http://www.digitaljournal.com/news/world/op-ed-australia-and-asia-re-evaluate-as-us-china-policy-fragments/article/556370

Op-Ed: Australia and Asia re-evaluate as US-China policy fragments

Posted Aug 21, 2019 by Paul Wallis
Living in this region, US policy looks like a true raffle in terms of intentions and future positions. It’s not just China that’s getting people edgy; United States policy is itself so often unimpressive and outdated.
The biting trade war with the United States has eroded confidence and hit the Chinese economy hard
The biting trade war with the United States has eroded confidence and hit the Chinese economy hard
Brendan Smialowski, AFP/File
It’s now got to the point where some analysts are saying the US is “unreliable” as an ally. The current situation is hardly inspiring. Policy jingles like “Team West should muscle up against China” are bordering on catastrophically banal. Trying to rouse the Asia/Australian region against China overlooks almost all local realities. This is typical of a perceived lack of American comprehension of absolute basics in the region.
On the most infantile geopolitical level, this “muscling up” sort of drivel can only be seen as rubbish. It looks like a progressively more shabby, not to say downright senile, superpower clinging to its top position, and doing it very badly.
To say that this pointless rhetoric isn’t going over would be quite an understatement. Add a trade war using 1940s-style economic models, and it’s worse. American judgement is now seriously under question across a very wide bandwidth.
The Australian position, sort of
In Australia, the American scattergun position has brought up some pretty grim issues. Should we get nukes? Should we simply arm ourselves to the teeth, and stop relying on the US for support? Can we rely on the US in a crisis, because some experts are saying that we can’t.
Our own thinking on these subjects has been so stagnant for so long we’re not exactly finding a new logic but creating it and seeing what it does. It’s a messy process. We’re also glued to Asia by geography and economics.
We are very much less than impressed with the very much unwanted position of “Us or Them” in terms of relations with the US and China. As we see it, we’re being put in an impossible position, and we don’t like it. We particularly don’t like the assumption that US or Chinese geopolitics should define ours.
We have no reason to tolerate being told who to do business with, or who our friends are. The level of disrespect of our interests is truly insufferable. Tweedledee and Tweedledum can both go take a flying dynamic at themselves on this subject.
Whatever our reservations about China’s somewhat ham-fisted, flat-footed moves in various areas, having the US starting potential conflicts and confrontations is no better.
Consider our US relations in categories:
• Trade and social: We’re organically related nations. We have endless ties through personal and business relationships, and have had for generations.
• Military: We get on pretty well with the US military., at least with the guys who do the fighting. We’ve fought god knows how many wars together, and the relationship between our armed forces is always pretty solid and respectful.
• Politics: Australia has tended to follow US foreign policy on many issues, not always with glee. We frequently do see things the same way, although governments may disagree on specific issues.
You can see how much of a major upset having to re-evaluate the relationship with the US on any level, let alone all of them, could be. It would be premature to say that Australia could or would happily walk away, but even the idea is new to us, and frankly disturbing.
This whole range of issues, for a nice change, isn’t merely about the Trump administration. US Asian policy has become outdated. OK, standard geopolitical strategy for any nation is to create an advantage, hold all the good cards, etc. That’s just not happening.
The various conflicts with China, for example, have gone precisely nowhere. “Containing” China was an absurd idea, and it didn’t work at all. Everyone, including the US, does a lot of business with China. Containment was never going to happen, yet it was an actual policy? Other countries were expected to take it seriously?
A lot of China’s growth was paid for by trade with the US. Expecting the world to shop elsewhere was at best an imbecilic idea. Now, we should “muscle up”? Take that policy, stick some flowers in it, and pretend it’s a vase, because it ain’t gonna happen.
The military considerations
Militarily, after decades of more or less peace, Asia is hardly enthusiastic about a regional war. The various military forces in the region are at best defensive, and of various vintages. There are plenty of other regional issues to consider, without an expensive, and presumably US-oriented, military blank check to deal with as well.
US military acquisitions tend to be time and cost-intensive. The flying credit card, aka the F35, is a case in point. To commit a decade or so of future unspecified levels of spending to a blank check isn’t some people’s idea of good practice.
Then there’s the actual threat assessment. Is China currently a serious regional military threat? The US talks a lot about power projection, but China’s actual capacity to project military force is still quite limited. It’s focused on Taiwan, more than anywhere else.
The modern Chinese armed forces are much modernised off a very low (not to say almost obscenely outdated) base since the 1990s, but that’s about it. The South China Sea issues were originally a “don’t argue” on the part of China to far inferior forces. They made their point, clumsily, and with little finesse, but it’s still a local thing, not a worldwide thing. (Vietnam and China are now at loggerheads, again, over territorial issues. The South China Sea has become a sort of regional bitching session, and even more counterproductive.)
Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation
Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation
, AFP
Some might say that China’s military is actually more governed by onshore issues like the Belt and Road security needs than any real need to roam the Pacific picking pointless fights with the Americans and Japanese. The Chinese are trying to establish further out bases and a presence in the Indian ocean, but with what? They simply don’t have enough of anything to be an offensive force except in very localised areas.
Nor is there any indication of any useful military outcomes which would be based on this type of power projection. The Chinese military is much smaller, as well as much more modernised. Like the Russians, to a point, agility is clearly more of a working model than mass of forces.
It is naturally quite possible that the next generation of military forces, including swarms of drones, hypersonic weapons, artificial intelligence systems, etc. will change the strategic picture. The problem with that view is simple enough - To achieve what? Occupation? Conquest? Hardly. China couldn’t win an Asia-wide version of the Vietnam War any more than America could win in a tiny country like Vietnam, fighting for over a decade.
The Chinese are doing very nicely without any sort of war, thanks for asking. It’s obviously not in their interest to create a bottomless pit of problems from a war when they’re winning the peace. Asia is by definition a Chinese cash cow, not a butcher’s shop. The ridiculous levels of commitment required to fight a war make no sense at all, when they can dominate the entire regional economy, and make a lot of money without doing a damn thing.
Chinese judgment? Ah, um… Well?
That said, the noises from Beijing can be as annoying as the American drum-banging. The cyberwar, in particular, that rather unsightly faecal mess, has been a serious issue for far too long. That China hasn’t done anything at all about it is a true blunder. Whether it’s entrepreneurial hacking or simply part of a larger campaign to infuriate the world, it has to go, and stay gone, before people are prepared to accept Chinese assurances of proper conduct.
This abysmal, blatant clumsiness is also hardly best practice in intelligence terms. Giving an opponent the excuse to do practically anything in response isn’t a safe bet. Denying there’s an issue is beyond absurd.
Another, arguably less appealing, prospect is ramping up the current issues into full-blown conflicts of whatever kind. That would be a serious mistake, not because anyone’s particularly well prepared to deal with the issues, but because they would become much better organised and better able to manage them. The current methods of ambiguity and multiple half-ass interpretations of situations couldn’t work anymore.
Create an opponent, and you create a problem. Create multiple opponents, and your judgment is highly questionable. Infuriate your friends, and lose them through mindless, actively insulting jingles, and you create a different type of problem.