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Australia’s strategic deja vu

Global superpowers in decline and an unstable Indo-Pacific, we’ve seen it all before. Australia must look back into history to understand how we navigated this unique security paradigm to protect our national sovereignty, writes Peter Richards.

Global superpowers in decline and an unstable Indo-Pacific, we’ve seen it all before. Australia must look back into history to understand how we navigated this unique security paradigm to protect our national sovereignty, writes Peter Richards.

The evacuation of Kabul has caused Australia to question the strategic commitment of its main ally, the US. But there is no novelty in the current situation: relying on a military partner whose will and capability to wage war in wider theatre in defence of its allies also came into serious question at another time in Australia’s history. 

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The current period of regional instability has an uncanny parallel with the defence and foreign policy debates of the 1930s, when Australia faced an emerging Japanese military and economic power that was seeking strategic gains. The invasion of Manchuria by Japan in 1931 had brushed aside the League of Nations and the collective treaty system and pacts of the time (namely the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928), thought to provide the post-war collective security system. The same fears now haunt Taiwan and Hong Kong, and the international rules-based system seems a bureaucratic turn of phrase more than a break on dangerous national ambitions. 

In the early 1930s Australia was still emerging from the Great Depression (as it is from the COVID pandemic today). The attention of policy makers and the public was very much upon internal reconstruction and domestic political upheavals of the ALP split in 1931 and the emergence of Lyons led UAP. There was little appetite for committing the national effort to a distant threat. 

But beneath this public malaise networks of foreign policy and defence/military intelligence thinkers developed sophisticated and realistic assessments of the strategic environment. The effect of this debate was critical on changing defence thinking over the 1930s and rebuilding the armed forces.

Australia’s military intelligence resources had developed out of the 1920s, with the creation of the Pacific Branch by Melbourne lawyer and defence thinker, E.L. Piesse. It was Piesse who was to enlist the Japanese speaking General Staff Intelligence Officer E. Longfield Lloyd, into the Branch. Lloyd would become a regional branch head of the Commonwealth Investigations Service. The Australian Archives hold colourful records of correspondence received from concerned citizens of seeing Japanese tourists, Lloyds’ frequent focus, with Eastman Brownie Box cameras on Sydney Harbour Bridge. 

Lloyd would later be a delegate on an economic mission to Japan, in 1934, organised by Sir John Latham, Australia’s then attorney-general. It was barely an economic mission. Lloyd’s position was as a trade commissioner. An unlikely role, as he reported on Japanese domestic political and geo-strategic trends. When Lloyd returned to Australia in 1939 he was appointed director of the Commonwealth Intelligence Services. 

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Piesse, in the interim, had been a frequent contributor to what was a loosely federated think tank, the Round Table (amongst numerous others). He published articles on geo-political issues and argued strongly for a self-reliant approach to defence based on the vulnerabilities of Australia in the event of a two-theatre war, one in Europe and the other in the Pacific. He troubled many who were content to accept Imperial War Policy planning (and indeed the Melbourne and Sydney wings of the Round Table were often split on this issue). 

Other academic-diplomats, such as F. W. Eggleston, sought to redesign the collective security system into a regional space, and specifically with a Pacific focus. In so doing, the intellectual and strategic basis of SEATO and ANZUS were laid, well in advance of the political establishment of the 1940s and 1950s. 

Piesse had an extended networks of military officers such as Colonel H. D. Wynter, director of military training, and General Sir John Lavarack, who was at the time the director general of military intelligence at Victoria Barracks. This network of thinkers posed the strategic calculation: a Britain preoccupied in Europe, the North Sea and the Atlantic could simply not meet the armament and logistics demands of a second confrontation in the Pacific and Far East. It was cold realpolitik. Sir John insisted on developing manned coastal defences at a time when Australia’s permanent armed forces averaged around 1,900 permanent soldiers and to reduce inter-operational investments with the Royal Navy. This created serious rifts in the Defence Council and Sir John’s career barely survived.

Like Sir John, many today see Australia’s defence in asymmetric and deterrent capabilities and not full blown expeditionary armies and slow moving assets. Where Sir John saw coastal defences, today we see submarine drones and missile defences.

Piesse, like many others working behind the scenes in the 1930s to defend Australia’s interests were not nationalist in the Peter Weir tradition of ‘Gallipoli’. As identity types they were British culturally and their webs of contacts were stretched into the British bureaucracy and military class. But they were also pre-eminently realists, and understood the time had come to rearm (on a new self-reliant basis), and not to invest defence resources in the British strategic vision (about which there was deteriorating trust for those on its periphery of its core euro-centric interests). 

Gradually, as these debates permeated the Defence Council and the political system, and made their way into the popular media, a change in direction emerged.  

It was immediately after Lloyd’s return to Australia from Japan in 1939 that Menzies extended Australia’s own diplomatic posting into the Pacific region and initiated defence overtures to the US. Strategic self-interest quickly trumped imperial sentiments.

Australia might be a member of Five Eyes intelligence alliance now, but throughout the critical years of the 1930s, it did its own intelligence gathering. And then, as now, Australian intelligence community pondered at just what point an emerging regional power (Japan/PRC) might be satiated, by gains of what kinds and where, and how Australia’s security would be preserved in that matrix of possibilities.

Eventually, Australia began to expand its defence investments. By later in the 1930s, the defence force budget generally had doubled from earlier in the decade. In response to the re-armament debates, the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation (CAC) was established and some 40 Wirraway fighter planes (which would become our mainstay in the Pacific theatre) were ordered. By 1941, with that foundation, the CAC was producing about 45 Wirraways per month. An envious procurement rate by today’s standard.

Australia went through one awakening in the 1930s to the simple fact that national security is contingent and never guaranteed. A second awakening looms. 

Peter Richards was a senior deputy president in the Australian Industrial Relations Commission and Fair Work Australia, and has carried out post graduate research in Australian intellectual history at Sydney University.

Australia’s strategic deja vu
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