Over the past few days, Andrew Hastie, chair of the incredibly influential parliamentary intelligence and security committee, has drawn the attention and ire of Beijing with claims that both Australia and the world is quietly stumbling into a period of time similar to the 1930s-era prelude to conflict with Nazi Germany – a period characterised by increased assertiveness by totalitarian regimes, economic, political and strategic capitulation and accommodation for global democratic leaders and for Australia, an ignorant bliss that resulted in the nation being caught completely unaware of the myriad threats.
"Like many people across the world, I saw 9/11 as the geopolitical moment that would shape the 21st century. It shaped the next decade of my own life. But I was wrong," Mr Hastie stated in an opinion piece for The Sydney Morning Herald – setting the scene for the tone of his thesis.
"The most significant geopolitical moment of the 21st century had already happened, five months earlier. And most of us, distracted by more dramatic events, failed to see it. It came on April Fool’s Day, 2001. A J-8 fighter jet from the People’s Liberation Army Navy collided with a US Navy EP-3 signals intelligence aircraft, 70 kilometres off the coast of Hainan Island.
"Both planes began plummeting toward the South China Sea. The PLAN fighter pilot did not survive. The 24 crew of the badly damaged US EP-3 managed a hard landing on the island, and, after being offered water and cigarettes, were held for 11 days by the Chinese government. The crew was released to the US, but the aircraft was returned much later – in many small pieces – via a Russian Antonov cargo plane. This was an early test for the Bush administration, only 10 weeks old. It was faced with brinkmanship, intelligence plundering and technology transfer."
Australia's need to chart a 'middle path'
Hastie's central thesis inadvertently draws on his experience, highlighting the strategic nature of his thinking in calling for Australia's leaders to correctly identify the nation's need to chart a middle path, navigating the complexities of the nation's strategic relationship with the US and the self-inflicted economic dependence on China.
"Australia must now, somehow, hold on to our sovereignty and prosperity. We must balance security and trade. But most importantly, we must remain true to our democratic convictions while also seeing the world as it is, not as we wish it to be," Hastie identified.
"This will be immensely difficult. It is impossible to forsake the US, our closest security and investment partner. It is also impossible to disengage from China, our largest trading partner. This is the central point: almost every strategic and economic question facing Australia in the coming decades will be refracted through the geopolitical competition of the US and the PRC."
This conundrum, Hastie posited, requires Australia take a dose of reality medication – requiring the nation to stop, breath, view and assess both the nation's position in the world and the rapidly evolving maelstrom of economic, political and strategic competition, development and sabre rattling, particularly in areas of contention like the South China Sea, parts of central Asia and more concerningly, Australia's own backyard in the Pacific.
Dictate our own strategic direction or it will be dictated for us
Contemporary manoeuvre warfare is defined by using shock, disruption and rapid movement to disrupt an enemy's capacity to respond, thus dictating both the momentum and outcome of the engagement – demonstrated with devastating affect in the Middle East this concept has now evolved to include the battlefield of ideology, economics and political competition in the Indo-Pacific.
Hastie identified the need for Australia to embrace a radically different approach to the way it views not only itself, but also its position within the rapidly evolving regional and global order, lest potential adversaries begin dictating those terms of engagement for us: "Right now our greatest vulnerability lies not in our infrastructure, but in our thinking. That intellectual failure makes us institutionally weak. If we don’t understand the challenge ahead for our civil society, in our parliaments, in our universities, in our private enterprises, in our charities – our little platoons – then choices will be made for us. Our sovereignty, our freedoms, will be diminished."
Building on this, Hastie drew on the precedent established by history and the West's response to Stalin and the Soviet Union's emergence in the ashes of the Second World War as a basis for shaking off the hubris that has defined Western economic, political, ideological and geo-strategic thinking since the collapse of the USSR and end of the Cold War in 1991.
"The West has made this mistake before. Commentators once believed Stalin’s decisions were the rational actions of a realist great power ... We must be intellectually honest and take the Chinese leadership at its word. We are dealing with a fundamentally different vision for the world. Xi Jinping has made his vision of the future abundantly clear since becoming President in 2013. His speeches show that the tough choices ahead will be shaped, at least on the PRC side, by ideology – communist ideology, or in his words, by 'Marxist-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought'," Hastie posited.
Hastie's commentary raises critical questions about the future direction of Australia and its positioning within the broader geo-strategic, political and economic order of the Indo-Pacific.
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.