Amb. Tony Kevin: East-West strategic temperature is rising in the Asia-Pacific

My former professional background  as a policy planner ( 1985-90) in the Australian Department of Foreign  Affairs and related areas where I worked for 30 years enabled me to hone the skills of ‘joining the dots’ between apparently disconnected facts. It was particularly easy to do so, as I read three stories about China on page 11 of the AUstralian Financial Review on Wednesday 24 July..  The first story concerned the significance of the latest Chinese Government defence white paper (the first in four years), which unusually singles out by name Australia as a country which  ‘is seeking a bigger role in Asia-Pacific  security affairs’ , and as a country that China sees as ‘a new source of uncertainty in the region’.  

Rory Medcalf of ANU National Security College and a former senior Australian Government defence  planner was reported by AFR as commenting that he thinks this naming of Australia in the Chinese defence paper is a good thing,  ‘because it acknowledges Australia is a country to be taken seriously. It doesn’t  mean we are a target.’  This is one of the sillier things Rory Medcalf has said publicly about Australian national security since becoming a respected part  of this public conversation , from which I am excluded because of my radical global political views.  There is no possible way in which it is a good thing to be named by China in this negative way. It shows that China has finally rejected Australian claims , of provenance going back to Prime Minister John Howard’s time, that Australia can be a good economic partner of China and at the same time a strong military ally of the US against China.

Our attempts since Howard’s day under successive Labor  and Coalition  governments to ride these two horses have been correctly understood by China as self-deceiving hypocrisy and doublethink.  The Chinese government has come to despise Australian efforts to pretend, on the one hand , that it truly values China  as an investor , our largest export market, and major source of property investment and education mega dollars: while thinking that we can without punishment from China increasingly lock ourselves into the American -led attempts to contain China strategically, as seen in  myriad ways in the strategic decisions  and expressed attitudes of Australia’s defence planning and national security sectors of government .

Every decision like the Huawei 5G rejection, noisily stepped-up US military basing in Darwin, singling  out of China and Russia  as the main targets of the Australian 2018 foreign influence legislation, declared strategic competition with China in the South Pacific, expressed enthusiasm for the unviable Quad strategic grouping  , the kind of defence procurement decisions Australia makes aimed at helping the US to project longrange military power in the Asia-Pacific region,  and reliably hostile mainstream media commentariat reaction to every Chinese or Russian assertion of strategic interests – with no Australian  counter-opinions  ever permitted  to be expressed in mainstream  public debate – sends the same Australian elite message to China and Russia: that however much we are happy to take their money in trade and investment, we see them au fond as the strategic enemy.  

Now China, after being immensely patient for many years , giving our elites far more time than they deserve  to come to see the error of such inconsistent indeed hypocritical strategic  thinking, has served us up in their latest defence white paper the most unambiguous warnings of the consequences of our fecklessness.  But Rory Medcalf, in one of his more idiotic statements, thinks this is ‘a good thing’. And nobody in the mainstream Australian strategic world challenges him. The second report on page 11 of the AFR last Wednesday  was that important China-US bilateral trade  talks are about to resume after dramatic suspension in May. This resumption is a consequence of the degree of US-China civil dialogue re-established between Xi and Trump at the June G20 summit in Osaka.  The resumption of these vital trade talks, after their abrupt breakdown in May, means both sides are seriously contemplating the renewed possibility of reciprocal bilateral trade concessions, whose negotiation will focus primarily on the self-interest of both sides.

Trump, a transactional president, will not worry about the interests of third parties like Australia. And why should China do so, when we are now officially listed by Chinese defence planners as a new source of strategic uncertainty in the region , and a country that seeks a bigger military role for itself? Not a friend, clearly. And our trade diplomats would be naive to expect otherwise.  The third news story on page 11 of Wednesday’s  AFR reported the first Russian-Chinese joint longrange air patrol in the Pacific , by three Russian and three Chinese military aircraft. They flew together through a ‘South Korean Air Defence  identification zone’ (a zone whose legality is not recognised by China)  and they flew over an island whose sovereignty is contested by South Korea and Japan.

Reportedly, according to South Korean officials, ‘hundreds of warning shots’ were fired at them by South Korea.  Russia’s Defence Ministry said the Russian planes had been airborne  11 hours and covered 9000 km, and that ‘foreign fighter jets had escorted them on 11 separate occasions’. It did not deign to report any shooting. Perhaps warning shots were fired from a prudent distance, and ignored by the visiting aircraft? Clearly this flight did not lose its way and accidentally stray into South Korean airspace. Its route was a major test of resolve and can be expected to be followed by other such flights in future . The route would have been  carefully planned and executed in unison  by both highly expert airforces. These were no ‘air space incursions ’ as alleged by a US Defence  spokesman , but deliberate assertions of Chinese and Russian freedom to fly in international airspaces as close as possible to Korea and Japan, as a demonstration of Chinese and Russian  military capacities to operate as allies in the North Pacific. 

The joint flights show how quickly Russo -Chinese military  cooperation at the high- tech  level is progressing. This is a lot more impressive than driving tanks together around  the snowy Siberian tundra,  and swapping friendship pancakes in military headquarters as Putin and Xi did a year and a half ago.. This was a delicate precision navigational exercise to fly a fleet of three  Chinese  and three Russian military planes (I note equal parity of forces  , which itself sends an important diplomatic message) just outside Western alliance territorial borders. It would have required mutual Russian- Chinese military trust and mutual cool heads to ignore the warning shots and fly on together, an Impressive and significant military demonstration by any measure.  To the extent this was reported at all, as in the AFR article, it was reported as an escalation and a provocation of the Western alliance by Russia and China. It was neither : it was a legitimate assertion of determination to protect mutual strategic interests close to Russia’s  and China’s nearby borders in the North Pacific, through forward projection of both nations’ high – tech military power.  

But do not expect Australian atrategic planners, defence academics,  or mainstream media elites,  to join these three important dots and discuss their significance for Australia’s national security. And do not expect me to be invited to speak or write on these matters in any mainstream forum anytime soon My writing will continue to be safely confined to the silos of my Facebook  Page and personal email contact list. Our reading and listening public,  which fondly assumes it will read and hear truth and freely contested views in our mainstream media on important issues of national security,  will continue to be deceived by our elites.  

Tony Kevin is an Emeritus Fellow of Australian National University  and a former Australian diplomat and foreign policy analyst  1968-98. He is the author of ‘Return to Moscow’ (UWA Publishing, 2017)

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