Debate is swirling surrounding the release of the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and the supporting Force Structure Plan. For Victor Abramowicz of the Lowy Institute, much of what is planned as part of an Australian “willingness” to use force is a “high-risk, low-reward” defence posture.
At the end of the Cold War, Australia, like much of the victorious US-led alliance, believed that the 'end of history' was upon us, that the era of great power competition had forever been relegated to the pages of antiquity, we now know that to be wishful thinking.
Australia embraced the potential and opportunity presented by this new future and the lessons learned during the Cold War, particularly the impact of interventionism and sought to capitalise upon its relationships with 'great and powerful' friends like the US to guarantee its security.
However, the rise of the Indo-Pacific, in particular the emergence and, in some cases, reemergence of many potential great powers, each with their own conflicting ambitions, economic, political and strategic designs and often ancient enmities are serving to dramatically undermine the balance of power and stability.
The nation's approach to strategic policy continues to be heavily based upon the formalisation of the Defence of Australia (DoA) policy as identified in the 1986 Dibb report and then enshrined in the subsequent 1987 and 1994 Defence White Papers in particular, with tweaks made in every Defence White Paper to date.
This largely isolationist policy focused entirely on securing the sea-air gap as a strategic "buffer zone" for Australia, enabling the reorientation of Australia’s strategic and broader defence industry posture, which now serves to leave the nation at a critical cross roads as the region continues to rise.
While successive Australian government's have sought to evolve the Defence of Australia doctrine, the very premise of the doctrine continues to inform the foundation of Australia's strategic policy to this day.
The relatively benign economic, political and strategic order of the Indo-Pacific since the end of Vietnam means that Defence of Australia doctrine continues to serve as the basis for Australia's strategic doctrine, which is focused heavily upon 'dominating' the sea-air gap, this concept was expanded upon by the Prime Minister, where he stated:
"Our region is in the midst of the most consequential strategic realignment since the Second World War, and trends including military modernisation, technological disruption and the risk of state-on-state conflict are further complicating our nation’s strategic circumstances.
"The Indo-Pacific is at the centre of greater strategic competition, making the region more contested and apprehensive. These trends are continuing and will potentially sharpen as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic."
To this end, both documents articulate a key focus for the government and ADF moving forward, namely:
- To shape Australia’s strategic environment;
- Deter actions against Australia’s interests; and
- Respond with credible military force, when required.
Building on this, the 2020 Force Structure Plan states: "The range of capabilities that Defence will maintain, develop, enhance and acquire under the 2020 Force Structure Plan will provide the government with a flexible range of options to deliver the government’s objectives to shape Australia’s strategic environment; deter actions against Australia’s interests; and respond with credible military force."
However, it is this "willingness" to use "credible military force" that Victor Abramowicz, a PhD candidate and sessional academic at Curtin University, writing for the Lowy Institute in a piece titled 'A high-risk, low-reward defence posture", raises questions about what this willingness looks like and the ramifications for Australia.
Ready, willing and able?
For Abramowicz, the language used in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update articulates what he believes to be a troubling and unprecedented step taken by the Australian government:
"This language of 'willingness' is unprecedented in recent memory, uncertain in its application and raises the possibility of squandering the very defensive advantages the government wishes to achieve.
"On the first point, every white paper for at least the last 20 years has been comfortable with the 'fact' of the ADF’s existence as a modern and capable defence force being sufficient to deter and defend against attack. There was no mention before of a need to make sure adversaries 'understood' we were willing to use force, which implies that now something more is necessary."
Expanding on this, Abramowicz believes that this clearly articulated need to demonstrate "willingness" to use force is a redundant gesture as no nation would reasonably expect the ADF to "sit idly by while its homeland was attacked".
Further, Abramowicz believes that Australia's focus on protecting the 'vulnerable' south Pacific from increased Chinese presence, forward basing and 'grey zone' manipulation is justifiable, in comparison with our direct engagement in freedom of navigation operations and confronting Beijing's territorial ambitions in the South China Sea already demonstrates our "willingness".
To this end, Abramowicz states, "The ADF gets involved in the largely Chinese-driven territorial disputes over minor islands in the South China Sea. These are arguably the key flashpoints for military conflict in the region, since no one is suggesting Beijing would try to conquer even the most poorly defended states in the region.
"Such issues, however, are clearly not major national security challenges for Australia directly, and were we to become involved, we would risk much while arguably contributing little.
"Australia has no South China Sea territory, and our trade routes that run through it mainly go to China. So we have little to defend there, and if we fight Beijing, we are likely to incur the very kind of economic damage we wish to avoid."
We might upset someone, so don't bother assertively promoting our interests
The very core premise of Abramowicz's thesis is that any serious period of capability expansion and indeed even a partial return to the concept of 'Forward Defence' and continued and expanded Australian presence in the Indo-Pacific will serve as a point of contention and will in all likelihood only serve to inflame the situation.
Abramowicz states, "Further, if we battle by the side of the United States, even an expanded ADF will be largely redundant to America’s capability. And without it, our prospects of winning against China’s military (with whom? Vietnam?) must be judged unlikely.
"Finally, an increasingly forward-leaning and 'willing' ADF may in fact end up promoting the kinds of combative behaviours by nations that lead to unwanted escalation, if they are sure we 'have their back'. Instead, strategic ambiguity might well be more sensible.
"All in all, the update must be viewed as a challenge and opportunity. It does in many ways present a sensible – if pricey – response to a declining security environment. Almost regardless of what happens elsewhere, Australia will be one of the most secure countries in the world. And logically, the most risk-appropriate response to a worsening strategic picture is caution and independence."
Once again, Abramowicz, as with so many others, defers Australia's long-term strategic security and, by extension, its economic and political security to the whims of the established and emerging powers of the Indo-Pacific – leaving the likes of Indonesia, Vietnam, India and our north Asian allies, Japan and South Korea, to do the heavy lifting.
In light of this, can it be reasonably and legitimately argued that the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and the Force Structure Plan represent a "new defence paradigm", or is it a case of more of the same?
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 as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
Australia is consistently told that as a nation we are torn between our economic relationship with China and the long-standing strategic partnership with the US, placing the country at the epicentre of a great power rivalry – but what if it didn’t have to be that way?
Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia's future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of shaking up the nation's approach to our regional partners.