An Australian Perspective on U.S. Rebalancing toward Asia

Interview with Rory Medcalf
April 30, 2012

NBR spoke with Rory Medcalf, Strategic Asia 2011–12 contributing author and director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, to assess the U.S. “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region and growing security concerns over China’s military development and territorial disputes.

An Interview with Rory Medcalf

By Sarah Serizawa
April 30, 2012

Earlier this month, U.S. Marines arrived in Australia for training exercises with the Australian Defence Force under the U.S.-Australia military agreement signed in November 2011. As part of a strategic rebalancing initiative, the U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific is expected to increase. NBR spoke with Rory Medcalf, Strategic Asia 2011–12 contributing author and director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, to assess U.S. rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific region and growing security concerns over China’s military development and territorial disputes.

As the United States rebalances toward Asia, what is the significance of an increased U.S. military presence in the region, such as the stationing of U.S. Marines in Australia, for the security and stability of Asia? What has motivated this strategic initiative, and how would you gauge China’s reaction?

We heard clear rhetoric from President Obama in his Canberra speech back in November, but the extent of material changes to the presence of the United States in Asia is not yet known. We’ve got the rotating deployment of U.S. Marines in Darwin, littoral combat ships probably stationed out of Singapore, and the potential for increased U.S. naval and air force access to facilities in Australia’s north and west. There is talk of U.S. forces returning to the Philippines in some way and the continued rebalancing of forces in South Korea and Japan. What is not clear is whether all this really adds to aggregate American power in the region, whether it will greatly improve the ability to deploy fast and in strength.

The symbolic significance is more important than the strategic impact. These moves do symbolize a U.S. commitment to allies and partners in Asia. But these forces would not make a large difference in a hypothetical military confrontation with China. They will undoubtedly be useful, however, for training with allies and partners and in multilateral activities. And they will add materially to the region’s ability to deal with transnational scenarios like counterterrorism and disaster relief.

China is uncomfortable with the idea of the United States becoming more strategically engaged in Asia, even though it has benefited from the stability of the U.S. presence over the years. Beijing has recently asked, or warned, Australia to build stronger security and strategic dimensions into its ties with China, to bring them more in balance with the very strong trade ties. In fact, Australia’s military already has quite good relations with the People’s Liberation Army and has provided a conduit of contact during phases when U.S.-China and Japan-China military-to-military ties were in trouble. Australia certainly ought to build upon those links with frank dialogue and more frequent so-called nontraditional security exercises, maybe even things like sharing training with Chinese peacekeepers on civil-military relations. But it’s difficult to see how this could develop into really deep strategic ties. If Canberra is asked any time soon to make hard strategic choices between China and the United States, the signs are clear about the choice it would make—it has intensified the alliance with the United States.

There has been heated debate in Australia over an increased U.S. military presence. Is Australia still divided on the issue? What is the attitude of the general public? What are the pros and cons of the U.S. deployment from Australia’s perspective?

The Australian public is overwhelmingly in favor of its alliance with the United States. Opinion polling by the Lowy Institute for International Policy shows that about 85% of Australians are to some extent supportive of the alliance. There is, however, a substantial minority view in Australia that is worried by the alliance. And it is quite likely that the number of Australians troubled by the alliance will grow unless diplomacy, especially public diplomacy, is well handled by both countries. I think that the opportunity was not fully seized last November, when President Obama visited, to comprehensively sell the advantages of close Australia-U.S. relations to the Australian people. It was disappointing to see such singular emphasis placed on the military and security side of the relationship. Obama did not visit any major city in Australia and only went to the political capital, Canberra, and to Darwin, where he visited in a military context only. There is a risk that moving too far and too fast on the military side of things could trouble some important elements of Australian society, such as the business community. They need to be fully engaged in national and alliance conversations about the new strategic challenges in Asia. This will be a challenge for the Australian political debate and for American public diplomacy.

The positives of the Darwin deployment include the increased ability of Australian forces to train and learn from American forces. For example, Australia is developing amphibious capabilities basically from scratch and will benefit from working closely with U.S. Marines. Another tangible benefit is the opportunity for Australian forces to work with the Marines and other countries in combined exercises and training in or close to Australian territory. A third benefit of the U.S. Marines deployment to Darwin is that it is a tangible sign of both countries’ commitment to adapting and renewing the alliance.

It is also possible to argue that another benefit of the deployment is that, along with the alliance as a whole, it enhances Australia’s strategic credibility in Asia. I know this runs counter to the claim that Australia is somehow compromising its independence. But most countries in Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, seem comfortable with the U.S. “pivot” toward Asia. It’s quite possible they take Australia more seriously partly because of its close security relationship with the United States. And certainly the closer the Australia-U.S. alliance becomes, the more confident Canberra should feel in offering candid counsel to Washington about Asia policy.

Of course, there has been criticism of the Darwin move within Australia. One argument is that it makes Australia a more likely target in the event of U.S. conflict or confrontation with China. But I would suggest that the longstanding joint Australian-U.S. intelligence facilities in Australia are more strategically significant than a rotation of Marines in Darwin.

In your Strategic Asia chapter “Grand Stakes: Australia’s Future between China and India” you discuss the potential for Australia to increase its maritime strategic weight. Other countries in Asia are considering such a move as well. What actions, if any, are Australia and other regional actors taking? How will these developments contribute to the ongoing strategic interplay between the United States and China?

Australia’s 2009 defense white paper outlined a plan for a much stronger Australian navy, including the acquisition of next-generation submarines and surface ships. This plan faces many financial hurdles, and a debate has ensued over whether to build the submarines in Australia or to buy them from another country. This plan regarding Australia’s strategic weight is no doubt being implemented more slowly than its political mastermind, former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, would have liked. Still, Australia’s navy is becoming more substantial, including two large flat-deck amphibious ships—landing helicopter docks—and several air warfare destroyers coming into service within the next few years. Time will tell if Australia follows through with all aspects of the 2009 white paper.

In some ways, although its diplomacy was roughly handled, the 2009 defense white paper will turn out to be an important document because it foreshadowed a central issue that many observers had underplayed in earlier years: the increase in strategic weight of many countries in the region, not only China. Indonesia has had a weak navy traditionally, but this is changing, for instance, with the acquisition of modern submarines. Singapore, Vietnam, South Korea, and even Japan are all strengthening their navies, especially sub-surface.

It is no great secret that there is a China-centric dimension to the motivations of many of these regional players, whatever the statesmen say. I would not yet call it an arms race but there is something of an action-reaction dynamic. I think each country faces a very uncertain future involving a powerful China, and this is a reason to increase its own maritime strategic weight and explore partnerships with other maritime countries in the region.

The United States, especially with its current defense budget problems, is hardly going to be expected by other countries to provide the totality of their defense needs in the maritime environment. Certainly the diplomacy of strategic maritime alliances will have to be managed carefully because some Chinese analysts will see them as a type of encirclement strategy. But I see it as a much more organic kind of reaction to the growth of Chinese power and the uncertainty of how China will use that power. I think that maritime incidents in the past few years have been crucial catalysts of official and public opinion in that regard.

It appears that China’s navy will continue to expand the range of its operations, both in terms of capabilities and geographical scope. How will the United States and its allies in Southeast Asia cope with the increased contact that may result from this expansion? What would your prescriptions be for the United States and Australia in dealing with territorial and resource disputes involving China and other regional actors?

To be fair, it’s not only or principally China’s navy that been involved in incidents at sea, but in fact more often Chinese civilian and paramilitary agencies, whether they are fisheries, the oceanic administration, or any number of auxiliary actors. In some ways, confrontation with these groups can be more dangerous because civilian agencies probably have less discipline regarding rules of engagement than their military counterparts. But there also remains the risk of incidents involving navies, especially between China and Japan. The dominant Chinese argument has been that they want to see signs of strategic trust before they build the kind of operational confidence-building that would reduce risks of incidents and escalation. I fear it may take more confrontations at sea to galvanize a shift away from that policy.

Other players such as the United States and Australia are right not to take specific positions on territorial disputes and instead to push for respecting international rules, the prevention of force and coercion, and the negotiation of multilateral outcomes. But all of this can only happen with the right policy choices by China and its maritime neighbors.

In your Strategic Asia chapter, you write, “Australia has a strong geopolitical interest in guarding against Chinese regional dominance and considers that such a possibility could be forestalled by a combination of inclusive regional multilateralism, U.S. forward presence and alliances, and balancing strategies by other regional players.” Is the deployment to Darwin what you meant by a “U.S. forward presence”? In terms of “inclusive regional multilateralism,” is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) a promising mechanism? Do you see evidence of “balancing strategies by other regional players”?

The Darwin decision is only a very small part of the U.S. forward presence in Asia; we really should not exaggerate its scale. Regarding claims of the TPP as a new kind of inclusive and rules-based regional multilateralism, there are mixed views about its nature and purpose, and I’m not yet convinced that it will become an enduring part of the region’s architecture. It could be portrayed in China as a tool of economic exclusion, even containment. So every effort will need to be made to convince China that it can become part of the process, though clearly with the requirement of policy changes. The fact is that there is no viable strategy for escaping economic interdependence with China in the future of the Asian strategic environment, and nor should there be.

On the strategic dimension, the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum are good examples of the right kind of inclusive regional multilateralism, an architecture that involves the United States and China and the other key players.

On the question of how other countries are responding to China’s rise, it is quite clear now that most countries in Southeast Asia, as well as maritime Asia more widely, are reacting against Chinese power. At the same time, their economic closeness to China is a reality and their people-to-people contact has increased, which is a good thing. So the strengthening of their militaries and their ties with the United States is a hedging strategy, a just-in-case policy—not an all-or-nothing decision.

It was recently reported that the United States and Australia have advanced plans for an enhanced military presence in the Indian Ocean. What is the significance of this development? Is this move motivated partly by China’s ties with Pakistan?

India is becoming a permanent fixture in the Asia-Pacific and the Indo-Pacific strategic order. It is increasingly clear that India sees itself as a central player in the future of Asian security, including maritime security, as it continues to build security links with many countries in the region while also moving to build confidence with China. And naturally India is and will remain the key power in the Indian Ocean.

Yes, there has been speculation about possible future surveillance flights from Australia’s Indian Ocean territories, and perhaps access by U.S. ships to Australia’s main naval base on the west coast. And Australia could well establish a stronger patrolling presence near its major off-shore resource deposits in the country’s northwest. But I’ve not yet seen evidence of major U.S. or Australian plans for a genuinely strategic military footprint in the Indian Ocean.

Of course, it would be quite logical for Australia and the United States to work with India and others to consolidate a shared security role there. The United States is already a major Indian Ocean power—consider its commitments in the Gulf, consider Diego Garcia, and so on. And Australia has a legitimate Indian Ocean role—it is a nation with a unique two-ocean geography, as much an Indian Ocean nation as a Pacific one. Australia also has massive responsibilities regarding, for instance, search and rescue in the eastern Indian Ocean. Ultimately of course the Indian Ocean is a vital component of the Asian maritime strategic environment—particularly with regard to energy flows. So it makes sense for the United States, Australia, and India, along with other powers, to have a role there. Moreover, Australia and India are essentially Indian Ocean neighbors, with many convergent interests, and it makes sense for them to move beyond indifference and build a working strategic partnership at sea.

The big question remains how a sustainable and stable role for China might develop in the Indian Ocean. China has a legitimate role in the region, given its enormous dependence on seaborne trade and energy. The Chinese anti-piracy escorts and patrols, for instance, have been a natural and welcome move. But to avoid any destabilizing consequences or reactions, China’s expanded role across the Indian Ocean will need to be consistently based on engagement with regional countries, including Australia and India.

Finally, I don’t think there is a strong Pakistan factor to the expansion of Australian, American, and other forces in the Indian Ocean—apart from maybe latent concern about terrorism and extremism if Pakistan became more unstable. Certainty the Indians in particular have been concerned about China’s ties with Pakistan, but the jury is out on how much of a wider strategic challenge this might become. For a long time to come, China’s main Indian Ocean focus will be on trying to safeguard its maritime energy flows.

Sarah Serizawa is an Intern at NBR and a senior at the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies.