Australia’s Defense minister Stephen Smith Thursday rejected any US-led policies of containment regarding a growing China and emphasized the importance of the Indo-Pacific rather than the Asia-Pacific.
The management of rising power structures and relationships was the most important objective for the international community and the central challenge of the coming decades, he said.
“And that adjustment cannot be done by what some describe as a policy of containment, which is not viable,” Smith said at the Lowy Institute, a leading Australian think-tank in Sydney.
“I have said previously that I do not believe it is possible for a country or countries to contain another country with a population of 1.3 billion, whether that is China or India.”
Smith stressed the importance of the Indo-Pacific as a whole rather than merely the Asia-Pacific, which has been the focus of a US geo-strategic resurgence, including last week’s controversial suggestion of installing a nuclear marine base in Perth, Western Australia.
While the idea has been rejected in Australia as untenable, it does reflect a push from US President Barack Obama’s playbook of re-engaging US interests in the Asia-Pacific.
However, Smith said that the Indo-Pacific region would draw a new strategic map based on new relationships in the near future.
“The Indo-Pacific will be home to three of the world’s superpowers the United States, China and India and is home to four of the world’s largest militaries the United States, Russia, China, and North Korea,” He said.
The Indo-Pacific is also home to the world’s largest navies, including the navies of the United States, China, India and Russia.
Smith said Australia would be finding itself drawn into the Indian Ocean as new issues come into relief.
“Crucial trading routes, the presence of large and growing naval capabilities, as well as transnational security issues such as piracy, will drive Australia to ultimately put the Indian Ocean alongside the Pacific Ocean at the heart of our maritime strategic and defense planning,” Smith said.
Unsurprisingly, Australia’s Labour government sees the bilateral relationship between the US and China as the most important bilateral relationship across the globe in the next fifty years.
The defense minister said changes of strategic circumstance – economic, political and military – do require adjustments and should be managed by the international community through constructive and positive bilateral relationships, through dialogue and through regional architecture.
Sam Roggeveen, a former senior strategic analyst in Australia’s peak intelligence agency – the Office of National Assessments, said the cornerstone of Smith’s speech was a need for China and the US to find closer ties.
“Smith repeated (his) assertion that the US and China must ‘ avoid strategic competition’,” said Sam, also a former intelligence analyst in the Defense Intelligence Organisation.
“The rub, of course, is how they do that. Smith’s answer, also repeated for emphasis, was for a deeper level of political and defense engagement to match the depth of the economic relationship, ” he added.
According to the defense minister, the level of economic integration between Australia and China “sets an important benchmark for our political, strategic and defense-to-defense and military to military engagement.”
“The challenge is to raise our level of political and strategic engagement to the same level as our economic engagement. The same is true of the US-China relationship, but even more importantly so.”
“In the fullness of time, the bilateral relationships between the US and India and between China and India will grow to the same level of importance,” Smith said.
The defense minister also rejected one of the popular theories among Australian experts that Australia could bridge the ties between China and the United States.
“I have seen the suggestion that somehow a country like Australia could be a bridge between the US and China. Two great powers do not need a country with a population of less than 25 million people to be a bridge between them,” he said.