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  • PD Jonson

Australia's defence strategy

Updated: May 1, 2020

'Over the next decade two challenges face Australia which, in combination, seem likely to transform our strategic fortunes for the worse. The first challenge is the need to confront the reality that the great project of Western liberal globalism conceived in the 1990s is slipping into the pages of history. The second challenge is the return of great power competition, most particularly in the form of the rise of a revisionist China that is determined to assume global superpower status and to become the hegemon of Asia.'

This is the opening of a fine article by Michael Evans in the April 2020 issue of Quadrant.

The article seeks 'to explain the dynamics of a gathering storm in Asia and to make the case for a national rejuvenation in thinking about defence and national security strategy.' I find it compelling.

[Please note, single 'x' denotes Evans' views and "x" those of other writers as quoted by Michael Evans.]

Since the end of the severe 1990/91 recession, helped by the dramatic growth of the Chinese economy, the Australian economy tripled in size, and per capita GDP grew by 182 per cent. But Evans claims the 'the age of liberal globalism is disappearing.' The competition between the United States and China will be the 'real drama.' Intellectuals in the west assumed that a growing China would become a more liberal China, but that has not so far happened. 'Australia faces a new and dangerous geopolitical situation that will challenge our statecraft severely. While it is impossible to predict events, we can speculate on an array of possibilities by examining the interplay between circumstance, choice and contingency in Australian strategic affairs.'

Circumstance. The implications of Australia's liminal strategic status

'The central reality of Australia’s existence is its geopolitical status as a liminal or “in-between” state—suspended like a magnet between a world of Asian geography and a world of European history.' Britain and America have protected Australia, leaving room for economic development. Will America continue to be powerful in the Western Pacific?

Choice: Australia's Strategic options

Xi Jinping stated in October 2019: "“it is for the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia, solve the problems of Asia, and uphold the security of Asia”. Australian strategists need to take notice. This recipe for Chinese regional supremacy 'hardly appeals to Australia, and still less, to Japan and South Korea or to India, Taiwan and several Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) members, particularly Indonesia and Singapore'.

President Trump is determined to restore America's strength, involving 'a tougher stance on trade relations with China as a prelude to reversing the erosion of America’s manufacturing base and improving the nation’s industrial capacity for a new era of bipolar strategic competition. At the same time, the American military arsenal, from nuclear weapons through to new space and cyber capabilities, is being modernised.'

Australia has two strategic challenges. ' The first challenge is Australia’s indifferent attitude towards under­standing Asia in general and China in particular. Despite much popular commentary, Australia lacks a deep and sophisticated intellectual debate on the nature of China’s strategic ambitions.'

A second challenge to developing a more self-reliant statecraft is Australia’s abject failure over the past fifteen years to mature strategically. As John Howard—arguably our most sophisticated foreign policy prime minister since Menzies—noted in 2005, Australia is a projection of Western civilisation, but one uniquely located at what he called a “special intersection” of history and geography between East and West.' 'Howard ... clearly anticipated a need to balance Sino-Australian economic links with the imperatives of the Australian-American alliance.'

'Unfortunately', Evans asserts, 'since Howard’s prime ministership Australia has failed the twin challenges of understanding China and developing a mature sense of strategic direction. For over a decade, the nation has been in retreat from both strategic maturity and any special path of policy creativity—content instead to wallow in insularity and inertia—and to wander away from any contemplation of geopolitical reality.' This is a powerful critique that I support. If Tony Abbott had managed several terms he might have made progress. If Scott Morrison pulls Australia out of the Covid-19 morass he also might also begin to consider Australia's greatest strategic challenges.

On March 2019, Greg Sheridan 'indicted Australians for their long neglect of strategic issues'. Sheridan framed his critique as a matter of political choice. “Failing to provide for the growing likelihood that we could face a [defence] emergency on our own,” he wrote, “is a historic, national dereliction … We could easily afford it. We have decided not to do it.” Again, this is a criticism, also made by William Coleman in his 2016 book Only in Australia: The History, Politics and Economics of Australian Exceptionalism, with which I am in strong agreement.

Some politicians have issued calls for an end to complacency. Examples include Labor's David Feney and the Liberal's Jim Molan. Molan dismissed the country’s traditional reliance on Defence white papers for security as outmoded. “Analysis,” he urged, “must go beyond purely military concerns to include social, financial and economic factors.” Michael Evans expresses the possibility of a pessimistic response by most of our leaders. 'Australia seems caught in a mal de siècle and a kind of bunyip strategic nostalgia for a country of earlier times.'

Contingency: The fundamentals of an Australian national security strategy

Australia will no doubt continue to participate with America in the Indo-Pacific. But in addition we need to develop a more self-sufficient industrial and military strategies. Trade diversification in Asia is a key new strategy says Michael Evans. But this is well short of what is needed. Here I will include a very long quote that I do not fully understand.

'In the twenty-first century, Australia must supplement its traditional defence and security philosophy of alliance complacency and military voluntarism and conceive of strategy-making as a key civic responsibility—one that involves the development of an organic relationship between government, citizenry and the private sector. In addition, politicians and security analysts must give consideration not simply to familiar areas of national defence such as doctrine, platforms and weapons capabilities but also to previously neglected aspects, notably studying what national mobilisation and societal resilience require under changing geopolitical conditions.'

I think it implies key points from my views. Such as more spending on defence, serious defence training of young Australians and development of a more serious approach to the needs of Australia's defence.

He concludes his fine contribution by reminding his readers about the doctrine of Billy Hughes expressed in the Australian parliament in September 1919.

"It is proper that a doctrine be promulgated on behalf of Australia [that] in order that Australia be safe, it is necessary that the great rampart of islands stretching around the north-east of Australia should be held by us or by some Power in whom we have absolute confidence … The archipelagos [are] as necessary to Australia as water to a city. If they were in the hands of a superior power, there would be no peace for Australia."

In effect, in March 1950, as the Cold War started, Percy Spender reminded parliament of the Hughes Doctrine when he said: "the islands, are our last ring of defence against aggression, and Australia must be vitally concerned with whatever changes take place in them”.

Michael Evans is the General Sir Francis Hassett Chair of Military Studies at the Australian Defence College in Canberra and a professor in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Deakin University. This article is based on an address to the Australian alumni of the Royal College of Defence Studies, London, at the Commonwealth Club in Canberra last October.

Views on the Covid-19 crisis: Australia's other defence strategy

'The abnormal is Australia’s new normal, but only for a while. What is more important is that the ­nation in the fullness of its social, economic and spiritual life does not revert post-crisis to the old pre-2020 politics. The past cannot be fully restored and that creates a new opportunity — to reinvent and improve upon the past.'

'The era of peak globalisation is over. An economic system that relied on worldwide production and long supply chains is morphing into one that will be less interconnected. A way of life driven by unceasing mobility is shuddering to a stop. Our lives are going to be more physically constrained and more virtual than they were. A more fragmented world is coming into being that in some ways may be more resilient.'

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