Renowned Australian strategic policy expert Paul Dibb has launched a scathing assessment of the nation’s increasingly precarious position in the Indo-Pacific and the external factors that will have a dramatic impact on Australia’s long-range defence planning – drawing attention to a growing need for greater Australian tactical and strategic independence.
Since the 1960s, Australia's defence policy and long-term planning has been based on the fallout following Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam conflict at the behest of our "great and powerful" friend, the US.
Domestic political backlash and a changing geo-strategic environment would see Australia adopt an arguably more isolationist policy, focusing almost entirely on the "Defence of Australia".
While Australia’s alliance with the US further enhanced the nation’s position as an integral US ally, mounting domestic political dissatisfaction, the new Whitlam government and the mounting cost of Australia’s involvement in the conflict, combined with rapidly declining US public support for the conflict, saw the nation’s post-Second World War strategic reality and doctrine begin to shift away from regional intervention and towards a policy favouring the defence of the Australian mainland and outlying territories.
This shifting domestic and regional environment saw the formalisation of the Defence of Australia (DoA) policy in the 1986 Dibb report and the subsequent 1987 and 1994 Defence White Papers, which established the sea-air gap as a strategic "buffer zone" for Australia, enabling the reorientation of Australia’s strategic and broader defence industry posture, shifting away from what Dibb identifies:
"Until the late 1960s, Australian defence planning and policy assumed that our forces would normally operate in conjunction with allies, and well forward of the continent. We saw our security inextricably linked with the security of others."
However, the rapidly evolving geo-strategic situation and bubbling arms race is presenting Australia with a number of challenges for the Australian Defence Force despite the government’s program of modernisation and recapitalisation, raising important questions about the validity of the 2016 Defence White Paper and its assessments in a period of geo-strategic competition transforming the Indo-Pacific.
In response, Dibb has moved to enter the debate and shake up Australia's strategic thinking in a period of increased geo-political, economic and strategic competition:
"We are now in a period of unpredictable strategic transition in which the comfortable assumptions of the past are over. Australia’s strategic outlook has continued to deteriorate and, for the first time since World War II, we face an increased prospect of threat from high-level military capabilities being introduced into our region."
The new reality – Multiple areas of strategic gravity
The growing complexities of the geo-strategic, economic and political competition sweeping throughout the Indo-Pacific has prompted the development of a number of competing centres of strategic gravity – each with individual tactical and strategic factors directly influencing the force structure and force posture to enable the ADF to adequately meet the objectives identified by government.
Further compounding the tactical and strategic challenges presented by these competing centres of strategic gravity is the need for a clearly defined role and objective for the Australian Defence Force in the 21st century – directly challenging the effectiveness of the Cold War-era Defence of Australia policy, necessitating a dramatically different response to developing force structure and force posture.
Indo-Pacific Asia’s evolving power paradigm is changing the way Australia views itself and its position in this changing world.
The need for both continental and forward defence highlights the necessity for the nation to balance the strengths and weaknesses of Australia’s historic doctrines to form the basis of a reinvigorated Australian presence in the Indo-Pacific.
Dibb articulates these challenges: "We must now refocus on our own region of primary strategic interest, which includes the eastern Indian Ocean, south-east Asia including the South China Sea, and the south Pacific. The conduct of operations further afield, including in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and Defence’s involvement in counter terrorism, must not be allowed to distract from the effort that needs to go into this planning or from the funding that enhanced capabilities will require."
Basis for expanding the ADF and its capability
While a contentious issue, expanding the scope and capability of the Australian Defence Force is becoming less a fanciful pipe dream and more a national imperative, particularly as the challenges to the nation's long-term regional and global national interests are challenged by totalitarian regimes and rising Indo-Pacific powers with their own geo-political, strategic and economic ambitions.
"The issue for the longer term is whether we’ve built a sound basis from which to expand the ADF, especially our strike, air combat and maritime capabilities," Dibb states.
"Having such an expanded force would significantly increase the military planning challenges for any potential adversary and the size and military capabilities of the force it would have to commit to attack us directly, or to coerce, intimidate or otherwise employ military power against us."
Expanding on this, Dibb highlights the need to clearly identify and articulate Australia's primary area's of strategic focus and long-term interests and designs for these regions:
"It’s imperative that planning for the defence of Australia, and for operations in our region of primary strategic concern, resumes the highest priority. Re-establishing our foreign policy and defence presence in this part of the world is crucial."
Somewhat ironically, Dibb seems to unpick the basis for the 'Defence of Australia' policy and its influence for Australia's enduring defence posture, force structure planning and long-term national security planning, saying, "We need to get rid of the 2016 Defence White Paper’s ill-advised proposition that the defence of Australia, a secure nearer region and our global defence commitments should be ‘three equally-weighted high-level Strategic Defence Objectives to guide the development of the future force’."
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 chokepoints of south-east Asia annually.
For Australia, a nation defined by this 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 geopolitical, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century's 'great game'.
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 yield unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.
Australia is consistently told that as a nation we are torn between our economic relationship with China and the long-standing strategic partnership with the US, placing the country at the epicentre of a great power rivalry – but what if it didn’t have to be that way?
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 shaking up the nation's approach to our regional partners.