Over the weekend, renowned Australian strategic policy expert Hugh White added fuel to the fire about the rapidly changing strategic environment of the Indo-Pacific. White focused his commentary on the limitations of Australia’s major allies, namely the US, returning Australia’s strategic policy discussion to a state of “it’s all a little too difficult”.
Since the nation's earliest days, Australia's strategic and defence planning has been intrinsically defined and impacted by a number of different, yet interconnected and increasingly complex factors, namely:
- The benevolence and continuing stability of its primary strategic partner;
- The geographic isolation of the continent, highlighted by the ‘tyranny of distance’;
- A relatively small population in comparison with its neighbours; and
- Increasingly, the geo-political, economic and strategic ambition and capabilities of Australia’s Indo-Pacific Asian neighbours.
Australia's earliest strategic relationship with the British Empire established a foundation of dependence that would characterise all of the nation's future defence and national security relationships both in the Indo-Pacific and the wider world. As British power slowly declined following the First World War and the US emerged as the pre-eminent economic, political and strategic power during the Second World War – Australia became dependent on 'Pax Americana' or the American Peace.
While the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War cemented America's position as the pre-eminent world power – this period was relatively short lived as costly engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, peace-keeping interventions in southern Europe and enduring global security responsibilities have drained American 'blood' and 'treasure' – eroding the domestic political, economic and strategic resolve and capacity of the US to unilaterally counter the rise of totalitarian regimes and peer competitors in both China and Russia.
The broader economic, political and strategic rise of Indo-Pacific Asia further compounds the US and its ability to secure Australia's strategic interests, challenging the nation's long-held belief that it will never really need to do its own heavily lifting in a tactically and strategically challenging environment.
Enter widely respected Australian strategic and defence policy analyst Hugh White, who has recently kicked off discussion with the launch of his new book, How to Defend Australia, and a series of supporting opinion pieces over the weekend. White set the scene for the Australian public, presenting perhaps one of the most asinine questions of recent strategic debate: "Should Australia defend itself? Our choice is not an easy one. Just because we probably can build the forces to defend ourselves does not mean we necessarily should. As we have seen, the costs would be very high, and it is not a foregone conclusion that the benefits outweigh those costs."
Recognising the limits of American power
It is important to recognise that for the first time America has a true competitor in China – a nation with immense industrial potential, growing wealth and prosperity, a driving national purpose and a growing series of alliances with re-emerging, resource rich great powers in Russia, and supported by a growing network of economic hubs and indebted psuedo-colonies throughout the Indo-Pacific and Asia.
Unlike the Soviet Union, China is a highly industrialised nation – with an industrial capacity comparable to, if not exceeding, that of the US, supported by a rapidly narrowing technological gap, supporting growing military capability and territorial ambitions, bringing the rising power into direct competition with the US and its now fraying alliance network of tired global allies.
The increasing cost blow outs and project delays of major US defence acquisition and development programs, including strategic programs like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Gerald R Ford Class of aircraft carriers, B-21 Raider strategic bomber, combined with ballooning US government debt and domestic political and societal challenges, serve as unique and important challenges, limiting America's enduring ability to project presence.
Whether consciously recognising the potential of this challenge or not, the US President's direct, often confrontational approach towards allies belies domestic concerns about America's ability to maintain the post-Second World War global order. Andrew Davies of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) highlighted the importance of recognising the limitation of US power in a recent piece for ASPI, saying, "The assumption of continued US primacy that permeated DWP 2016 looked heroic at the time. It seems almost foolishly misplaced now."
Australia's need for strategic independence
As Australia's traditional strategic benefactors continue to face decline and comparatively capable peer competitors – the nation's economic, political and strategic capability are intrinsically linked to the enduring security, stability and prosperity in an increasingly unpredictable region. White's focus on and underlying belief that Australia seriously committing to a sustained and focused effort to develop a true regional power is too difficult continues to perpetuate a 'black' and 'white' approach to developing strategic policy.
This approach fails to recognise the precarious position Australia now finds itself in, however it does identify key areas for the nation's political and strategic leaders to focus on if Australia is to establish a truly independent strategic capacity – this focuses largely on:
- Australia's continuing economic prosperity and stability and the role the economy plays in supporting defence capability;
- The economic, political and strategic intentions of Australia's Indo-Pacific neighbours; and
- The rapidly evolving technology-heavy nature of contemporary warfare.
"We probably can defend ourselves independently if we choose to do so and if we go about it the right way, which means adopting a military strategy that exploits the advantages of our geography and trends in the technology of warfare ... Second, it depends on how new technologies affect the conduct of military and maritime operations," White posits.
"Third, it depends on whether we can get access to the technologies that we would need to make our military strategy work. And finally, it depends on how our own economy fares, which will determine how much we would have to sacrifice to build the forces required to defend ourselves."
Responding to these challenges requires an approach that recognises each of these factors are all part of national security policy. This includes a dedicated focus on developing a robust economic and industrial capacity – devoid of dependence on any single source of economic prosperity – while focusing on developing a robust and independently capable tactical and strategic military capability, supported by Australia's enduring diplomatic good will and relationships in the region.
These responses do not hinder Australia's economic growth or strategic stability – rather, if developed, communicated and implemented correctly they support the economic growth, diversity and development of the nation, building on a record period of economic growth and prosperity – providing flow on benefits for Australia's strategic capacity to act as an independent strategic benefactor.
As a nation, Australia is at a precipice and both the Australian public and the nation's political and strategic leaders need to decide what they want the nation to be – do they want the nation to become an economic, political and strategic backwater caught between two competing great empires and a growing cluster of periphery great powers? Or does Australia "have a crack" and actively establish itself as a regional great power with all the benefits that entails? Because the window of opportunity is closing.
Let us know your thoughts
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.
For Australia, a nation defined by its relationship with traditionally larger, yet economically weaker regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities, competing geo-political, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century's 'great game'.