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  • Mike Lyons


A New Cold War

Paul Dibb[1], a long-standing China critic, argues for increased and sustained military investment to meet the threats posed by China and Russia, although even he observes that there is no evidence that the US can defeat these two major powers. He argues that Australia needs to build the military capability to ensure that we can deny any potential adversary, including China. In a panel discussion at ANU in September 2018, Dibb suggests that it is vital “to ensure that we maintain a clear margin of military advantage in our own region”. What clear margin of military advantage (over China) does Dibb actually imagine?

In a critique of both Dibb, and Peter Jennings (director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute), Mike Scrafton[2], observes that Australia cannot materially alter the course of events or even mitigate the consequences, by expanding its military capability. The biggest problem with the proposals for enhancing Australia’s defence expenditure and pursuing alliances against China, is that the outcome is almost certain to be perverse. Taking steps which are hostile to China would be provocative, and it would be delusional to think that China would stand idly by. Not only Australia’s security, but also its prosperity, is likely to suffer as a result of such aggressive policies.


Dibb envisages a situation in which the US may look to Australia to join in a military conflict in the South China Sea saying that the ANZUS alliance is the most realistic chance to shape the long-term future regional order. He ignores the fact that ANZUS does no more than require consultation, not commitment.

Hugh White (also a professor at ANU) adopts a different, more level-headed view arguing in The Strategist[3] that Australia cannot assume that its ANZUS partner will be there to help us and it is far from clear that America has any idea of how it can remain as a key power in Asia without escalating rivalry with China. White concludes “Australia would be unwise to follow the US into a confrontation with China which Washington has no idea how to win.

In a speech by Australia’s former Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans on 2 December 2018, he argued that “neither we nor anyone else in the region should be under any illusion that, for all the insurance we might think we have bought with our past support, the US will be there for us militarily in any circumstances where it does not also see its own immediate interests being under some threat.” In other words, the ANZUS Treaty is not an insurance policy!

A Belligerent Speech by US Vice President Pence

Hugh White’s observations followed hot on the heels of a foreign policy speech by Vice President Pence on 4 October 2018, a speech which has been widely reported as Washington embarking on a new Cold War! The various statements made in this speech included the following:

  • America brought China into the WTO in the hope that freedom in China would expand with a newfound respect for classical liberal principles, but that hope has gone unfulfilled (In other words China should be like the West);

  • He complains that China spends as much on its military as the rest of Asia combined and that Beijing has prioritised capabilities to erode America’s military advantages. Almost in the same breath, while complaining about China, Pence states that Trump has legislated the largest increase in US military expenditure since the days of Ronald Reagan. He asserts that America is modernising its nuclear arsenal and investing in their armed forces as never before;

  • He argues, without a shred of evidence, that Beijing aims to extend its reach across the wider world and he complains that “China is building its own relationships with America’s allies and enemies that contradict any peaceful or productive intentions of Beijing”;

  • He criticises China’s so-called “debt diplomacy” referring to the infrastructure loans made by China to governments from Asia to Africa, Europe and Latin America but he has no hesitation in announcing that America is developing finance programs to give foreign nations an alternative to the Chinese BRI projects (However, there is no suggestion that US will do without itself creating debtors);

  • Whilst repeatedly criticising China’s alleged attempts to exert influence in America, he presses US influence, saying that “America will always believe that Taiwan’s embrace of democracy shows a better path for all of the Chinese people”;

  • Pence boasted of implementing tariffs on $250 billion on Chinese goods and suggested that America may more than double that number, and then he complained that the tariffs imposed by China were specifically targeted at American industries and States that would play an important role in the recent 2018 US elections - suggesting that “China wants to turn these voters against our administration”. (More recently, at the China International Import Expo in Shanghai, President Xi Jinping is reported to have said “It is our sincere commitment to open the Chinese market” and to “embrace the world”. He went on to say that “China’s door will never be closed. It will only open still wider”);

  • Pence complains that China radio broadcasts Beijing friendly programs on over 30 US outlets and that the China Global Television Network reaches more than 75 million Americans, (He ignores the global reach enjoyed for many years by CNN and Fox).

And then, remarkably Pence concludes saying “Today, America is reaching out our hand to China” in the hope that Beijing will reach back with renewed respect for America!

In Run for Your Life, former New South Wales Premier, Bob Carr talks about his one-time addiction to the “colour, drama and entertainment of America” but later he was “to become disillusioned with it and frightened of the way it was being prosecuted. I became aware of the awful paradox that the forces set in train by America’s Founding Fathers might even sanction some of their successors to start a nuclear war rather than surrender their global pre-eminence.”[4]

The Risk of War

Mahbubani[5] argues that it is dangerous for Washington to plot ways to derail China. This can only result in the emergence of an angry nationalistic China. Much has been written and said about the “Thucydides trap”, a phrase coined by Graham Allison, a Harvard professor to describe the dangers when an established great power is challenged by a rising power[6]. According to this hypothesis, 12 of 16 (75%) of such rivalries since the year 1500 have ended in war. For Allison, the question is whether China and the United States can escape this trap.

Until now and remembering the threat of “Mutually Assured Destruction”, and the horrors and devastation wrought by two World Wars in the 20th century, I have been confident in the belief that the theory of the Thucydides trap has no relevant application in today’s world. However, recalling the recent American “pivot to Asia” by former president Obama, the hostility expressed by President Trump and now the speech by Vice President Pence, I no longer enjoy the same measure of complacent confidence!

It should not be forgotten that, as Rachman reminds the reader, in Easternisation, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia initially looked West – but was rebuffed and treated with disdain. Since then, Russia sees its future lying increasingly in the East. The strategic closeness of China and Russia is emphasised by their joint naval and military exercises in the Mediterranean, the East China Sea, the Baltic Sea, and most recently in September 2018, when 300,000 Russian and Chinese soldiers participated in land, sea and air exercises in Siberia and elsewhere. In that exercise, Russia (together with China) conducted its biggest war games since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Rachman concludes, that China is no longer prepared to accept American dominance of its “backyard” and that American resistance is futile and dangerous. For America to resist, would be a route towards catastrophic war or a humiliating climbdown. Suspicions between America and China continue to grow strengthening fears of the Thucydides trap leading to a war between China and US although, as Rachman observes, it seems “unduly fatalistic to believe that nations must continue to follow patterns of behaviour that were first observed in ancient Greece”.

December 2018

[1] Emeritus Professor at ANU, as reported in The Australian on 1 March 2018

[2] The Strategist – August 2018

[3] Australian Strategic Policy Institute 8 October 2018

[4] Run for Your Life by Bob Carr published 2018

[5] Kishore Mahbubani (former Singapore Ambassador to the UN) – Has the West Lost it? Published 2018

[6] See, Easternisation by Gideon Rachman published 2017

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