~ Alan Dupont
The galvanising impact of the war in Ukraine is not confined to Europe.
It is having an equally transformative effect on the security of our own region. “Ukraine today may be Asia tomorrow” is the new catchcry as countries reassess their vulnerabilities and the adequacy of their defence spending and security partnerships.
Overstretched and anxious to avoid being drawn into a Ukrainian quagmire, the Biden administration is keeping a watchful eye on its pacing challenger, mindful that China would like nothing more than to see the US bogged down in a protracted European conflict. Relentlessly focused on Asia, Beijing has been able to bide its time and build its forces while the US continues to be distracted by the polycrisis – multiple, interconnected global challenges that require its leadership and unique deterrent power.
Despite its problems and these distractions, the US is on the comeback. Most evident in Europe, the effectiveness of Washington’s diplomacy in Asia has surprised friends and adversaries alike. The Biden administration is building a formidable network of alliances and security partnerships that threatens Xi Jinping’s ambition to dominate the region and take Taiwan by force.
For all the effort the Chinese leader has put into making his country a near competitor to the US, the balance of power in Asia is starting to shift away from China as Biden’s policy of “constrainment” starts to bite.
China can’t match America’s unrivalled convening power. The US President has begun to unite a constellation of allies, friends and even reluctant fence-sitters who fear the consequences of a hege – monic China and know the US is the only country able to prevent it.
Biden realises he can’t do this alone. Australia and Japan are the indispensable allies at the heart of an emerging latticework of USaligned security partners.
Both countries are committed to profound defence transformations unequalled since the Pacific War. While we await the public release of the Albanese government’s response to the Defence Strategic Review to grasp the full implications for Australia’s national security, the dramatic changes in Japan’s posture, capabilities and security thinking are already evident.
Driven by Beijing’s aggressive and uncompromising behaviour, Japan is rapidly emerging from its post-war pacifism. The Kishida government’s historic decision to double defence spending by 2027 will give Japan the world’s third largest defence budget after the US and China.
But that’s not all. Buying and producing long-range missiles will make China and North Korea think twice about striking Japan.
Kishida’s agreement to allow the deployment of a restructured US Marine Corps force to Japan’s southwestern islands equipped with lethal, mobile anti-ship missiles will seriously complicate China’s plans to attack Taiwan.
Equally game changing is the breakthrough agreement with The Philippines to allow the US access to four additional military facilities. These will be crucial to the defence of Taiwan as well as The Philippines.
The agreement will allow the US to pre-position equipment, better supply its forces and threaten China’s navy from the land in the event of conflict.
The political and strategic multiplier effect of Biden’s coalition building will be difficult for China to counter.
Unlike the centralised huband-spokes model of the old USled Asian alliance system, the evolving latticework of partnerships and coalitions is more flexible, dynamic and fit for the times.
The US guides, supports and enables.
But partners have much more freedom to choose the scope of their defence and security co-operation with the US as well as with other partners.
Australia epitomises the new approach. Defence activity with Japan is set to ramp up after the ratification of last year’s Reciprocal Access Agreement. There is now talk of joint naval patrols with The Philippines in the South China Sea.
And negotiations soon will begin on a defence treaty with In- donesia to strengthen military interoper ability.
Xi is in danger of making the same mistake as his autocratic predecessors in Nazi Germany, imperial Japan and the Soviet Union – underestimating American power.
Before Germany’s ill-advised invasion turned the Soviet Union from friend to foe in June 1941, the Axis powers were in a far stronger position than today’s China, producing more than half the world’s gross domestic product and fielding large, battle-tested militaries.
Yet they still lost. America’s unleashed wealth, resources and productive capacities on the side of the Allies proved decisive.
In a thought-provoking article for The Wall Street Journal, Robert Kagan – a former leading American neoconservative turned centrist foreign policy intellectual – argues that even if China is successful in taking Taiwan, its ambition to dominate the region is destined to fail for the same reason.
China and Russia account for roughly 20 per cent of the world’s wealth. But the US and its growing network of allies, partners and sympathisers control more than 50 per cent.
Regionally, they include economic heavyweights Japan and India as well as advanced economies Australia, South Korea, Taiwan and Canada. Moreover, China’s support for Russia is pushing Europe firmly into the US camp.
Germany and Japan had already acquired military pre-eminence in Europe and Asia before the US entered World War II.
China starts from a much weaker position, says Kagan. It “does not even control all the territory in the region it regards as its own”, including Taiwan.
He might have added that China has no real allies. Fellow travellers North Korea and Iran are more hindrance than help.
And Russia is becoming an unanticipated burden.
Conversely, the US is in a much stronger position than it was in 1939 when its military was totally unprepared for “industrial war on a global scale”, says Kagan. Nor did it “possess the industrial plant to boost weapons production quickly”.
Yet within three years it outproduced all other countries combined, churning out war-winning quantities of everything from bullets to aircraft carriers.
Xi has made the fatal mistake of turning the US into an adversary.
Supplying Russia’s war machine with weapons would shatter any remaining Western illusions that Xi’s China is a force for good.
Alan Dupont is chief executive of geopolitical risk consultancy The Cognoscenti Group and a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute.