One country in Asia enjoys concurrent partnerships with rival superpowers, while avoiding obligations to fight on their behalf. There will be no prizes for guessing it is not Australia. Who is it? If you guessed India, you are correct. The balance India manages to strike – engaged in partnerships, while avoiding alliances and accompanying entanglements – would be ideal for Australia. At present, Australia is walking a tightrope between two superpowers. One is its strongest ally, the United States, and the other is its largest trading partner, China. The rivalry between the two superpowers is ratcheting up. As it does, the Kangaroo should look to the Elephant. For its security, let alone its success, Australia should trade strategic dependence on the US, for Indian-style strategic autonomy.
To India, strategic autonomy prescribes avoiding alliances. One of the testaments to its strengths is its staying power. Indeed, from Jawaharlal Nehru’s foreign policy to Narendra Modi’s, it has endured. In the Cold War, it was a tenet of Prime Minister Nehru’s “non-alignment” doctrine. Nehru’s India was bedevilled by economic problems. Meanwhile, in its backyard was a Communist superpower. Strategic autonomy adequately addressed both. It allowed the Republic to avoid a Cold War-alliance it couldn’t afford in either the economic or security sense. What’s more, free of any obligations to superpowers, it could focus on its own problems.
Today, Prime Minister Modi’s India prefers the term “multi-alignment.” In comparison to non-alignment, multi-alignment places a greater emphasis on “strategic partnerships”. For Nehru’s India, no alliance was better than one. For Modi, multiple strategic partnerships are better than one. While remaining strategically autonomous, India conducts military exercises with both the US and China (although, it must be said, exercises with China are smaller scale). India has also collaborated on joint production and joint development of weapons and aircraft with the US and Russia (another one of Uncle Sam’s rivals). Strategic autonomy allows the ambitious India of today to cash in on multiple relationships without betting the house on one.
Australia, meanwhile, is trying to please everyone while pleasing no one. On behalf of the US, Australia is advocating for an American-led Asia. Yet each time Australia is critical of China’s challenge to America’s leadership, as former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was in March 2017, China reprimands it, and Australia backs down. It enjoys the economic benefits of a rising China too much to do anything else. Australia’s zest for economic opportunities in Asia was apparent in its decision to join China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. This, of course, greatly displeased the US. So, they are hardly thrilled with Australia either. Yet Australia remains under the impression the two are best friends. Hence, why it defends America’s leadership of Asia. Until, of course, it is slapped down by China, backtracks, and begins the cycle again. What is the reason for this vicious circle? Simply, it is a lack of strategy on Australia’s part. It needs to take a leaf out of India’s book. As India did, Australia needs to accept that no one choice is free of costs. It needs to choose a strategy, and stick to it. It should choose strategic autonomy.
Another benefit of strategic autonomy is that it would free Australia of obligations to fight wars on behalf of allies. This is certainly the case for India. Indeed, as India is allied with neither the US nor China, it has no position on Taiwan or the South China Sea. This has come at little price, with India enjoying strategic partnerships with both Beijing and Washington. India can enjoy these partnerships, without worrying about being tangled up in a China-US war over Taiwan or the South China Sea. The same cannot be said for Australia.
In Malcolm Fraser’s Dangerous Allies, the former Australian Prime Minister outlined a scenario where Australia, on account of its allied status, joins the US in a war with China. If during this war, the US withdraws, as it did in Vietnam and Iraq, it has the luxury of returning to the other side of the world. Australia, meanwhile, would be left with the victor, an angry Dragon, in its neighbourhood. Like India, Australia needs to consider whether alliances are worth the accompanying entanglements. If it looks close, it will find, as India did, that often they are not.
Of course, India has incurred some penalties for opting out of alliances. Throughout the Cold War, India’s non-aligned status contributed to the US arming Pakistan in the 1950s. However, India also evaded the profound tolls of Vietnam Australia suffered. As for Iraq, while Australia was there (and India was not) President George W. Bush was described as the “most pro-Indian president in American history.” W. felt similar affection for Australia but, unlike India, it was earned through war.
What motivates the loyalty Australia has shown to the US in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, is the apparent certainty the Land of Liberty will come to its aid if there is a crisis in its region. How sure, though, can Australia be that this contract is ironclad? Omens abound. Hugh White uses China’s 2012 seizure of Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines, as a cautionary tale for Australia. As the seizure unfolded, the Philippines asked for help from the US. However, Washington declined to deploy their navy. It is no coincidence that subsequently, the Philippines changed leadership to Rodrigo Duterte, a man far cosier with Beijing. The Philippines have realised which way the wind is blowing in Asia. As a fellow US ally, in the same region as the Philippines, it is not out of the question that Australia would get the same response in a similar scenario.
Another reason to eschew alliances is that it suits our national character. Like India, Australia is a country of contradictions. The contradictions of India and Australia are assets, and have granted both the capacity to build relationships with powers of vastly different ideologies. Throughout the Cold War, democratic India found common ground with the US. Yet independent India’s dislike of imperialism and maverick streak endeared it to the Soviet Union. Similarly, Australia is a democracy in a region with few, which gives it – even on its worst day – a high level of appeal to the US. Simultaneously, it has an Asian character reflective of its geography, and has embraced regional structures like ASEAN with relative ease. As it does India, a nuanced approach suits Australia.
Of course, such a dramatic change in Australia’s strategy would not be painless. However, it would be outweighed by the gains. To enjoy multiple partnerships across the world, while remaining free of any obligation to fight the wars of allies – wars that appear increasingly likely, to take place in our backyard – is the best option for Australia. If Australia is to maximise the advantages of a changing Asia, and minimise the disadvantages, India-esque strategic autonomy must replace strategic dependence.