Tuesday 12 Oct 2021 | 00:12 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 12 Oct 2021 | 00:12 | SYDNEY

Defence debate: Australia won't be alone


Rory Medcalf


15 April 2009 15:27

This is the second contribution to our debate on Australia's defence policy which started here.  

Hugh White’s ‘A Focused Force’ is already focusing the minds of Australia’s security community on the eve of the launch of Australia’s (real) Defence White Paper. As with so much of Hugh’s work, it is commendably provocative, tautly-argued and timely. I am very pleased to publish Hugh’s paper under my program as a contribution to the debate. But there is of course no single ‘Lowy Institute line’, and my own assessments happen to differ.

The parsimony of Hugh’s argumentation risks being misinterpreted. Media coverage will home in on two basic messages: China is a likely future threat to Australia’s security; and Australia thus needs a powerful Navy and Air Force, including no fewer than 18 submarines and 200 Joint Striker Fighters. 

This is a simplistic reading, but a predictable one, especially in light of the current debate in the Australian media and bureaucracy. The challenge for Hugh and those who broadly share his ‘Focused Force’ views will be to pre-empt and add texture to such crude summaries.

Going by media reports of what might be in the forthcoming Defence White Paper, Hugh’s piece could be seen as an explicit and magnified version of the official document’s logic.

In any event, one could define a spectrum of views on, for instance, submarine numbers: Ross Babbage at one end (advocating a ‘flexible deterrent’, including perhaps 30 submarines); Hugh White advocating an 18-sub ‘denial’ force; the government apparently settling on a future need for 12; and the existing force consisting of six, of which perhaps only three can currently be crewed and deployed. It would seem that such proposals as Babbage’s and White’s have indeed helped to frame the debate, serving as maximalist markers for ambitions within government.

I have commented previously on the Babbage ‘arm-ripping’ option: that Australia needs to be able, single-handedly, to do unacceptable damage to a major power in an uncertain future. My chief responses to Hugh’s argument follow similar lines. (I will leave it to others to explore the opportunity costs: all the other things the Australian Defence Force needs to be able to do, such as counter-insurgency.)

I am not convinced that China seeks some sort of full-scale military dominance of the wider Asian region. Certainly, China’s military power has grown fast, along with the interests it will want to protect. But, as one of America’s leading China security specialists argues, Beijing’s objectives are largely conservative, not expansionist: 'China is developing internal control, peripheral denial, and limited force-projection capabilities consistent with those objectives.' 

That does not mean we should not worry about how China will behave as its power grows. Even a broadly defensive strategy by a much more powerful China could involve it in confrontation or conflict. Australia is right to hedge. But there are more realistic ways of doing this than by crafting an expensive and narrowly-focused defence force aimed potentially at single-handedly fighting a major power.

For a start, I continue to have more confidence in the US than does the ‘Australia Alone’ school. This isn’t about American altruism. Rather, it remains extraordinarily difficult to conceive of the US disengaging from Asia to the point where it would not support Australia, Japan or other allies and partners against aggression. It would not be in Washington’s interests to let that happen.

And even with a possible decline of US power in Asia, there are many serious players in this region — Japan, India, South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia and Singapore among them — with rising military capabilities of their own, none of which would want to see America’s strategic pre-eminence replaced by China’s.

The prospect of Australia coming under military threat from China with all of these countries sitting on the sidelines is very hard to imagine. It is strange that supporters of a stronger Australian defence posture tend to be cool to the idea of building partnerships, such as through the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue or the abortive Quadrilateral.

Finally, although Hugh acknowledges that the defence policy he advocates could damage relations with China, there is important work yet to be done in scrutinising what this might mean. The main strategic risk posed by China’s rise may well be that of a ‘security dilemma’ in the region — an action-reaction cycle of countries competing to upgrade their capabilities against the threats they perceive from each other’s.

If this is so, then a premature move towards a much more robust Australian maritime force might just end up being Canberra’s early contribution to this undesirable outcome, not least because of the example it could set for other countries in the region.