As the regional dynamics continue to deteriorate, the Australian government has endeavoured to prepare both the nation and the public for the realities of the new paradigm. However, Australia’s history of dependence on greater powers has left the nation unprepared economically, politically, strategically and, most importantly, culturally, leaving Hugh White to ask: Can we depend on our Asian neighbours?
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 willing and able to guarantee its security.
However, the rise of the Indo-Pacific, in particular the emergence and, in some cases, re-emergence 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 and the ensuing strategies developed in response, 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 crossroads as the region continues to rise.
While successive Australian government's have sought to evolve and, in some ways, modify the Defence of Australia doctrine, the very premise of the doctrine continues to inform the foundation of Australia's strategic policy to this day.
Meanwhile, as Australia continues to contemplate how best to respond to the rapidly deteriorating regional balance of power and the very real challenges to the economic, political and strategic order the nation's prosperity is built upon, the war of words, economic coercion and territorial expansionism continues to mount.
Equally critical in this equation is Australia's culture of dependence upon larger powers, first the British Empire and since the Second World War, the US, which allowed us to fumble and make mistakes, because 'big brother' always had our back. Now, that reality is diminishing as the reality of the Indo-Pacific is beginning to sink in for Australia's policy makers and, increasingly, the Australian public.
Re-entering the public discourse with a timely and relevant question about Australia's strategic posture, with a piece titled 'Can Australia depend on our Asian neighbours for security?', is famed Australian strategic policy expert and former Defence Department official, Hugh White.
White establishes this new and deteriorating reality Australia finds itself in, explaining, "For a half-century, Australian defence policy has shifted uneasily between self-reliance and dependence on the US. But the government’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update, released in July, marks an important change in direction.
"Both approaches are largely abandoned and, instead, Australia will seek its security principally as part of a coalition of Asian countries. The government hopes this coalition will be led by the US, but that is not taken for granted. If America fails us, we will look not to ourselves but to our Asian neighbours — as John Curtin might have put it, 'free of any pangs'. Can Australia credibly depend on our Asian neighbours for our security? What are the alternatives?
"The government’s abandonment of self-reliance is a stark change. Every defence policy statement from 1976 to 2013 has declared this to be Australia’s highest priority. The 2016 defence white paper steps back from that by stating that defending Australia is one of three core missions, along with contributing to operations in maritime south-east Asia and the south Pacific, and to global coalitions.
"But this year’s update goes further. We are left to assume that Australia falls within the expansively defined 'immediate region' — covering everything from New Zealand to the borders of India and China — which is the new focus of Australian defence planning. The priority, it seems, is to build forces to fight alongside other countries to defend stability and order across this region," White explains.
How can we be self-reliant if we depend on others?
The very premise of White's long vaunted concept of 'self-reliance' is based upon the 'Defence of Australia' doctrine and a single-minded focus on strictly defending Australian territory and the critical air and sea lanes of approach from direct attack, while abdicating all further responsibility outside of a relatively small sphere of influence to the remainder of the Indo-Pacific and larger powers like the US and Japan.
Despite this, White states, "Thus, decades of commitment to developing and sustaining the capacity to defend Australian territory independently from direct attack have been summarily jettisoned. Commitments in north Asia have lower priority than those in the immediate region.
"It is easy to understand why the government is stepping back from these two enduring pillars of Australian strategic policy. The reason is China.
"While Washington’s eagerness to confront China has increased, with bold talk of a 'new cold war', its capacity to do so successfully looks less and less certain. China is a formidable rival. Its economy — far bigger relative to America’s than the Soviet Union’s ever was — makes it the most powerful adversary America has faced. Its massive and strategic investment in maritime forces has undermined US military superiority in the western Pacific. Its huge trade footprint gives it immense diplomatic leverage. And it is deeply resolved to take America’s place as the leading power in east Asia."
Further reinforcing this delusional belief that Australia's purely defensive posture and emphasis on the 'Defence of Australia' doctrine directly diminishes the nation's capacity for true self reliance is White's following statement: "These are anxious times. Not since early 1942 have Australians felt so in need of allies yet been so unsure of their major ally. It is not surprising, then, that Canberra is eagerly, even desperately, looking for new protectors."
It raises the important question, how can we define ourselves as 'self-reliant' if we are in a constant state of searching for strategic benefactors when our major ally is dealt a major blow?
Furthermore, how sure can we be that the region's rising powers will have our best interests at heart?
Allies welcomed and preferred, but be prepared for none to show up
Australia's long history of what amounts to a combination of strategic interdependence and dependence upon larger power benefactors since the end of the nation's involvement in the Vietnam conflict and the subsequently shifting balance of regional and global power is now juxtaposed by a rapidly evolving Indo-Pacific.
White's thesis in The Australian echoes statements made by White earlier in the year upon the launch of his book How to Defend Australia, in which he now argues: "if we are to take our defence seriously, we need to prepare to defend Australia from a major Asian power independently" – with the focus on alliances taking a somewhat secondary role as the nation develops its own response.
"I argue at length that we should look for allies wherever possible, and that in defending our strategic interests beyond our closest Pacific island neighbours we have no choice but to do so. Moreover, I argue that ensuring the military capacity to do that should be a significant factor in designing our forces," White said.
"So, I’m not saying that we don’t want allies. I’m saying that we can no longer assume that we will find them when we need them — either in America or in the region or both. In this post I’ll focus on America, and in a later one I’ll explore the prospects for regional alliances," White articulated as he attempts to argue for what he defines as greater Australian strategic independence.
The particular focus of White's renewed thesis is the increasing limitations of the US and its now 'unpredictable' nature at a time of rising competition between traditional state actors and economic, political and strategic disruption.
"Those who say that we should continue to depend on America offer variants of three arguments. They say that America has always been committed to our alliance in the past, so it always will be in the future," White stated.
"They say that Washington’s growing determination to confront and contain China today makes the alliance stronger than ever. And they say that the deep bonds of history, values and sentiment ensure that the alliance will endure no matter what happens."
White expanded on this further, raising an important question for consideration: "America’s commitment to Australia’s security has always been a product of its wish to preserve its wider strategic position in east Asia and the western Pacific. That remains true. We can continue to depend on America as long as America remains committed to preserving that position. The question is, how long will that be?"
Expanding on these points, White's new thesis reveals the potential for greater collaboration with Asian partners, however, it is critical to recognise that these neighbours are part of a solution, shifting Australia's dependence upon the US to a more diffuse number of allies in the region, without accounting for their own unique and often ancient rivalries.
White's thesis seems to overlook the harsh reality that the Indo-Pacific's geostrategic challenges mirror the powder keg of pre-First World War Europe, where individual powers actively competed and challenged one another for access to resources, territory and prestige, as well as the ever-present reality of cultural rivalry.
"At first glance, our Asian neighbours seem promising partners. We live in a region full of countries that share our concerns about China. Some of them are already powerful, while others have clear potential. It makes sense to consider how they might help to keep us secure in the decades ahead," White explains.
"The obvious idea is to use their strength to buttress America’s dwindling power and resolve, drawing them together into a regional US-led coalition to contain China — in other words, an Asian NATO.
"To many, the geopolitical logic appears so strong as to seem self-evident. Countries throughout Asia fear China’s rising power and ambition to become the regional hegemon. They welcome America’s role in balancing China’s power and limiting its influence. Therefore, they will be eager to support America in doing that."
The writing is on the wall
White in some capacity, finally comes to his senses recognising that Australia's approach to regional alliances and the rapidly evolving reality of the Indo-Pacific, presenting a number of options for consideration.
Importantly, White fails to accept that depending on alliances to do the heavy lifting doesn't make Australia self-reliant. Nevertheless, White states: "First, the government should acknowledge that for the first time in our history, as Western power in Asia is finally eclipsed, Australia must make its way alone and take responsibility for its own security in a way it has never had to before. Rather than stepping away from defence self-reliance as things get tougher, we must step into it."
Building on this, White adds, "Second, Australia should work to build the strongest linkages it can with the countries that could be of most value in the decades ahead. That means abandoning unrealistic ambitions for strategic partnerships with every country between Australia and China. Instead, Canberra should focus on the countries whose strategic interests converge most closely with Australia’s. Indonesia stands out. Canberra could lay the groundwork for future co-operation and mutual support by starting a frank, serious and private conversation with Indonesian leaders about the strategic challenges both countries face.
"Third, Australia should rethink its military strategy and defence budget to create forces that can defend Australia independently and provide real support to potential strategic partners."
Nevertheless, White does recognise the growing need for Australia not to take advantage of regional partners and their heavy lifting, stating, "Australia cannot take the military backing of other countries for granted in the difficult years ahead. It needs to be able to stand alone and to maximise the chances that it will find support from others. And this means it needs a much more radical rethink of defence planning than anything yet contemplated in Canberra."
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 strategic approach to our regional partners.