Hugh White has called for Australia’s strategic and political leaders to envisage a world where the nation will be required to embrace its national security and defend itself with little to no support from the alliances cultivated throughout the Cold War in the event of an increasingly contested multi-domain Indo-Pacific battlespace.
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."
A key component of this policy shift was an Australian focus on developing and in some cases enhancing existing strategic, economic and political relationships with south-east Asian nations.
Robust strategic relationships with ASEAN member nations, former British colonies and emerging powers in post-war Japan and Korea all served as a key linchpin for Australia's retreat from the region and paved the way for the system of alliances, underpinned by the Australia-US alliance the nation is dependent upon for its broader security within the Indo-Pacific.
Further expanding on his thesis explained through a series of successive pieces for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), Hugh White called for Australia's political and strategic leaders to embrace a view of the Australia 'going it alone' in the event of regional hostilities.
Actively seek alliances, but prepare for an uncomfortable reality
Finally, despite decades of advocating for what essentially amounts to the castration of the nation's defence capabilities, White concedes that Australia must prepare for the uncomfortable, albeit potential reality of fighting against a great power alone.
"We cannot use such allies as a basis for our strategic posture and force planning. That is why I argue that we should plan to defend Australia alone. This might come as a surprise in view of the much-hyped network of defence partnerships we have built up over the past few decades," White states in his recent article for ASPI, 'Australia must plan to defend itself alone'.
While each of the aforementioned nations and organisations have served as long-term partners throughout the region, and while many share the same concerns about the increasingly belligerent and assertive nature of China under Chairman Xi Jinping, that does not mean those nations will automatically side with Australia should hostilities break out.
"Don’t all these partners count as allies? Well, yes, if we mean that we might co-operate diplomatically to try to resist China’s influence. But that kind of thing doesn’t count when we’re talking about military strategy and force structure. What matters then is whether we can rely on others to fight to help us defend our territory or vital interests. The question, then, is whether shared anxiety about China ensures a sufficient alignment of objectives between us and our Asian neighbours to sustain effective regional alliances. Does India’s or Japan’s security from China depend on ours, and vice versa?" White poignantly asked.
White then moves to explain Australia's reliance on a 'Euro-centric' view of alliance structures, namely the efficacy of NATO and that model being extrapolated to the strategic geography realities of the Indo-Pacific when compared with those of Europe.
"But Europe’s strategic geography is very different from Asia’s. In Europe, a large number of potent strategic actors are jammed together in a tight space. Any major shift in the distribution of power has immediate implications for all of them," he wrote.
In contrast, White sought to explain the differences and subsequent impact of strategic geography: "A glance at the map makes it clear that Russia can attack Germany much more easily if it controls Poland and can attack France much more easily if it controls Germany. That means France’s and Germany’s security from Russia depends on defending Poland.
"East Asia is different, in two related ways. Its key strategic powers are much further apart, and they are mostly connected by sea rather than by land. That is even true of India and China, because their long border is so mountainous as to be impervious to large-scale land forces.
"That makes it far less clear that Japan’s or India’s vulnerability to Chinese attack depends on Australia’s security, or vice versa. China can quite easily threaten one of them without threatening any of the others. It doesn’t need to go through Japan to attack Australia."
Turning his attention to Australia's nearest potential great power security partner, Indonesia, White posits the symbiotic strategic relationship that needs further strengthening between the two nations, stating:
"This line of argument does not, of course, apply with the same force to Indonesia. Its position makes its security critical to ours, which makes it highly credible that we would fight in its defence — just as Britain has at times fought to defend France — and (perhaps a little less likely) that it would fight to defend us. Indonesia also has the potential to become a major power and thus a very valuable ally."
Be prepared to "fight alone"
Accounting for each of these factors, White believes that Australia must now take its strategic future into its own hands, with such alliances and regional partnerships playing a supporting, but not central role in Australia's strategic and foreign policy, nor its future force structure assessments as state-based competition with peer and near-peer competitors becomes more common.
"None of this means we have no chance of building alliances with countries in our region. Nor does it mean that we shouldn’t build a defence force that would allow us to fight alongside them if we can. But it does mean we shouldn’t base our strategic posture on the optimistic assumption that we will always find a powerful friend when we need one," White said.
He does provide some ointment for the burn, albeit what would sensibly be considered as a rather tongue in cheek moment of jest regarding Australia's capacity to rely upon New Zealand in the event of open conflict, but few other regional partners may be able to or willing to come to our aid.
Accordingly, it is important to begin asking the question, what exactly does Australia need to defend itself alone?
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.