Online Extra: Q&A with Australia's Top Defense Analyst

U.S.-China is a classical power game, says Paul Gibb of the Strategic & Defense Studies Center at Australian National University

Paul Dibb is one of the top defense analysts in the Southern Hemisphere, and his advice was sought by visiting Bush Administration emissary Jim Kelly in early May. Dibb, who is head of the Strategic & Defense Studies Center at Australian National University in Canberra, is former Deputy Secretary of the Australian Defense Dept. and former head of the Australian Defense Intelligence Organization. He shared his views on the Bush Administration's new approach to the Asia-Pacific region with BusinessWeek Singapore Bureau Manager Michael Shari on May 11. Edited excerpts from their conversation follow:

Q: What's your impression of the Bush Administration's approach to Asia?

A: I agree with an American refocus on the real potential threats coming out of Asia now, rather than Europe.... In Europe it is no longer credible to think about a major war. In Asia it is: War between the U.S. and China over the Taiwan Straits, war between North and South Korea involving the U.S., and war between India and Pakistan that could see the use of nuclear weapons. In Europe now, there is a swathe of democratic or democratizing countries all the way from Ireland through to the Urals. That is not the case in Asia.

Q: What's the difference between Europe and Asia?

A: Four of the five major communist countries in the world are in Asia. And there are a whole bunch of authoritarian countries, which may not be communist but which certainly are hard-line authoritarian, such as Burma. In Europe, there is a history of multilateral security cooperation, alliances, arms-control measures specifically developed for the European region, and a fair degree of military transparency and confidence-building, including some intrusive inspections.

None of that applies in Asia. There are no multilateral alliances, other than in a very small way the five-power defense arrangements. There is no history of regionwide multilateral security cooperation -- and if there is, it's in a very early stage. There are no specific arms-control arrangements for the region of Asia. Even worse, most countries in Asia...are furtive and secretive about their military orders of battle. And there are no confidence building measures and nothing in the way of transparency and intrusive inspections.

Q: What about China?

A: China is the emerging natural regional leader in Asia, and it knows it. And there's only one country capable of stopping it, and it knows that -- it's the U.S. And that's what what this game is all about.... It's a classical power game.

Q: Are you concerned that full-scale military conflict could erupt between China and another Asian nation?

A: There is the continuing risk, particularly as China modernizes its force and tends to push and probe higher in the South China Sea, of a miscalculation and of a limited local conflict, say with the Philippines or with Vietnam. But there is not [a risk of] major conflict, no. Why should China do that, when its creeping territorialism in the South China Sea is winning it influence and access without going to war in any case?

Q: What's your view on the nuclear missile defense shield that Bush is trying to get support for?

A: I can see that the U.S. is worried about so-called rogue regimes that may try and blackmail the U.S. with the threat of nuclear attack. If, for instance, the U.S. was involved in another war in the [Persian] Gulf with Iran or Iraq, or against North Korea, and if it was a conventional war, and any one of those three states decided to escalate it by attacking the U.S., then that would be a serious issue.

Even before that, American troops in bases in Asia are very vulnerable to missile attack with conventional warheads. We saw that, of course, with the use of SCUD missiles by Iraq against American troops in Saudi Arabia. Imagine North Korea attacking American bases in South Korea or in Japan with nuclear, chemical, and biological warheads. It's now an issue. The lights on the hill, the chosen nation, they now feel threatened in a way they haven't felt threatened before by these rogue regimes.... Then, no matter what the rest of us think, the U.S. is going to go ahead with this limited ballistic missile shield.

Q: What does Australia hope to get out of its relationship with the U.S.?

A: The U.S.-Australia alliance arrangement is a relationship O at the highest levels of security sensitivity, including intelligence cooperation, the likes of which the U.S. does not have with any other country in the entire Asia Pacific region. The only other countries with which the U.S. has a similar relationship are Britain and Canada.... At the most broad level of national security, the alliance with the U.S. provides a nuclear umbrella over Australia. It's what we call extended nuclear deterrence. If someone tussles with us at that almost unthinkable level of war, then the U.S. would be there.

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