Australian Minister for Defence Stephen Smith last week announced that Canberra would “seriously” consider the possibility of holding trilateral military exercises with China and the US; a move that, in a perfect world, would probably make sense.
However, the world is far from perfect, and Smith’s idea, which Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono purportedly raised with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard at the ASEAN summit in Bali the week before, fails to take current realities into account.
Live-fire exercises involving the US in the Asia-Pacific symbolize a key role for Washington in a region that China considers its own backyard. Rather than seek to reinforce the legitimacy of a US military role in Asia, Beijing has worked effortlessly to undermine such a role, mostly by dealing with its neighbors on a bilateral basis. This has been one of the principal reasons for the failure of regional powers to resolve long-standing tensions in the South China Sea, with Beijing refusing to participate in multilateral negotiations on the matter.
The recent announcement that the US could deploy as many as 2,500 marines at a base in Darwin, Australia, is likely to make Beijing even less inclined to give its seal of approval to such a relationship, as the deployment is anathema to China’s desire for a reduced US presence in what is rapidly becoming a key geopolitical and economic region.
Although the US has conducted search-and-rescue exercises with its counterparts in the People’s Liberation Army, live-fire exercises involve platforms and weapons that are substantially more sensitive and which the US — and China — would be loath to expose to the other’s scrutiny. Other than the weapons themselves, the communication channels that ensure inter-operation between US and Australian forces are hardly the kind of thing either would like to share with the Chinese.
Behind Smith’s proposal was a reluctance on the part of Canberra to take sides, which makes sense given its geographical location and trade relationship with the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 economies.
However, for a good many years to come, the game of alliance in the Asia-Pacific is likely to become zero-sum, or, to use language from former US president George W. Bush, one in which lesser powers are either “with” or “against” the major players.
Despite efforts in the past decade or so by Beijing to strengthen a web of alliances — through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, for example — that more often than not excludes the US, anxieties in the region over China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, among other areas, are undermining Beijing’s strategy. This is happening to such an extent that South Korea is giving serious consideration to a request by the Philippines for arms sales, a development that just a few years ago would have been regarded as improbable, given Seoul’s reluctance to alienate its neighbor amid growing economic ties and the perceived need for Beijing to rein in North Korea’s nuclear program.
Even more stunning is the recent rapprochement between Vietnam and the US over the South China Sea dispute.
It is hard to tell which came first: China’s assertiveness or Washington’s decision to “re-engage” with the region. However, the end result will likely be the same: Relations in the Asia-Pacific are turning zero-sum and countries will find it increasingly difficult to have it both ways, which will force them to choose sides.
The only way such a dangerous situation can be avoided is for Beijing to embrace multilateralism and to do so in a way that does not allow it to dominate other participants. In other words, multilateralism that allows for US participation. Absent this, countries like Australia will find it very difficult to engage in the kind of trilateral relationship envisioned by Smith and his like.
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