Hugh White has expanded on the thesis of his book, How to Defend Australia, to challenge the nation’s political leaders to think about what a post-US alliance structure looks like for Australia and what ‘standing alone’ could truly look like in the new decade.
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 Paul 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.
In recognising these overlapping factors, White now argues "if we are to take our defence seriously, we need to prepare to defend Australia from a major Asian power independently" – with the focus on alliances taking a somewhat secondary role as the nation develops its own response.
Allies welcomed and preferred, but be prepared for none to show up
Australia's long history of what amounts to a combination of strategic interdependence and dependence upon larger power benefactors since the end of the nation's involvement in the Vietnam conflict and the subsequently shifting balance of regional and global power is now juxtaposed by a rapidly evolving Indo-Pacific.
"I argue at length that we should look for allies wherever possible, and that in defending our strategic interests beyond our closest Pacific island neighbours we have no choice but to do so. Moreover, I argue that ensuring the military capacity to do that should be a significant factor in designing our forces," White said.
"So, I’m not saying that we don’t want allies. I’m saying that we can no longer assume that we will find them when we need them — either in America or in the region or both. In this post I’ll focus on America, and in a later one I’ll explore the prospects for regional alliances," White articulated as he attempts to argue for what he defines as greater Australian strategic independence.
The particular focus of White's renewed thesis is the increasing limitations of the US and its now 'unpredictable' nature at a time of rising competition between traditional state actors and economic, political and strategic disruption.
"Those who say that we should continue to depend on America offer variants of three arguments. They say that America has always been committed to our alliance in the past, so it always will be in the future," White stated.
"They say that Washington’s growing determination to confront and contain China today makes the alliance stronger than ever. And they say that the deep bonds of history, values and sentiment ensure that the alliance will endure no matter what happens."
White expanded on this further, raising an important question for consideration: "America’s commitment to Australia’s security has always been a product of its wish to preserve its wider strategic position in east Asia and the western Pacific. That remains true. We can continue to depend on America as long as America remains committed to preserving that position. The question is, how long will that be?"
Posing an important question
What White builds upon is concerns similar to those raised by the University of Sydney-based US Studies Centre (USSC) in late-2019 when it released a report focused upon the growing cost and burden faced by the US and its Armed Forces as it struggles to secure its global responsibilities.
Recognising the increasing confluence of challenges facing enduring US tactical and strategic primacy, the USSC study, titled Averting Crisis: American strategy, military spending and collective defence in the Indo-Pacific; combined with a recent ASPI piece, The Pentagon's budget can't fund America's global commitments.
Additionally, the US Congressional Budget Office (CBO) study, Long-Term Implications of the 2020 Future Years Defense Program, all combined to serve to paint a rather confronting picture for Australia and other allies in the region.
"America has an atrophying force that is not sufficiently ready, equipped or postured for great power competition in the Indo-Pacific – a challenge it is working hard to address. Twenty years of near-continuous combat and budget instability has eroded the readiness of key elements in the US Air Force, Navy, Army and Marine Corps. Military accidents have risen, ageing equipment is being used beyond its lifespan and training has been cut," the USSC study identified.
"Military platforms built in the 1980s are becoming harder and more costly to maintain, while many systems designed for great power conflict were curtailed in the 2000s to make way for the force requirements of Middle Eastern wars – leading to stretched capacity and overuse."
The USSC spells out the one thing few of Australia’s strategic policy thinkers and political leaders seem willing to come to terms with, beyond the radical fluctuations between doom and gloom scenarios: some of which range from a complete retreat by the US, leaving Australia and other regional allies alone, or a semi-retreat and focus on limiting risk to key American assets in the region.
In doing so, the USSC recognises that for the first time, America has a true competitor in China – a nation with immense industrial potential, growing wealth and prosperity, a driving national purpose and a growing series of alliances with re-emerging, resource rich great powers in Russia, and supported by a growing network of economic hubs and indebted psuedo-colonies throughout the Indo-Pacific and Asia.
Facing this combination of factors is as both White and many within Australia's strategic policy believes is one of the most critical strategic concerns facing the nation for this century – in doing so, White poses three most critical points for consideration:
"First, a clear and credible strategy to defeat China’s challenge. Second, a realistic assessment of how much that strategy will cost, and what risks it will entail, based on a sober estimate of China’s power and resolve in the decades ahead. And third, a robust demonstration that Americans at large are convinced that those costs and risks are worth bearing over many decades."
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 provide unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.