Monday 18 Oct 2021 | 01:33 | SYDNEY
Monday 18 Oct 2021 | 01:33 | SYDNEY

Australia and the Great White Fleet: Part II


Rory Medcalf


21 August 2008 10:15

In an earlier post, I argued for the continuing importance of the US alliance to Australia’s and Asia’s maritime security. Yet there are risks in preserving old security postures. Australia could help America refashion its role to fit more sustainably with a multipolar and powerful Asia.

In America there is intense debate about how to treat a rising China. Australia has a strong interest in lending its voice to that side which sees a window now for shaping China’s choices, including its attitudes about using its modernising military.

Navies are logical platforms for such practical diplomacy. The United States engages extensively with Japan, India and some other Asian seafaring nations, notably Singapore. And it has unveiled a new maritime strategy calling for global cooperation — a ‘thousand ship navy’ — since a shrinking US fleet cannot police the seas alone.

But US-China naval partnership remains weak. China’s global trade interests entitle it to an ocean-going fleet. Yet it should be transparent about capacities and intentions, and act like a responsible power. Ultimately it should be ready to contribute some of its new capabilities for emergencies like cyclone or tsunami relief — and to support others in doing the same, as it failed to do this year in Burma.

The US Pacific Command’s early efforts to draw Beijing into cooperation and transparency — such as naval exercises, visits and dialogue – have struggled. China last year cancelled US ship visits to Hong Kong to show disapproval over US Tibet and Taiwan policies. This reinforced US mistrust. And China remains deeply suspicious of American intent.

So US-China maritime cooperation will be hard going. Yet as a good and selfish ally, Canberra should encourage Washington to persist. One way is by expanding Australia’s own engagement efforts. Australia should be able to pursue advanced naval ties with Japan and India while also testing the waters of more limited engagement with China, going further than the modest bilateral and trilateral (with New Zealand) exercises held last year. Language is a barrier, but not an insurmountable one.

The Royal Australian Navy recently hosted its biggest multinational naval exercise yet. The roll-call at Kakadu IX — with ships reaching Darwin from as far as Japan and Pakistan — showed Australia’s reputation as a reliable naval partner. There is thus real scope for Australia to convene an exercise in non-threatening maritime security activities — such as disaster relief or search and rescue —  involving the United States, China and other key regional players.

Also off Darwin this month was the massive American hospital ship USNS Mercy, after a visit to East Timor. China recently launched its own version of this ship, complete with red cross and white hull. Some young US naval thinkers envision the United States, China and others eventually working together on humanitarian missions. That really would be a great white fleet.