Almost like taking a leaf out of the book of Neville Chamberlain, Australia’s strategic policy community has used the language of defeat and accommodation to focus on "limitations" to the nation’s future.
Meanwhile, the government has continued to take the easy road with little focus on the future, as both seemingly remain eager to relegate Australia to a second rate power in a period of unrivalled geostrategic competition.
Across the Indo-Pacific, competing economic, political and strategic interests, designs and ambitions are beginning to clash – driven by an unprecedented economic transformation, propelling once developing nations onto the world stage, the region, the globe and its established powers are having to adjust to a dramatically different global power paradigm.
From the South China Sea (SCS) to the increasing hostilities between India, Pakistan and China in the Kashmir region of the Himalayas, the Indo-Pacific's changing paradigm, combined with the growing economic, political and strategic competition between the US and China, continued sabre rattling and challenges to regional and global energy supplies travelling via the Persian Gulf and an increasingly resurgent Russia all serve to challenge the global and regional order.
For Australia, a nation that has long sought to balance the paradigms of strategic independence and strategic dependence – dependent on strategic relationships with global great powers, beginning with the British Empire and now the US – and a rising economic dependence on the developing nations of the Indo-Pacific who are now emerging as some of the world's largest economic, political and strategic powers.
This delicate balancing act served the nation well while the US remained the world's pre-eminent economic, political and strategic power – however the rise of China and India, combined with the increasing prosperity and assertiveness of other Indo-Pacific powers ranging from Indonesia and Pakistan to traditional regional powers like Japan is serving to undermine both the economic and strategic foundations that the Australian strategic policy community and government have based advice and policy upon.
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?
Former South Australian governor and retired Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce has hit out at the status quo during a speech in Adelaide, describing the whirlpool of geo-political, strategic and economic competition: "These issues are fast moving and complex ... Yet, our leaders both political and military seem outwardly reluctant to engage in fulsome public debate."
The elephant in the room – China
Scarce is clear in articulating his concerns about the rising global and regional powerhouse, China, believing that while it does not pose a territorial threat to Australia, its growing influence, ambitions and increasing assertiveness are key factors that need to be included in the nation's broader public debate and policy calculations.
China's rise is but part of the new regional and global paradigm Australia finds itself increasingly dependent upon – the relative instability of the US, the cornerstone of the post-Second World War economic, political and strategic order, leads to troubling results for Australia.
"It will simply not be sufficient to assume that US diplomatic and military strength will always come to our aid," Scarce said – this echoes growing concern about both the capacity and the intention of the US to serve as the strategic linchpin for the Indo-Pacific.
Andrew Davies of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute 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."
This is reinforced by executive director of ASPI, Peter Jennings, posing the critical question in late 2018, "What's the plan for Australia's defence, if it turns out that Trump's America First approach is here to stay and alliances fall into mistrustful neglect?"
Another call for a National Security Strategy
Almost as if echoing the calls made by former Major General and senator Jim Molan for an all encompassing National Security Strategy, Scarce has called for a more considered, holistic approach to responding to the challenges facing the nation, particularly as the regional and global paradigm continues to evolve.
"I’m critical of the rather lackadaisical approach that our political leadership has taken to address the strategic challenges facing the nation ... Whether it’s superpower rivalry, hostile actions from terrorist small groups or cyber criminals, we lack an integrated, holistic approach to these real threats," Scarce stated.
"The time has come for the nation to bring together its separate defence, home security and foreign affairs planning approaches into a single, integrated national security strategy."
Australia has recently undergone a period of modernisation and expansion within its national security apparatus, from new white papers in Defence and Foreign Affairs through to well articulated and resourced defence industrial capability plans, export strategies and the like in an attempt to position Australia well within the rapidly evolving geo-strategic and political order of the Indo-Pacific.
Each of the strategies in and of themselves serve critical and essential roles within the broader national security debate.
Molan stressed the importance of these developments, telling Defence Connect, "We have managed to get away with not having a national security strategy only because we have lived in a tranquil region since 1945. But our strategic environment is changing quickly, and we need to prepare for a turbulent future. Developing a national security strategy would be a vital first step towards building the capacity we need to face the potential challenges that are coming.
"Most Australians can be forgiven for believing that successive Defence white papers, in conjunction with Foreign Affairs white papers and reviews into energy, including liquid fuels, water and food security, constitute a true national security strategy, unfortunately, without the guidance of an overarching national security strategy, we get lost in the sub-strategies."
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.
Scarce issues a challenge for Australia's political and strategic policy leaders, saying, "If we observe that the level of debate among our leaders is characterised by mud-slinging, obfuscation and the deliberate misrepresentation of the views of others, why would the community behave differently ... Our failure to do so will leave a very damaging legacy for future generations."
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.