The past six months have done more to reveal the changed reality of the world and the myriad challenges Australia faces than the previous decades combined – responding to the nebulous national security challenges requires an integrated and considered approach in the form of a National Security Strategy, explains NSW senator Jim Molan.
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It is a blessed relief that Peter Layton is writing about Grand Strategy and China in ASPI’s The Strategist because so few people do so. Peter talks of Grand Strategy as involving the application of national power, integrating diplomatic, economic, societal, cyber and the military.
He says that Australia’s grand strategic thinking on China should be framed around three factors: Australia and China’s mutually beneficial economic interdependence, but not security issues; an economic interdependence built on China’s modernisation focusing on technological development; and that China’s preferred relationship is not ideological or through multilateral channels but rather economic and bilateral.
What Peter calls Grand Strategy I have been writing about as being central to a National Security Strategy, an overarching mechanism for conveying to those responsible for every aspect of a nation (the economy, finance, diplomacy, governance, society and the military among others), what a government’s guidance is on policy integration to achieve or maintain national sovereignty as a free and prosperous liberal democracy.
To a certain extent this may put me at odds with Peter because he excludes security in this consideration of grand strategy, while acknowledging that security is key part of any strategy.
I find it impossible to consider grand strategy at the centre of our national sovereignty without considering security in the broadest sense.
I have been more concerned with how Australia comes up with a national security strategy than exactly what that strategy is. Of course, I have my views as does Peter.
How we derive a grand strategy is critical because the co-ordination across a modern nation of all aspects of policy that contribute to sovereignty is so complex, and has not been done in this nation for 75 years. So there is a need to not only ask what should our grand strategy or national security strategy be, but also how do we do it.
Both Peter and I have our own prejudices as to what a strategy should be and I have written that it is so complex and so serious at present that we need a mechanism similar to the US, the UK and any number of other countries, far in excess of the traditional Australian government mechanism such as prime ministerial fiat or the National Security Committee of Cabinet with its focus on Defence, Home Affairs and DFAT.
National security is now far wider than these three departments and although others can be co-opted, it is a level of ad-hocery that might have worked in the past, but we are in different times now.
My view of Peter’s grand strategy is that he takes a far too beneficial view of China. China now has a record over five to 10 years of aggressive behaviour far in excess of normal economic competition, in relation to stealing IP, widespread hacking, trampling international laws and treaties, abuse and bullying, and in addition to economic power it has significant military power.
Peter’s three factors imply a certain degree of trust in China to act in accordance with what we in the West have called the rule of law. I find that hard to accept given China’s track record, and it denies the history of great power relations. Peter seems to be saying that we have economic ties, we are good countries, and we can work together.
I would hope that is the case but as the old saying goes, a strategy based on hope is very dangerous, never more so than now with China
My strongest view is that we should welcome the rise of China as a great power in our region primarily because it is inevitable, but also because of the present economic interdependence that Peter talks about.
We should continue to trade and to interact in all ways with China, but we should do it from a position of national strength: a strong economy, finances, diplomacy, governance, society and our military.
At present we do not have that strength and our national security strategy should be focused on developing strength in all those areas. That is a complex task for government and cannot be run by our traditional security mechanisms.
It requires a markedly different approach. To consider a grand strategy without a security element is very dangerous for any nation that sees its sovereignty being based on maintaining freedom of action, which requires a degree of self-reliance.
Australia has significant potential capacity in all national security areas, and we have seen how we might do that in our effective reaction to COVID-19.
The last point to make is that the priority for government at the moment is to get our economy open and running. The basis of national security is our economy, but I suggest to Peter that we are far more than an economy so that should not dominate our discussion of a grand strategy.
We are also a liberal democratic nation with values and interests, and as a mature nation we must always consider that the world is a tough place, China is as tough as it comes, and extreme scenarios involving conflict once considered ‘possible’, might now be moving to ‘likely’.
Jim Molan is a senator for NSW. He retired as a major general from the Australian Army in 2008.