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”.
White’s proposed force structure focuses on doubling down on the model advocated by the 1986 Dibb Report and effective castration of Australia and its capacity to act independently in the region – this focus on delaying hostile intention and actions against Australia’s “Sea-Air Gap”, the maritime approaches to the continent’s North and reducing the Army to little more than a humanitarian constabulary force capable of intervening in the smallest of brush fires in the South Pacific.
In response, White’s proposal has drawn a combination of both support and condemnation. White’s acceptance that Australia’s defence expenditure needs to be doubled to between 3.5 and 4 per cent of GDP is perhaps the most agreed upon recommendation – with the more controversial proposals, including the possibility of Australia developing or acquiring nuclear weapons the primary focal point.
Michael Shoebridge of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has recently responded with Hugh White’s plan for defending Australia simply isn’t viable, which while recognising the shortfalls of White’s proposals, continues to perpetuate Australia’s history of dependence upon larger powers and fails to accept that Australia will need to play a greater role in the region.
It should be noted that while Shoebridge plans to identify White’s failures in a follow-on article, he is also seemingly too quick to refuse any notion that the changing regional dynamics and the continuing challenges to America’s economic, political and strategic primacy will not be in isolation to that of regional powers beyond China – each of which will have a dramatic impact on Australia’s strategic priorities and consistency.
A crumbling foundation stone – increasing challenges to US primacy
Prior to establishing a new paradigm and priorities, it is critical to understand the nation’s history of strategic policy making and the key priorities which have defined Australia's position in the Indo-Pacific since Federation – traditionally, Australia’s strategic and defence planning has been intrinsically defined and impacted by a number of different yet interconnected and increasingly complex factors, namely:
- guaranteeing the enduring benevolence and continuing stability of its primary strategic partner – via continued support of their strategic ambitions;
- the geographic isolation of the continent, highlighted by the “tyranny of distance”;
- a relatively small population in comparison with its neighbours; and
- increasingly, the geopolitical, 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.
The growing conventional and hybrid capabilities of peer and near-peer competitors – namely Russia and China – combined with the growing modernisation, capability enhancements and reorganisation of force structures in the armies of nations including India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand, all contribute to the changing balance of economic, political and strategic power in the Indo-Pacific.
This perfect storm of factors, swirling like a maelstrom across Australia’s northern borders, has largely gone unnoticed by the Australian public, beyond the odd port visit by American or, as recently happened, Chinese naval vessels that seem to cause momentary flurries of concern. Meanwhile, Australia’s strategic and political leaders appear to be caught in an increasingly dangerous paradigm of thinking, one of continuing US-led dominance and Australia maintaining its position as a supplementary power.
Can we still be friends? Of course!
Contrary to what seems to be the unwritten rule of contemporary Australian strategic planning and diplomatic thinking, Australia embracing a more independent, almost selfish approach to strategic and defence policy would not be the end of Australia’s long-term security agreement with the United States. The underlying belief that if Australia were to exert its own interests, backed up by an independent capability to do so, would draw American ire lands somewhere in the realm of naivete.
Broadly speaking, Australia shares the same objectives for the Indo-Pacific as the United States, Japan and South Korea. Looking further abroad, Australia supports the continuation of the post-Second World War economic, political and strategic order – the nation’s wealth, security and stability are built upon the rules-based order.
Inevitably, despite all the finger crossing and back slapping, America’s capacity to intervene unilaterally in the region will become increasingly costly – particularly as regional economies continue to grow and military capabilities continue to approach qualitative and quantitative parity. Accordingly, Australia will be required to embrace a more independent tactical and strategic role and capability in the region.
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, which focuses largely on:
- Australia’s continuing economic prosperity, stability and industrial competitiveness 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.
Responding to these challenges requires an approach that recognises that 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 it entails?
The ADF serves an important role within Australia’s policymaking apparatus and is critical to long-term national security, and while the continued defence budget growth is expected to be widely welcomed by industry, the growing challenges to the Indo-Pacific region are raising questions about whether Australia’s commitment to 2 per cent of GDP is suitable to support the growing role and responsibilities that Australia will be required to undertake as regional security load sharing between the US and allies becomes a reality.
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.
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.