the standing committee of the party's politbureau at its peak. Still, whether the new leaders will be as commanding as their predecessors remains to be seen. Also, the greater the reach and grasp of the state, the less time leaders will have for details.
There is no Western (or, for that matter, Asian) power that has a closer knowledge and understanding of China than the US. Persons in the highest reaches of US government, not to mention lesser institutions, have made a point of visiting Beijing and being in close personal touch.
The US has repeatedly rejected the idea of containing China. Only last month, the Deputy Secretary of Defence, Ashton Carter, returned from Beijing reiterating the US position.
"We seek to strengthen our very important relationship with China and believe that China is key to developing a peaceful, prosperous and secure Asia-Pacific region," he said.
Chinese defence authorities have said much the same. Since both are visibly careful not to tread on each other's strategic toes, both are credible.
The idea that they need Australia to help adjust any differences is laughable. So is the notion of a clearly defined "balance of power" among the US, China, Japan and India. (Incidentally, the now much-quoted 1815 arrangements in Europe had much less to do with borders than with keeping in check the spirit of revolution that had spread from France in the 1780s and 90s.) Balances of one kind and reach or another will emerge, with the flow of events and economies, and depending on the political intentions and diplomatic skills of the major powers. None of that lends itself to clear predictions, let alone micro-planning.
Australia has its own problems, many of which don't concern the US, such as close relations with Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the southwest Pacific or Antarctica. Beyond that, Washington will listen to Canberra when Australia has good ideas or something to contribute, or our national interests are at stake, and because we have been a reliable and trusted partner for a century or more.
Meanwhile, the American "pivot" to Asia will maintain US command of the Pacific and support for friends, including Japan, and links with India. The idea that 2500 US marines in Darwin could contain, let alone threaten, China is absurd. What those marines, together with possible future US navy access to Western Australia, might bring to us is something much more important: a primary strategic role in providing support, supply and transit for the US and for any Indo-Pacific alliance it may lead, between the Pacific and the Indian Ocean.
And for secure access, via Diego Garcia, to the Middle East, the Gulf and West Asia.
Some voices will continue to plead that we should stay out of affairs that don't immediately concern Australia. But what could those be? Will Australia not be critically affected by what happens in the eurozone? Or by relations between Israel and Iran? Or by new internet developments anywhere? The idea of "our region" belongs to yesterday.