Talking out of both sides of (one’s) mouth

During my time in the Middle East, I became familiar with a phrase used to describe duplicity – ‘talking out of both sides of (one’s) mouth’ – a phrase most appropriate to describe the contemporary debate on Australian foreign policy.

Since its coming to office the Gillard government has been sending mixed signals to both Washington and Beijing on its strategic position. On the one hand, Gillard has pledged to remain faithful to Australia’s great and powerful ally, the US. She has given permission for some 2,500 US Marines to be rotated through Australia’s northern city, Darwin. But this decision was taken at a time when Australia’s 2012 defence budget was slashed in order to maintain its promised $1 billion budget surplus. What exactly does this mean, you might ask? It means that many critical items that were going to be purchased for the Australian Defence Force (ADF), e.g., new fighter aircraft, new warships, new artillery etc., are now either delayed or cancelled. At first glance, this seemed like a sensible policy option for a country desperate to keep above the economic calamity that has engulfed much of the developed world. From a national security perspective, this rationale is hard to justify, as this jeopardises the ADF’s modernisation and the sustainability of the local defence industrial base.

But buried within the reduced defence budget is another important factor and that is the ADF’s ability to operate alongside US forces. Leaving aside the philosophical question of whether this should be a key driver for the ADF, the reality is that if the country’s capital equipment modernisation cannot keep pace with rapid developments in the US, then it is questionable whether Australia can be considered an effective ally. Indeed, when Australian Defence Secretary Duncan Lewis recently visited Washington (16-20 July), his American counterparts voiced their concerns given that it is the Obama administration’s ambition to hem in China’s growing power in the Western Pacific and specifically the South China Sea. Australia is America’s ‘southern anchor’ in the Western Pacific but a diminished defence budget will reduce Australian strength in the near-term and therefore limit its ability to contribute to any American stratagem to counter Chinese power.

China, as is internationally recognised, is among the greatest challengers to US global hegemony. This presents Australia with a major dilemma because China is Australia’s largest trading partner. We have profited handsomely from our trading relationship with China, so much so that this single relationship has kept Australia above the worst of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). Being seen as part of an active American ‘anti-Chinese’ coalition therefore, is just bad diplomacy. But, perhaps the Gillard government is cleverer than many pundits believe. Perhaps it thinks that it can keep the Americans appeased by talking up the US relationship, while at the same time, cutting the defence budget by 10 percent, which in turn could be seen as a signal to China that Canberra is not really interested in actively aiding the Americans militarily. Of course this is way too big an assumption. With a Liberal-National government in 2013, we can expect Australia to again speak more plainly to its traditional ally the US. China on the other hand can expect more ‘talking out of both sides of (one’s) mouth’ from Canberra as our political elite attempts to covet Chinese money with one hand, while holding the baseball bat in the other.

By Dr. John Bruni, Director SAGE International


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