Australia as both a continent and a nation is unique in its position, enjoying relative geographic isolation from the flash points of global and regional conflagration of the 20th century – blessed with unrivalled resource wealth and industrial potential, the nation has been able to embrace vastly different approaches to the nation's strategic role and responsibilities.
These factors, combined with the nation's dependence on a benevolent great power security partner, have engendered a culture of dependence that continues to characterise Australia's strategic policy debate and conversation. However, Australia has never experienced the perfect storm of global events that is currently transforming the global geo-political, economic and strategic power paradigm, including:
- The rate of technological development means that any significant investment in capability will be sunk money affecting both tactical and strategic deterrent forces;
- Australia’s capabilities, no matter the level of development and investment, will never be significant enough to threaten any potential major-power adversary, so don’t bother;
- Regional alliances and security frameworks will only serve to agitate China and will be of little benefit; and
- We might upset China in appropriately responding to their rapidly developing capabilities and overt willingness to use their economic, political and military power to coerce regional nations, including Australia.
Each of these individual arguments form part of a reductive, 'black' or 'white' approach to strategic policy, which fails to recognise the precarious position Australia now finds itself in, with the relative decline and strategic schizophrenia exhibited by the US, combined with the rise of China and resurgence of nations like Russia in combination with the rise of regional great powers challenges the nation's now precarious position.
Shifting beyond this reductionist approach requires nuance, it also requires an acceptance that 'Pax Americana', or the post-Second World War 'American Peace', is over and Australia will require a uniquely Australian approach and recognition that the nation is now solely responsible for the security of its national interests with key alliances serving a secondary, complementary role to the broader debate.
This nuanced approach and acceptance of Australia's precarious position mandates a layered, complex and self-reliant approach not exhibited in Australia before across traditional military capabilities, industrial and economic output and the development of a unique, Australian 'Grand Strategy' to support the development of Australia's self reliance.
Australia invested in the Indo-Pacific
Australia’s security and prosperity are directly influenced by the stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific, meaning Australia must be directly engaged as both a benefactor and leader in all matters related to strategic, economic and political security, serving as either a replacement or complementary force to the role played by the US – should the US commitment or capacity be limited.
To assume that Australia will remain immune to any hostilities that break out in the region is naive at best and criminally negligent at worst. As a nation, Australia cannot turn a blind eye to its own geo-political, economic and strategic backyard, both at a traditional and asymmetric level, lest we see a repeat of Imperial Japan or the Iranian Revolution arrive on our doorstep.
Australia cannot simply rely on the US, or Japan, or the UK, or France to guarantee the economic, political and strategic interests of the nation. China is already actively undermining the regional order through its provocative actions in the South China Sea and its rapid military build-up – this new paradigm is not merely theoretical anymore, it is a harsh reality and the only answer is an increased capacity for self reliance.
Guaranteeing this requires the nation to find a balance between the expeditionary and interventionist focused 'Forward Defence' and the continental defence focused 'Defence of Australia' doctrines to counter the high and low intensity threats to the nation's security and interests.
What does self reliance look like?
True strategic self reliance requires a holistic approach to national security – it incorporates a coherent, long-term plan for developing true economic and industrial diversity, which given Australia's enviable endowment of natural resources and the relative blank slate starting point of the fourth industrial revolution positions Australia well, combined with enhancing the diplomatic reorientation towards the 'Arc of Instability' across Australia's northern approaches.
Developing strategic self reliance also requires a shift away from acting entirely as the 'loyal deputy' to the US, particularly in the event of further costly interventions in the Middle East – rather reorientating the nation's strategic position and engagement to focus on Australia's primary area of responsibility, namely Indo-Pacific Asia.
The nation is defined by its relationship with the region, with access to the growing economies and to strategic sea-lines-of-communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost effective and reliable nature of sea transport. Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and choke points of south-east Asia annually.
This reorientation also requires a controversial shift in focus away from China's now sputtering economic growth to leverage Australia's capacity to supply and support the economic miracle transforming a large number of Indo-Pacific nations, mainly growing regional titans including Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, India and the like, minimising the nation's economic dependence and subsequent vulnerability to any single nation.
Additionally, this shift towards strategic self reliance requires the development of a layered tactical and strategic defence capability – with a focus on developing a strategic deterrence-focused 'joint force' concept requiring development of 'great power' level capabilities. Key to these 'joint force' strategic capabilities is developing a range of capabilities, including:
- Rapidly deployable expeditionary focused ground forces – combining amphibious units and traditional, high-intensity and manoeuvre warfare-focused ground combat elements;
- Comprehensive naval power projection forces including aircraft carrier strike groups, amphibious assault groups, and conventionally-focused at sea deterrence submarine forces; and
- Integrated, expeditionary capable air forces combining tactical fighter aircraft, tactical and strategic strike, air lift and tanker, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.
Developing these individual forces requires an acceptance of Australia's position within this shifting regional environment, and an acceptance that Australia's precarious position and dependence on the Indo-Pacific will require increased investment and targeted policy development to maintain the nation's prosperity, security and way of life.
Enhancing Australia's capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves not only as a powerful symbol of Australia's sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia - shifting the public discussion away from the default Australian position of "it is all a little too difficult, so let's not bother" will provide unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.