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Op-Ed: The dangerous ’20s – Looking towards the next decade

Following a decade of disruption and rising competition during the 2010s, we are facing a new decade that could best be called ‘the dangerous ’20s’.

Following a decade of disruption and rising competition during the 2010s, we are facing a new decade that could best be called ‘the dangerous ’20s’.

This past decade’s most significant strategic development saw the end of the US-led ‘Unipolar Moment’ by 2014 and the return of a competitive multipolar world in which the US is being directly challenged by rising and returning authoritarian peer adversaries.

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The Chinese state, under President Xi Jinping, has ended former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s dictum of ‘biding time and hiding strength’ to embrace a grand strategy leading to the rise of a 21st century ‘middle kingdom’.

In 2014, Vladimir Putin’s Russia invaded and annexed the Crimea from Ukraine, and then invaded and subsequently supported pro-Russian separatists in the Ukrainian Donbass.

Both China and Russia have waged political warfare against the US and its allies, including Australia.

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The Mueller report highlights that Russia directly interfered with the 2016 presidential election, and looks set to do so again in 2020, whilst the Chinese state has militarised the South China Sea in 2015, and now wages political warfare against Australia to weaken our traditional alignment with the US, and influence our political system in its favour. 

This is happening as an ‘America First’ mindset within the current Trump administration, and Trump’s transactional approach to engaging key allies, is weakening trust within critical alliances in Europe and the Indo-Pacific region.

The question being asked is whether Trump is an outlier, or whether he is indicative of a greater malaise within a US weary of sustaining a global leadership role. US allies are preparing for uncertain US commitment in coming years.

It’s important to look past the ‘foreign policy by tweet’ approach of Trump to note that the strategic policy debate in Washington has shifted markedly.  Both the 2018 US National Defense Strategy and the 2019 ‘Free and Open Indo Pacific’ Strategy re-emphasize the importance of the Indo-Pacific region.

The US military has shifted strategic gears to re-prioritise the need to prepare for strategic competition between the US and China to evolve into direct military conflict in coming years. 

This central strategic competition between the US and its allies against an assertive China, and a revanchist Russia, will dominate our thinking on defence and strategy in the coming decade.

It is the challenge of our time, and the prospect of prolonged strategic competition between the US and China, and the potential for that competition to slide into military conflict, should directly shape Australian defence capability development, force posture and force structure over the coming decade.   

There are also two immediate potential crises on the horizon – Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula – which will affect Australian interests, and which could potentially see Australian military involvement in 2020.

Firstly, there is a growing risk of a major military crisis emerging over Taiwan with China likely to increase military coercion against Taipei to influence the outcome of the 2020 presidential election in its favour. That effort is likely to fail, and polls indicate that the Tsai Ing-wen government is likely to be returned. 

In the same way that the people of Hong Kong are resisting creeping Chinese authoritarianism, the Taiwanese people won’t accept a negotiated reunification on Beijing’s terms that would in the end see their vibrant democracy snuffed out.

They see Hong Kong and Xinjiang as a future they do not want to embrace. Reinforcing this is an increasing sense of ‘national identity’ in Taiwan that is separate from mainland China. 

Xi has made it clear he won’t accept a future that doesn’t involve reunification, and refuses to take the option of reunification by force off the table. A returned Tsai administration won’t agree to Beijing’s demands for signing the ‘1992 Consensus’ as the basis for a negotiated reunification on Beijing’s terms.

Instead, what is more likely is increasing Chinese military coercive pressure around the island in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential elections and the potential of a future military crisis across the Taiwan straits will continue to grow after those elections. 

In addition, there is increasing risk that tension on the Korean Peninsula will rise in 2020 as a result of the collapse of diplomacy between the US and North Korea towards the goal of denuclearisation of North Korea. 

North Korea now looks poised to conduct new long-range ballistic missile tests as early as Christmas 2019. Should these occur, the Trump administration will be under immense pressure to reassert a new maximum pressure campaign – what might be termed ‘fire and fury 2.0’ – but with the prospect of no real off-ramps back to diplomacy. 

A renewed maximum pressure campaign by the US could be met by continued provocations from the North, including further ballistic missile testing, and potentially new nuclear tests. In late 2017, the North Korean regime suggested the possibility of a ‘juche bird’ atmospheric nuclear test over the north Pacific. Such a step would dramatically raise the possibility of a major military crisis on the Korean Peninsula. 

In addition to these two major potential crises, tensions between the US and its partners in the Middle East arrayed against Iran continue to grow, and military conflict in 2020, perhaps stemming out of another military incident similar to the Iranian shooting down of a USAF Global Hawk UAV, or a direct Iranian attack on a US ally in the region, can’t be dismissed.

The issue of Kashmir between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan remains dangerous, and the threat of pervasive trans-national terrorism isn’t going away. History certainly hasn’t ended and 2020 looks to be more dangerous than 2019, and looking ahead to the dangerous ’20, the parallels with the 1930s are apt.

Implications for Australia

Australia is no longer in a strategic backwater. In a more contested and dangerous security environment suggested above, our defence policy needs to be responsive and forward focused in a geographic sense.

We certainly cannot simply coast forward on autopilot, with strategic assumptions and policy settings established in the lead-up to the 2016 Defence White Paper as the basis of our thinking. So, to borrow that timeless question, what is to be done? 

It’s vital that the US remain in a global leadership role. A retreat by Washington to an offshore balancer role, implied by the Trump administration’s transactional approach to foreign policy, or worse, a turn towards an inward-looking neo-isolationist posture as would create power vacuums that US adversaries would quickly fill. 

Given the challenges posed by major power threats, and the risks of major military crises emerging in Asia, US security commitments to allies in the Indo-Pacific, and its forward military presence needs to be preserved and strengthened. 

With this overriding goal in mind, for Australia, raising our strategic currency in Washington is a critical step.

That means there should be greater emphasis on regular high and mid-level dialogue between Canberra and Washington towards the goal of closer integration of US and Australian strategic policy formulation to meet not only the challenge from Beijing, but plan for likely crises in coming years. 

In practical terms, it could mean we explore ways to enable greater access to Australian facilities for forward US forces, including hosting US long-range air and naval forces on an extended basis.

The provision of base access to US forces means we also need to take seriously the requirement to defend northern base facilities from growing Chinese long-range strike capability – an ability we currently lack. We should also consider the option of basing non-nuclear intermediate-range ballistic missile capabilities in Australia’s north, possibly under some joint ‘dual-key’ operational control, if the US raises such a request.

Such a deployment would strengthen US forward capability to counter Chinese anti-access and area denial and reinforce Australia’s deterrence potential.

For Australia, the new strategic challenges we face mean we should undertake greater regional burden sharing by embracing a ‘forward defence in depth’ military strategy for the ADF.

That would be designed to allow us to operate more regularly alongside US and other partners in the South China Sea, and to strengthen US ability to contest Chinese anti-access and area denial capability.

That means we need to look well beyond the ‘sea-air gap’, and the thorny issue of ‘FONOPs’ shouldn’t be buried but actively debated. 

Common capability development should become a priority for Australia. A key capability gap in the ADF for the 2020s is long-range strike and deterrence.

Our current force structure, particularly in the air, is based around short-range tactical platforms optimised for tasks over the sea-air gap, and not much further from the Australian mainland. 

To this end, Australia needs to work with the US, and potentially other partners such as Japan, to develop new air and missile capability both for long-range air defence and strike.

This needs to be combined with acquiring resilient intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems in space and in the air, that can contribute towards the emergence of a credible Australian anti-access and area denial capability to deter the use of military coercion by the Chinese state beyond the South China Sea. 

At the same time as we are shoring up the US-Australian strategic alliance, greater effort needs to be invested into building new defence relationships with other key partners, notably Japan, Indonesia, the UK and France.

Strengthening the ‘hub and spokes’ security order can work if both the hub – the US – is reinforced, but also greater links between the spokes – US allies – are developed.

This could include closer and more regular joint training, strategic and operational level co-ordination, greater access to base facilities, and sharing of intelligence. 

It could also include common capability development in areas such as advanced autonomous platforms, space and cyber capability, AI, and hypersonic weapons. Defence needs to move quickly to ride the wave of military-technological innovation that are inherent in these new types of military systems.

A key risk of continued emphasis on major platforms, with very long acquisition cycles, is that they must continually chase technological relevance against faster innovation cycles inherent in new types of capability.

The threat we face isn’t just an aggressive China or a war on the Korean Peninsula – its also being left behind and missing the ‘maxim gun moment’ of rapid military-technological paradigm shifts that lay ahead.

Op-Ed: The dangerous ’20s – Looking towards the next decade
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