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ASPI chief counters with scathing response to White’s ‘How to defend Australia’

Debate is well and truly ablaze, as ASPI executive director Peter Jennings has issued a scathing response to Hugh White’s latest book, How to Defend Australia, which identifies a stark shift in Australias defence planning, acquisition and force structure as the regional balance of power evolves.

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. 

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Recognising this, 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 dominance, 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.

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.

Its a little difficult so let's not bother – Hugh White's proposition 

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Enter widely respected Australian strategic and defence policy analyst Hugh White, who has recently kicked the hornets nest of debate with his new book, How to Defend Australia, and a series of supporting opinion pieces. 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."

White has used his position of prominence to advocate for a range of force structure, acquisition, modernisation and capability restructuring and developments shifting from the major acquisition programs identified as priorities of the Australian government's record $200 billion investment in capability, including: 

  • Scrapping the $35 billion Hunter Class program – selling the Hobart and Canberra Class vessels; 
  • Increasing the acquisition plans of the Attack Class submarines from 12 to 36; 
  • An increase in Australia's purchase of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and long-range strike capabilities; and
  • A consideration of Australia developing or acquiring nuclear weapons capabilities. 

While this represents a quick summary of White's proposal, it perfectly encapsulates his modus operandi – that is the path of least resistance and a belief that Australia is incapable of affecting its own future. 

The counter point – Jennings returns fire

Executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute Peter Jennings PSM has issued a resolute rebuke of White's central thesis as identified in How to Defend Australia – with a resounding statement in the opening comments: "Hugh White’s How to defend Australia is an elegant book but also something of a party trick: engagingly clever but not realistic. It will be essential reading for every national security master’s degree by coursework program for years to come. And it’s fundamentally wrong on just about every judgement it contains. Any government that tried to implement it would damn Australia to a form of global and regional irrelevance that would make New Zealand look like a security colossus."

Jennings distills his response into seven, easily understandable core points, which respond to each of the supporting elements of White's central thesis, and include: 

  • China's rise is not unstoppable – "White is, in fact, clear and consistent in his view of China. Everything he writes ‘hinges on the rise of China and how it changes the distribution of wealth and power in Asia’. China’s rise is effectively unstoppable, and China is determined ‘to take America’s place as the leading power’ in Asia. Resistance will be futile because ‘the more strenuously America tries to contain China, the more likely war will become’. This is pretty much the guts of White’s argument. Everything thereafter follows as a footnote to the iron laws of gravity."
  • America's fall is not inevitable – "The other side of this coin is the thesis that America is pretty much a busted flush. White is more opaque here: ‘Of course, America shall remain a very powerful country … and it will retain important interests in Asia that it will seek to uphold’. But apart from that caveat the rest of the book would make you think that Uncle Sam had already checked out of Hotel Asia-Pacific. In White’s judgement there’s simply no way that Australia could rely on such a clapped-out partner. Indeed, the only question worth pondering is whether America’s slide down the strategic plug hole will be fast or somewhat slower." 
  • It's not just about size – "At base, White’s unit of measurement for strategic importance is size. But size doesn’t explain everything about strategic weight. Nor does it explain nothing about strategic weight. What matters is what countries do with their strategic weight. White’s approach doesn’t accept that subtlety. His is a world in which big fish eat small fish and that’s all you need to know about China – or, for that matter, India, Japan and Indonesia, all of which he thinks could threaten Australia." 
  • Australia is not alone – "The size fixation creates an oddly atomised world where states rocket around like differently sized billiard balls and smack into each other. There’s no possibility for lasting or meaningful collaboration, no ability to align because of shared values or strategic outlook, and no acceptance that the world can evolve norms of behaviour that limit consumption of tiddlers by the big fish ... But Australia is not alone. We have always fought in concert with friends and allies. Almost always that fight has been to preserve an international system that represents more to our interests than the ability to patrol our maritime approaches. If we were ever to be in a world where China wanted to physically attack us, that would mean the entire global order had broken down. We would hardly be alone in wanting to resist a Chinese military advance."
  • It's not the late 1980s – "We apply ‘highly offensive’ tactical operations to disable enemy forces moving towards Australia, perhaps even attacking the bases from which they deploy. If this feels like a back-to-the-future scenario that’s because it is. White trialled some of this thinking in the 1997 statement of Australia’s strategic policy ... I don’t think White succeeds in making the case for structuring the force for independent defence against maritime attack. It’s no more persuasive now than it was a generation ago; in fact, it’s less so, because it misses changes in technology such as the cyber threat to critical infrastructure and the use of grey-zone warfare by authoritarian regimes. The further forward we can start our defence efforts the better for the security of the continent."
  • Just adding 'not' is not a way of not saying something – "White is a master of advancing an argument by building the case for what something is not. Thus it is ‘far from unlikely’ that China will become the ‘region’s leading power’; ‘strategic independence does not mean we would always stand by ourselves’; and when it comes to nuclear weapons, ‘I neither predict … nor do I advocate … but the question is one we will not be able to avoid’."
  • Capitulation is not a strategy – "White concludes that Christmas and Cocos Islands would be hard to defend and worries about ‘emotive questions about how much we should be willing to pay to defend every part of our sovereign territory’. That strikes me as a particularly despairing judgement. White rightly worries about how a potential attacker might seek forward lodgements in places that would help enable attacks on Australia. But what a crestfallen judgement for a person who has spent his professional life in and around Australian defence policy."  

In summarising his response, Jennings states, "Finishing How to Defend Australia I was left with the thought that White seems almost to have talked himself into thinking that it just can’t be done. ‘When we weigh the costs of independent defence … we might decide that the risks do not justify the costs. Rather than bear those costs we could elect to take our chances’ (page 20). He hopes that China’s leaders will learn that ‘they would be better off exercising primacy with a light touch’ and indeed ‘the more we go along with Beijing, the lower our strategic risk will be’ (page 41)."

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'.

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. 

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia's future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of defining the nation's primary area of responsibility in the comments section below, or get in touch with This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

ASPI chief counters with scathing response to White’s ‘How to defend Australia’
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