In 1995/96 China held military exercises aimed at intimidating Taiwan into abandoning any thoughts of independence. President Clinton responded by putting an aircraft carrier group into the Taiwan Straits - a single aircraft carrier battle group carries as much firepower as a moderate-sized country, and the US has almost a dozen. The PLA backed off.
The experience convinced the Chinese that they needed to deny America access to the straits, and to all the seas between the Chinese mainland and the so-called First Island Chain, the chain that runs from Borneo, through the western islands of the Philippines, through Taiwan and north to Japan and South Korea. For China, these seas are as vital to its security as the coastal seas off the east and west coasts of continental North America are to the US.
Over the following decades China developed a strategy designed at inflicting unacceptable damage on any US carrier group entering this zone. The strategy, called anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) uses anti-ship weapons such as submarines, advanced mines, and ballistic and other missiles, as well as cyber and space technologies (attacks on computer networks and direct attacks on satellites) so that US naval forces, with their immense technological advantages, would not be able to intervene in China's strategic inshore zone without the likelihood of prohibitively expensive losses. (See the excellent maps here, here and here).
America must be able to offer credible support to its key allies in the Western Pacific - Japan, South Korea and Taiwan - but China's growing A2/AD capability makes made a repeat of President Clinton's intervention look increasingly problematic. Any erosion, real or perceived, of America's ability to support its Asian allies has implications for America's global standing, which rests on its ability to project power anywhere on the globe. In a sense, and without wishing to overstress this aspect, the US's ability to defeat China's local A2/AD strategy is also a threat to America's global standing as the world superpower.
The US response has been the AirSea Battle (ASB) doctrine. ASB is specifically a counter to A2/AD; it calls for US forces to strike deep inside the territory of the enemy to destroy radar, ballistic missile sites, and other components of A2/AD. Cyber-attacks and satellite warfare would also be key parts of the attack.
From the point of view of its proponents, ASB is defensive, as its aim is to regain access to a contested area. But its critics - many of them inside the US defense establishment - charge that it s highly dangerous, not least because it relies on a first strike (in fact both sides would have strong incentive for striking first, the US to take out Chinese A2/ADassets , China to take out US assets before they lost the capacity to do so). It is also potentially escalatory: China is supposed to back down after the US strike, but there's no guarantee this would happen. Further charges are that the Chinese leadership would have no means of knowing that the US attack was limited in scope. Hence ASB, its critics say, is inherently destabilising.
Champions of the doctrine are at pains to point out that it is not aimed at China - the concept is equally applicable to the Persian Gulf or any other comparatively enclosed body of water where an antagonist might attempt to hinder US movement into or manoeuvre within a theatre of operations. This is true, but the argument between proponents and critics seems to be framed exclusively in terms of China. Indeed, it is difficult to see how Beijing could view ASB as anything other than a threat to China's ability to control its strategic back yard.
This overview barely begins to scratch the surface of a very complex subject, and my interest in any case is not on the strategic aspects of ASB but its implications for Australian foreign policy in coming decades.
China is still three decades behind the US in terms of modernising its military. As this modernisation proceeds, Australia faces a looming clash of two irreconcilable concepts, each held to be foundational.
The first is the American alliance. Since the mid-1940s the assumption has been that Australia can rely on America for protection. This is based on a very real fact of life: we inhabit a huge continent, we have a small population, and, although we are a rich country, we cannot realistically expect to defend it alone. The needs are far beyond our resources. Not only that, those needs are constantly increasing - consider, for example, the fact that by 2030 Indonesia's economy may belarger than those of Germany and Britain, let alone Australia's, and the implications that has for Indonesian defense spending. (India, by the way, already has a larger economy than Australia).
The American alliance has had, and will continue to have, immense advantages for Australia. Much more than a simple insurance against potential military threat, it gives us access: access to the very latest technology from the world's leading power, to US intelligence, and much more. These are real benefits in and of themselves, but they also enhance Australia's prestige in the region, and prestige, intangible as it may be, is one of the several currencies of diplomacy. All in all, it's difficult to see what could replace the US alliance, or why we would want to try.
But then there's the second assumption of our foreign policy. The Coalition's pre-election foreign policy paper may have been naive, but it did reflect a fundamental truth which both major parties tacitly accept: Australia can forgo most elements of foreign policy as understood in, say, London or Berlin or New Delhi or Tokyo, and concentrate on trade. Consider, for example, the recent revelations of Australia's astonishing role in the Trans Pacific Partnership free trade negotiations - supportive of the US position, otherwise passive, with no apparent objectives of our own. It is the approach of a country which has no culture of an independent diplomacy.