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Op-Ed: Australian Grand Strategy, China and security

As conversation about Australia’s public policy response to Beijings increasing antagonism towards the nation continues to evolve, Dr Peter Layton, visiting fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, has responded to senator Jim Molans critique of Dr Laytons ‘Grand Strategy concept.

As conversation about Australia’s public policy response to Beijings increasing antagonism towards the nation continues to evolve, Dr Peter Layton, visiting fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, has responded to senator Jim Molans critique of Dr Laytons ‘Grand Strategy concept.

Senator Jim Molan recently critiqued my post that suggested Australia’s grand strategic thinking on China should be framed around three factors: economic interdependence, Chinese technological aspirations and increasing unpredictability. Jim’s main thrust was that these design criteria do not adequately consider security.


Jim has an important point. He’s highlighted that a major issue in our national debate on China is whether Australia should build its grand strategy around economic or military power.

Grand strategies involve applying diverse forms of power, often expressed in shorthand as DIME: diplomacy, information, military, economic. In my post the grand strategy core is economics with the D, I and M in support.

Jim implies having the core military with D, I and E in support might be more prudent. However, an economic focus could give broader and harder geostrategic options that at first apparent.

The Australia/China economic interdependence is complementary. We send China iron ore and coal while China sends us people (tourists and students). With our minerals China is building a bigger military than Australia will ever be able to.

On the other hand, if those tourists and students take home a belief that democracies have a better way of life that undermines China’s Communist Party.


This simple example highlights the Party has an inherent weakness that going heavy on economics can exploit. China needs to trade with the world to maintain improving living standards and thus societal acquiescence to Party rule.

In having to be deeply involved with the wider world, China becomes vulnerable to economic coercion, trade disturbances, supply chain disruptions and influence operations. If China became autarkic, that is self-sufficient, the ability of others to impact Party policies would greatly diminish – and these ‘others’ includes military strategists.

Some place great store in winning imagined wars against China through blockade, with an example TX Hammes’ Offshore Control Strategy. This is all reminiscent of World War Two when US submarines – some sailing out of Australia – almost completely cut Japan’s merchant shipping routes, but this was important only because Japan needed those routes to bring food and supplies.

Geographically, China is not Japan and is instead like the Soviet Union: a continental power impervious to blockades unless it chooses to be. From a military perspective, acting to keep China a deep and engaged part of global supply chains means also keeping a greater range of strategic options then otherwise.

In that regard, companies exporting Australian iron ore could lend a hand. In being low priced, their product is highly sought after by China. China’s ports hold very large stockpiles of iron ore thereby making China much less sensitive to any supply disruption related to geostrategic concerns.

Rio Tinto, Australia’s largest iron ore exporter, has recently set up “portside trading” stockpiles, further insulating China from supply disruptions and so less vulnerable to the kinds of external pressure China exerts on others. From an Australian geostrategic perspective, gradually moving China to a just-in-time mineral supply situation would be most advantageous while not impacting commercial activities.

Turning more directly to the military instrument of national power and how it might support an economic-heavy grand strategy, there are two obvious areas.

First, using interdependence as a way to influence China would be much more successful if other countries support the general approach and the specific issues in a future circumstance. Australia is enhancing its relationships with a range of regional middle powers that could potentially be very useful with managing China.

The ADF can help here through deeply engaging appropriate middle power defence forces and building robust linkages and durable connections. Such military-to-military engagements signal that the nations concerned have a serious relationship that is long-term and based on shared interest and values.

Second, China has a hankering for grey zone operations that try to coerce others while remaining under the threshold for armed conflict. China’s air and sea operations against Japan in the East China Sea and against ASEAN in the South China Sea are exemplars.

More recently China has employed these tactics against India in disputed land border regions. This later action highlights that grey zone operations are not necessarily casualty free as dozens were killed by Chinese forces.

Such hostile activities are hard to address as they blend peace and war, not see these as different situations as traditional strategic thinking does. Unusually, China wishes to sustain diverse interdependence with others while waging grey zone operations against them. As my post noted: “China is apparently attracted to being simultaneously friendly and adversarial.” China’s split personality is problematic but needs factoring into grand strategies.

The ADF has started thinking about how to counter grey zone operations but there’s more to be done. In this, the ADF may be starting from a hard place as some of its new equipment isn’t being bought for this purpose. The most obvious examples are the big new ‘ship-killing’ submarines, which may be not overly well-suited for either grey zone operations or deeply engaging regional middle powers. Submarines rely on staying hidden not on providing a highly visible, reassuring presence.

Jim is correct that grand strategies often include security, but security is a word with broad connotations. A grand strategy with an economics core is not necessarily a weak or a passive one. It is whether it might be effective that is the big issue.

Peter Layton is a visiting fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and author of Grand Strategy.

Op-Ed: Australian Grand Strategy, China and security
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