Christopher Pyne: Ditching America Is A Dangerous Defence Strategy

I’ve always liked Professor Hugh White, but his view of the movement of the geostrategic plates in the Indo Pacific and how Australia should position itself is dangerous.

It is also based on a false premise.

White is a long term defence and intelligence analyst. He has a long history in the area. He is the professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University. He has advised governments of both political persuasions. For those reasons his views need to be taken seriously.

For some time he has swum against the tide of accepted defence and intelligence wisdom, which is not in itself a bad thing. It's important that decision makers be tested and required to argue their case. Group think is debilitating.

But, in my opinion, it is critical that White’s views not become accepted wisdom. They are a recipe for a little, less important, and unreliable Australia. This would come at precisely the wrong time in the Great Power rivalry that is occurring in the Indo Pacific between China and the United States of America.

The premise of White’s book is that China is on the rise and a retreating US is not a reliable ally. But where is the evidence? (Image: Getty)

White’s most recent book, How To Defend Australia, builds on previous works over three decades. In my opinion his position appears to be: that China is on the rise, the USA is less interested in the Indo Pacific than it used to be and that Australia should retreat behind its northern sea lanes and create something of a national land-based aircraft carrier with a significant investment in air power, less so in the navy and even less again in the army.

The premise of White’s book is that the United States is not a reliable ally.

White states himself, “my argument is I don’t think US support is a durable solution. I think it’s likely the US will eventually withdraw from Asia.”

Where is the evidence for this position? It’s not clear in either history or practice.

Since the United States annexed the Philippines in 1898, the US can rightfully claim to be an Indo Pacific power. Its interests now extend far beyond the Philippines. It has territorial interests in Diego Garcia, Guam and of course, its 50th state, Hawaii. It has treaty level obligations to Japan, Australia, Palau, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and the Republic of Korea amongst others. It has close, values-based relationships with countries like Singapore, Indonesia, India and even Vietnam.

The US and its allies have fought wars in the Indo Pacific, shed blood, spent treasure and invested human, political and economic capital to protect and promote their values-based foreign policy.

The White House and influential members of the US Congress say the US is strengthening, not weakening its interest in the Indo Pacific. (Image: Getty)

Right now, the US is taking the lead in denuclearising North Korea, navigating the waters of and demonstrating fly-over rights in the South China Sea, the East China Sea and the Yellow Sea.

Japan, the US, India and Australia have revived the “Quadrilateral” between these four countries in order to build even stronger architecture that links the US to the Indo Pacific.

Every utterance from the White House and influential members of the US Congress is that the US is strengthening, not weakening its interest in the Indo Pacific.

Where is the evidence that it is about to withdraw from a region where it has so many deep roots in history and so many reasons to be engaged for the future?

What the US needs now is reliable allies. Australia is one such ally. We are embarked on a $200 billion build up of our military -- the largest in our peacetime history. This investment will transform our naval, air, land and cyber capabilities for the next few decades. We are engaged in the Pacific Step Up -- increasing our military and economic ties with the 22 nations of the South Pacific and East Timor.

The last thing Australia needs to do is step away from its determination to be an influential force for good in the Indo Pacific.

What the US needs now is reliable allies. Australia is one such ally. (Image: Getty)

Many countries in the Indo Pacific look to a nation like Australia to see how we react to attempts to limit freedom of navigation, curb free trade, disrespect the protection of intellectual property and silence dissent.

If Australia was to adopt White’s prescription it would make for an Australia with less influence in our region. We would be a littler, less important voice in the Indo Pacific. The US would see us, for the first time since US troops served under General Sir John Monash at the Battle of Hamel in 1917, as a less reliable ally. Our neighbours in the region would take our new position as a cue that they should do likewise.

That’s not a nation in which I would have any pride.