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When Allies “Misspeak”

21 May 2015
By Professor Mark Beeson
B1 Cockpit. Photo credit: Flickr (US Air Force) Creative Commons

David Shear’s statement about placing B-1 bombers in Australia, and the reaction by officials in the US and Australia, reflects underlying tensions within the alliance.

When US Defence Department Assistant Secretary for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs David Shear recently suggested that the US planned to place B-1 bombers in Australia as part of its general ‘rebalance’ to the Asia Pacific he thoroughly embarrassed his potential hosts.

Both US and Australian officials were quick to claim that Shear ‘misspoke’ and there were no such plans. But it is difficult to imagine that such a senior figure didn’t really know what he was talking about. It looks like a case of letting the strategic cat out of the geopolitical bag if ever there was one.

But it’s worth asking why the Abbott government would be so apparently mortified by this turn of events. After all, Tony Abbott has been at pains to assure Barack Obama that Australia was an ‘utterly dependable ally’. Given the prominent role successive Australian governments have played in supporting the US in one conflict or another, the American president probably needed little convincing of this.

And yet Abbott’s reward for his loyalty was to be humiliated by President Obama when he roundly criticised Australia’s stance on climate change. What ought to have been a showcase for Australian diplomacy – the G20 Summit in Brisbane – turned into another embarrassment and source of tension between two countries that usually act in lockstep.

But then again, they don’t. What the actions of both Obama and Shear remind us of is the reality that even amongst the closest of friends, national interests prevail and domestic audiences are paramount. Shear might be forgiven for forgetting that it’s good form to let the junior alliance partner announce a change in its strategic status. When seen from inside the Beltway, however, it is only Washington’s view of the world that counts.

That Australia should be regarded as a useful, rather taken-for-granted partner should not surprise us, perhaps. International relations were ever thus: subordinate allies are necessarily less influential than their ostensible guardians. What is more surprising, perhaps, is that so much effort is normally given to talking-up the degree to which Australia’s views are taken into account.

Such influence and a privileged access to intelligence are often portrayed as prized benefits of the relationship which other less-favoured and fortunate states regard with envy. Perhaps so, although it is necessarily difficult to gauge the value of intelligence that is by definition restricted and secret. What we can say is that participation in intelligence-gathering activities can be embarrassing when discovered, as the recent contretemps with Indonesia reminds us.

What about the more conventional and high profile benefits of our alliance with the US? Here the evidence looks even more debatable. The first point to make is that Australia faces no conceivable conventional threat from any other state – as numerous defence white papers have recognised over the years. Despite Australia’s uniquely benign geographical advantages, however, we have fought alongside in every major war America has undertaken since the end of the Second World War.

The costs to Australia have been considerable, not least in human lives. In addition, however, there is the ever-escalating financial cost of ‘doing our bit’ and practically demonstrating our dependability as an ally. In addition to new fleets of submarines and surface ships, Australia is about to buy over 70 F35 Joint Strike Fighters from the US for upwards – probably a long way upward – of $25 billion.

It is difficult to imagine the precise circumstances in which all this new hardware – assuming it actually works – will ever be employed. It is especially hard to see it being used in the actual defence of Australia; as everyone agrees, this is the remotest of possibilities. It may be used in some far-flung part of the world in support of some other American war, but is that quite how we want to spend scarce taxpayer dollars in these fiscally challenged times?

There are two other reasons for being sceptical about the value of alliances at the current time. On the one hand, it is now widely recognised that a close strategic relationship with the US makes relations with China problematic. China, as everyone knows, is still our most important trade partner, the calamitous and entirely predictable decline in resource prices notwithstanding. China’s economic importance may not be a good reason to abandon close strategic ties, but it does – or ought to – give pause for thought about the possible collateral damage inflicted by the alliance.

On the other hand, alliances can generate new risks and uncertainties. Alliances may well be forces for stability while they seem to work, but what happens when they don’t do their job and actually deter a prospective enemy or – equally problematically – embolden an otherwise subordinate power?

We know all too well what can happen when alliances fail or are triggered in unforeseen and unwanted circumstances. The First World War remains the Exhibit A in defence of that particular thesis. And yet we run the risk of seeing a similar – albeit hopefully smaller and more controllable – example of precisely the same dynamics in our own time and region.

Japan’s nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe uses increasingly assertive rhetoric in response to what he sees as Chinese aggression. Whatever the relative merits of Japan’s case – and he does seem to have a point – the danger is that both China and Japan may find themselves accidentally or inadvertently drawn into a conflict neither really wants.

The big question for the US and its utterly dependable allies is what they would do in such circumstances. Given the amount of political and strategic capital the US is investing in the region in an effort to dispel doubts about its possible decline and willingness to defend its allies, it is difficult to see that it could do anything other than support Japan, whether it wanted to or not.

In such a scenario, Australia would almost certainly feel compelled to support the US as it always has, despite the fact that such a conflict looks unwinnable in any meaningful sense and would wreck the global economy upon which all depends. It hardly needs to be added that it wouldn’t do much for Sino-Australian ties either.

Plain, unambiguous speech has much to be said for it. Speaking truth to power is also something to be encouraged – whether it’s American or Chinese. Australia has – or could have, perhaps – its own position and perspectives on many important regional issues. Being an unaligned middle power with a mind of its own and a capacity to articulate a distinctive national perspective might be an entirely appropriate goal. It is also one that is less likely to be taken for granted or overlooked, especially by our friends.

Mark Beeson is Professor of International Politics at the University of Western Australia. This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence.