Momentous global change needs strategic responses

IN one of the most significant strategic assessments to emerge from the Pentagon for decades, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis has identified Russia and China as greater threats to US national security than Islamic terrorism.

Australia, as Defence Minister Marise Payne told The Weekend Australian, shares the same concerns as those being expressed in Washington. Mr Mattis’s 2018 National Defence Strategy sets out in detail what has become increasingly clear — Russia and China, as “revisionist powers’’, are intent on shaping the world to advance their interests, often at the expense of US and Western influence. The pattern has become clear in Russia’s alliance with Iran, its support for the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war, its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its interventions in Ukraine. Beyond its aggression in the South China and East China Seas, China is exercising “soft power’’ and economic muscle in Africa, the South Pacific, Pakistan, the Philippines, and through the Belt and Road initiative. It has declared itself a “Near-Arctic State” with a view to shipping, scientific research, fishing and resource development at the pole and has even made headway with the Vatican.

As Anthony Klan reports today from Vanuatu, several island states have experienced building booms founded on discounted or “concessional’’ loans provided by China, on the proviso that borrowers use Chinese construction companies. But as payback time arrives, governments are struggling to service and repay the loans, with Vanuatu forced to lift its GST-style consumption tax from 12.5 per cent to 15 per cent from January 1.

After the preoccupation with Islamic terrorism, however justified, and the “strategic patience’’ of the Obama era in relation to North Korea and other hot spots, the new US National Defence Strategy has provided a dose of long-overdue realism.

From Australia’s perspective, the reconvening of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between Australia, Japan, the US and India — based on shared democratic values and strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific region — makes eminent sense. So does the accord forged by Malcolm Turnbull and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that will see Australian and Japanese fighter aircraft conducting joint military exercises for the first time and co-operating in relation to defence equipment and capacity-building.

Such developments are not about “ganging up’’ against China. It is vital, as former army chief Peter Leahy wrote on Saturday, to maintain a strong working relationship with China. It is also important, however, to respond to regional opportunities and cultivate a range of strong relationships. As former Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade head Peter Varghese points out, China and Japan currently account for 40 per cent of Australian exports. We need greater diversity, as Mr Varghese’s forthcoming paper on a new economic strategy towards India, to be handed to the government soon, will demonstrate. The Australian and Indian economies are complementary. Australia has wide scope, as Greg Sheridan wrote from New Delhi on Saturday, to provide professional and technical expertise, resources and food that India will need as its economy gathers pace and its people are increasingly urbanised.

The challenges facing the US and its allies, especially in this region, are momentous. The shifting landscape, however, offers vital opportunities Australia is well positioned to grasp.

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