How Not to Win Friends and Influence People

China's heavy-handed behavior is driving neighbors, especially Australia, farther away from its orbit.

Here's one way to gauge just how much China has shot itself in the foot by bullying neighbors and rattling sabers: It's making what looked like a painful choice for Australia a whole lot easier.  

For years, policymakers from Down Under have worried about just how long the country could balance moving ever closer to China in terms of economic interests with maintaining deep defense ties with the United States as tensions rise in the Asia-Pacific. With the U.S. "pivot to Asia" -- featuring a leading role for Australia -- and growing concern about China's heavy-handed diplomacy, those fears had been intensifying.

"The question is not whether we want to choose between them, but whether we might find ourselves forced to make such a choice," Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, told Foreign Policy recently.

China is doing its part by picking fights with Vietnam and the Philippines, single-handedly pushing Japan to scuttle decades of pacifism, and running roughshod over the international rules and norms that underpinned the region's decades of peace and prosperity. As a result, Australia has taken giant strides toward the United States and its allies.

On Tuesday, just weeks after doubling down on security ties with the United States, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe signed sweeping economic and defense deals, reaffirming the two countries' "special relationship." The deals, which include plans for joint development of advanced submarines, indicate Abbott's vocal support for Abe's more muscular military posture -- while also sending a clear message to China.

"For decades now, Japan has been an exemplary international citizen. So Australia welcomes Japan's recent decision to be a more capable strategic partner in our region," Abbot said, addressing Parliament with Abe. "I stress, ours is not a partnership against anyone; it's a partnership for peace, for prosperity and for the rule of law."

Coming right on the heels of Abbot's June trip to Washington -- in which he stressed that "Australia will be an utterly dependable ally of the United States" -- Abbott's stance puts to rest worries that Australia might throw its old friends under the bus to guarantee lucrative trade ties with Beijing, some experts say.

"In a strategic and political sense, Australia has already chosen: It is a firm U.S. ally, and the alliance has intensified," said Rory Medcalf, a director at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, Australia's leading think tank. "In the end, it is very difficult to see how Chinese economic leverage could compel Australia to loosen or break the alliance."

Abbot himself underscored that point, telling Parliament, "You don't win new friends by losing old ones."

For decades, countries such as Australia and New Zealand never had to choose between economic growth and security. The dominant economic power and the dominant military power were one and the same: the United States. "So long as one country ... was able to set the international security agenda, there was no significant divergence between economic aspirations and the desire for security," former New Zealand Defense Minister Wayne Mapp noted in a paper written this spring.

That has all changed with China's dramatic transformation over the last 40 years from economic weakling to titan. China is Australia's top trading partner, with bilateral exchange worth more than $150 billion annually. China's voracious appetite for raw materials and energy resources, in particular, helped underwrite Australia's economic growth over the last 20 years; former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said in a speech last year that such trade accounted for about half of Australia's income gains from 2000 to 2010.

Even as China's double-digit economic growth slows, accompanied by corresponding drops in its demand for Australia's raw materials, Australia's prosperity remains centered in Asia. That leaves policymakers in Canberra to wrestle with how best to position Australia to take advantage of the "Asian century."

Australian leaders spanning the political spectrum, from conservatives such as John Howard and Abbott to liberals like Rudd and Julia Gillard, have tried to chart "best of both worlds" courses, seeking more affinity with everyone. Rudd speaks Mandarin. Abbot offsets visits to Japan with stops in China. And now Canberra is placing itself firmly under Uncle Sam's wing even as it pursues finalizing a new free trade pact with Beijing by year's end.

"America has kept us safe while China has made us rich. We would like that to last forever," Australian National University's White said.

Indeed, Australians have a blurry view of just what's best for the country. In the latest annual Lowy poll, Australians said China was the country's best friend in Asia -- ahead of Japan or South Korea, its other big trading partners, which are also democracies allied with the United States. Aussies registered their warmest feelings toward China in 10 years of Lowy polling. And the importance they placed on the military alliance with America hit a five-year low, though 78 percent of Aussies still favor it.

Yet nearly half of Australians believe China will become a military threat in the next 20 years, a significant uptick from last year's survey. That likely reflects unease with China's recent regional aggression, such as dispatching an oil rig to Vietnamese waters in May, constructing an airstrip on an island claimed by the Philippines that same month, and constantly sparring with Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea with both air and naval power.

Even as those actions pushed Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, and Australia closer to Washington, "they will not be able to ignore China's expectations," Mapp, the former Kiwi defense minister, told FP. "In short, the increased power of China does change the calculus. And it means accommodating at least some of China's expectations -- not every one of them can be rebuffed."

Top U.S. and Chinese officials are discussing the two countries' impasse at the big strategic and economic talks in Beijing this week. Pentagon planners are plotting ways to push back against Chinese encroachments in the South China Sea. If things turn ugly, Washington would expect Australian help, including direct military assistance; that's likely to prompt some serious soul-searching in Canberra.

"Joining the United States in military operations against China would have immense consequences for our relations with Beijing. If such a conflict escalated, which is not a remote possibility, Australia would soon face a real 'us-or-them' choice," White said.

Stefan Postles - Getty


The Pentagon's $399 Billion Plane to Nowhere

The next-generation F-35, the most expensive plane ever built, may be too dangerous to fly. Why is Congress keeping it alive?

Burying bad news before a long holiday weekend, the Pentagon announced just before 9 p.m. on July 3 that the entire F-35 Joint Strike Fighter fleet was being grounded after a June 23 runway fire at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.

The grounding could not have come at a worse time, especially for the Marine Corps, which had lots of splashy events planned this month for its variant of the next-generation plane, whose costs have soared to an estimated $112 million per aircraft.

Effectively saying that the most expensive warplane in American history is too dangerous to fly is a huge public relations blow for the Pentagon, which has been under fire for years for allowing the plane's costs to increase even as its delivery time continued to slide right. The plane's prime contractor, Lockheed Martin, could also take a hit to its bottom line if the F-35 isn't cleared to fly to the United Kingdom for a pair of high-profile international air shows packed with potential customers. One thing the grounding won't do, however, is derail the F-35, a juggernaut of a program that apparently has enough political top cover to withstand any storm.

Part of that protection comes from the jaw-dropping amounts of money at stake. The Pentagon intends to spend roughly $399 billion to develop and buy 2,443 of the planes. However, over the course of the aircrafts' lifetimes, operating costs are expected to exceed $1 trillion. Lockheed has carefully hired suppliers and subcontractors in almost every state to ensure that virtually all senators and members of Congress have a stake in keeping the program -- and the jobs it has created -- in place.

"An upfront question with any program now is: How many congressional districts is it in?" said Thomas Christie, a former senior Pentagon acquisitions official.

In the case of the F-35, the short answer is: a lot. Counting all of its suppliers and subcontractors, parts of the program are spread out across at least 45 states. That's why there's no doubt lawmakers will continue to fund the program even though this is the third time in 17 months that the entire fleet has been grounded due to engine problems. In fact, in the version of the defense appropriations bill passed by the House, lawmakers agreed to purchase 38 planes in 2015, four more than the Pentagon requested.

The Pentagon has offered little information about the cause of the fire or whether the Marine Corps' version of the plane, the F-35B, had been cleared to participate in the Royal International Air Tattoo and the Farnborough International Airshow in the U.K. next week.

"Nobody wants to rush these aircraft back into the air before we know exactly what happened and investigators have a chance to do their work," Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters Tuesday.

In addition to the Marines, the F-35 is also being built for the Navy and the Air Force. Each service is getting its own unique version of the aircraft, though the most important part -- the engine -- is being shared across all three models.

But the armed services are not the only customers. Eight international partners have signed on to help build and buy the planes: the U.K., Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark, and Norway. While not involved in the development of the plane, Israel and Japan are buying it through the foreign military sales process, and South Korea recently indicated that it would buy at least 40 of the aircraft.

It's crucial for the Pentagon that each of these countries sticks with their planned buys to prevent the unit price of each aircraft from increasing even further. Lockheed, in turn, sees those foreign sales as an important part of its strategy to diversify away from the shrinking U.S. defense market in favor of expanding overseas ones.

Unfortunately for the Pentagon -- and for Lockheed -- the Pentagon's decision to ground the planes has already caused the aircraft to miss its scheduled July 4 international debut: flying over the naming ceremony for the British Royal Navy's new aircraft carrier -- the HMS Queen Elizabeth -- in Scotland.

"This government has sold this turkey and is still selling it," Christie said.

None of the countries involved in the program have indicated their commitment to it has changed since the planes were grounded.  

Its future really isn't in doubt, but the F-35 is facing some criticism at home. On Capitol Hill, the F-35's biggest critic is Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). He's famous for his tirades against the plane, bemoaning the program's cost and the fact that the United States is buying the fighter jet before its testing is even complete. But so far his rhetorical bark is worse than his legislative bite when it comes to the annual defense authorization bill.

On Tuesday, McCain told Defense News that the F-35 is the worst example "of the military-industrial-congressional complex," but other senators, including Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), were mostly confident that its problems would be fixed.

Meanwhile, Lockheed's rival Boeing, which builds EA-18G Growlers and F/A-18 Super Hornets, criticizes the F-35's capabilities in the press and vies with it for money on Capitol Hill. But even Boeing is careful about how far it will go with its criticism, because at the end of the day, the company doesn't want to burn its relationship with its government customers, said Winslow Wheeler, a former congressional staffer who closely tracks the program's ups and downs.

"The political armor of the F-35 is as thick as the heads of the people who designed the airplane and its acquisition plan," he said.

Wheeler is one of the F-35's biggest critics, but his view of the program's political protections is widely shared, and it's one of the reasons that the program appears to be here to stay despite a growing record of problems.

In September 2013, the Pentagon's F-35 program office announced that the tires on the Marine Corps model were wearing out way too fast. This February, the entire fleet was grounded for a whole week after a crack was discovered in a test aircraft's engine turbine blade. As recently as June 9, the Pentagon had to ground the entire fleet after an oil leak occurred midflight, causing a Marine pilot to emergency-land the plane at a base in Arizona.

But the program office and Lockheed have worked hard to solve these problems as they crop up. And Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the F-35 program manager, has brought new focus to the program's price tag, pressuring Lockheed to bring down its costs.

Still, the problems continue. According to congressional and defense sources, the June 23 incident happened right before the F-35A -- the Air Force variant -- lifted off the ground. The pilot was able to abort the takeoff and get out of the plane in time.

"The root cause of the incident remains under investigation," the Pentagon said in its July 3 statement. More than two weeks since the event, there has been little official news. The companies, meanwhile, are staying mum.

"Lockheed Martin is working closely with the F-35 Joint Program Office and industry partners in supporting the Air Force investigation," said Lockheed spokeswoman Laura Siebert. "Safety is our team's top priority."

The plane's engine maker, Pratt & Whitney, also said it's standing ready to assist the investigation, but it wouldn't offer any more details.

Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, attributed the F-35 grounding to the growing pains inherent in any complicated new weapons program. "It absolutely doesn't do anything to shake our confidence in the F-35 program and the progress that has been made both from an engineering and from a financial perspective," he said.

While no one is predicting any drastic changes to the program, defense and congressional sources said the F-35's current engine problems could lead to a revival of the battle over whether General Electric and Rolls Royce should build a second engine for the plane. The effort had been deeply controversial within the Pentagon, where senior leaders like then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates derided it as a waste of taxpayer money. The effort was finally killed by Congress in 2011.

If it turns out that there is a serious problem with the Pratt & Whitney engine, though, you can expect to see an explosion of advertisements from GE-Rolls Royce in the Pentagon's metro station, one former defense official said. "There will be a lot of I-told-you-sos," he said.

U.S. Navy photo courtesy Lockheed Martin via Getty Images