Former SAS officer turned member of parliament Andrew Hastie has long advocated for a stronger Australian response to China’s political warfare and expanding and pervasive reach. Speaking exclusively with Defence Connect, Hastie elaborates on how the nation is preparing for future great power competition.
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Late 2019, Andrew Hastie, chair of the incredibly influential parliamentary intelligence and security committee, has drawn the attention and ire of Beijing with claims that both Australia and the world is quietly stumbling into a period of time similar to the 1930s-era prelude to conflict with Nazi Germany.
While this connection has been miss-characterised in the broader media, Mr Hastie brings himself into line with the likes of Dr Malcolm Davis, senior analyst at ASPI, who spoke to Defence Connect about the growing importance of resetting the nation's defence posture, saying:
"That means that our defence strategy, based around an emphasis on ‘air-sea gap’ needs urgent and comprehensive review, and the objective should be to consider how Australia can play a more forward and robust role in the Indo-Pacific region alongside the US and other key partners.
"That then has implications for a) ADF force posture; b) force structure and capability development beyond the 2016 IIP; and c) future levels of defence spending above the nominal 2 per cent GDP figure alluded to in DWP16. It also has huge implications for readiness, mobilisation and force sustainment. We must assume that we are going into a more dangerous and contested future that will have a higher operational tempo than in the past, with dramatically reduced warning times – and I think Dibb is correct – we are in ’strategic warning’. I’d go so far as to say it’s possibly a ‘pre-war period’."
This period was characterised by increased boldness and assertiveness by totalitarian regimes; economic, political and strategic capitulation and accommodation for global democratic leaders; and, for Australia, an ignorant bliss that resulted in the nation being caught completely unaware of the myriad threats while the world’s great powers declared “peace in our time”.
We now know that despite the concessions and policy of accommodation and appeasement championed by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, it served to only embolden the ambitions of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy across the globe and Imperial Japan, with direct impacts on Australia.
Today, the repeated concessions and accommodation of China’s continued land reclamations and militarisation of the South China Sea, combined with active hostilities towards Taiwan, Hong Kong and other south-east Asian nations, all serve to provide an inescapable parallel between the two periods of time.
As it is often said, “History doesn’t repeat; however, it does rhyme.”
In response, the US announced its “pivot” towards the Indo-Pacific under the former Obama administration in 2013, moving to reassure regional US allies like Australia, Japan and emerging allies like Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam that the pre-eminent global power was committed to the enduring freedom and stability of the region.
Further challenging the nation’s position is the restructuring of the US-China relationship under President Trump, which has set an example for Australian consideration, with Hastie stressing the importance of “always operate from a position of strength” and should be an important component of Australia’s relationship with China.
Building on this, Hastie stressed the importance of opening up the national security debate and conversation for the Australian public, stressing to Defence Connect that “one of the most important things we can do in the national security space is conduct ‘town hall’-like forums where people can get a chance to ask questions and we can discuss the big issues in a public setting”.
Dictate our own strategic direction or it will be dictated for us
Contemporary manoeuvre warfare is defined by using shock, disruption and rapid movement to disrupt an enemy’s capacity to respond, thus dictating both the momentum and outcome of the engagement.
Demonstrated with devastating affect in the Middle East, this concept has now evolved to include the battlefield of ideology, economics and political competition in the Indo-Pacific.
Hastie has long identified the need for Australia to embrace a radically different approach to the way it views not only itself, but also its position within the rapidly evolving regional and global order, lest potential adversaries begin dictating those terms of engagement for us:
“Right now, our greatest vulnerability lies not in our infrastructure, but in our thinking. That intellectual failure makes us institutionally weak. If we don’t understand the challenge ahead for our civil society, in our parliaments, in our universities, in our private enterprises, in our charities – our little platoons – then choices will be made for us. Our sovereignty, our freedoms, will be diminished.”
Building on this, Hastie drew on the precedent established by history and the West’s response to Stalin and the Soviet Union’s emergence in the ashes of the Second World War as a basis for shaking off the hubris that has defined Western economic, political, ideological and geostrategic thinking since the collapse of the USSR and end of the Cold War in 1991.
“The West has made this mistake before. Commentators once believed Stalin’s decisions were the rational actions of a realist great power... We must be intellectually honest and take the Chinese leadership at its word.
“We are dealing with a fundamentally different vision for the world. Xi Jinping has made his vision of the future abundantly clear since becoming President in 2013. His speeches show that the tough choices ahead will be shaped, at least on the PRC side, by ideology – communist ideology, or in his words, by ‘Marxist-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought’,” Hastie posited in an opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald.
Hastie’s commentary raises critical questions about the future direction of Australia and its positioning within the broader geostrategic, political and economic order of the Indo-Pacific – this is particularly important for Hastie when discussing Australia’s Pacific step-up program and its growing responsibilities in the region.
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.
However, as events continue to unfold throughout the region and China continues to throw its economic, political and strategic weight around, can Australia afford to remain a secondary power or does it need to embrace a larger, more independent role in an era of increasing great power competition?
The full Defence Connect Insight podcast with Andrew Hastie, member for Canning, will be available shortly. There will be follow-on analysis and details from the interview in coming days.