Contentious strategic policy specialist Hugh White has re-entered the public debate to defend the central thesis of his book How to defend Australia and his insistence on maintaining what amounts to a constabulary force at a time of unprecedented great power competition and direct threat to the nation and its regional interests.
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.
While the Cold War largely entrenched the status quo, Australia's involvement in the politically disastrous Vietnam conflict at the behest of our "great and powerful" friend, the US saw a dramatic shift in the previously interventionist approach to defence, national security and foreign policy.
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" – that is a 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.
These successive white papers 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."
Defining this approach, 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'.
As a result, the erosion of America's domestic political, economic and strategic resolve and have collectively hindered the capacity of the US to unilaterally counter the rise of totalitarian regimes and peer competitors in both China and Russia.
How to defend Australia – a blast from the past
Earlier this year, acclaimed, yet controversial strategic policy expert Hugh White released his latest 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."
He has recently sought to double down on this in a piece for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, titled 'How to defend Australia: control and denial', whereby he seeks to counter arguments arrayed against the core premise of his book and subsequent opinion pieces.
As a refresher, White's initial position was 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 core thesis of this is explained by White: "Australia’s key strategic objectives – the things we most needed our armed forces to be able to do in order to defend ourselves – could be achieved with what I called a military strategy of maritime denial. The second was that we could achieve maritime denial with forces which we might, at a stretch, be able to afford."
Some are going to get past the goalie so lets bluff
Again, White returns to his modus operandi and central thesis: "As I said in How to defend Australia (pp. 91–92), the underlying aim of Australia’s defence posture should be to raise the costs and risks to an adversary of attacks against Australia to the point that they exceed any potential benefits."
Rather concerningly, White continues: "This doesn’t require us to be certain of stopping them. We only need to make them believe that we have a good chance of doing so."
This is a rather risky bluff to be playing with Australia's national interests and its national security, however White does reserve this in some manner, responding to claims made by James Goldrick regarding the potential interception of Australia's maritime trade, particularly its liquid fuel resources that will require tactical and strategic protection in a contest environment.
White again doubles down on his standard rhetoric, stating: "If the defence of trade is essential to our strategic independence, then strategic independence is beyond us."
This approach raises important questions for consideration, research and debate particularly as we prepare to enter the 2020s and the world Australia is increasingly interdependent on becomes further contested in a multi-polar world.
The ADF serves an important role within Australia’s policy making apparatus and is critical to long-term national security, and 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.