Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 19:35 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 19:35 | SYDNEY

Defence debate: Hugh White responds


Hugh White

21 April 2009 09:19

Since Hugh White launched his Lowy Institute Paper A Focused Force last Wednesday we have hosted a debate on Australia's defence policy. Here are parts one, two, three, four, five, six and seven.    

Many thanks for the many excellent and stimulating comments on my paper over the last few days from many old friends and colleagues. Here I want to respond especially to elements of those from Peter Leahy, Paul Monk, Jim Molan and Rory. I hope Fergus will indulge me to respond to some of the others in a few days.

I’d like to start though with a general point.  The key message of my paper is that China’s rise has big implications for Australia’s defence needs. Many people have assumed this means that I think China’s rise poses a military threat to Australia. Actually the paper quite specifically repudiates that idea, on page 2: ‘The prime concern is not whether China poses a direct military threat to Australia as its power grows.’ Those italics are in the original. 

So let me clear up any misunderstanding. I simply do not know whether China will pose a direct military threat to Australia over coming decades or not. I certainly do not assume it will. But more importantly, I do not believe there is any way of knowing whether it will or not. And I do not think we need to know that in order to consider Australia’s future defence needs.

This misunderstanding is important. Like many others, I find the ‘China threat’ hypothesis unconvincing, and if it was the basis of my argument then it too would be unconvincing. But the misunderstanding is also instructive, because the tendency to assume that I must believe China to pose a threat reflects deep-seated and deeply-mistaken intuitions about the nature of strategic risk and the way our judgements of strategic risk should inform defence decisions.  

The intuitive view is that strategic risk arises from the existence of a potential adversary who has the capability to attack us and may form the intention to do so. On this view, defence planning must pay attention to capability because intention can change quickly. Any conceivable adversary whose capability grows must be seen as a growing threat. That is the logic behind the ‘China threat’ hypothesis.

This way of seeing strategic risk is beloved by many defence planners, but it is at best incomplete, because it overlooks the importance of the wider international setting (what I call ‘order’), which does a lot to shape the conduct of states and the likelihood of armed conflict.

The international order helps to determine whether intentions to use force will emerge. Individual intentions can change quickly, but international orders are often — not always — pretty robust and enduring. So our view of potential threats can and should be based on the nature and durability of the international order which frames countries’ actions, as well as on their military capabilities and specific intentions.

Strategic risk is primarily shaped by regional orders. Some regions — like the Middle East — have very unstable orders in which the use of force is quite probable, and in which capability therefore translates pretty directly into threat. Others, like Western Europe, have very robust orders in which the use of force between states is virtually unthinkable. 

Now Asia is an interesting case. East Asia’s regional strategic order was highly unstable and contested for much of the first three quarters of the last century, but after the Vietnam War it settled down. The past four decades have been the best in Asia’s long history, and the most peaceful that Australia has enjoyed since the decline of British primacy in the late nineteenth century. 

Asia’s current stable order has been based on American primacy, and on the vital fact that this primacy has been uncontested by Asia’s other major powers. That has made it very robust. As long as American primacy lasts, the order will last.

Within this stable and durable order, Australia has been safe from any serious military attack, and we have had to do little or nothing to help maintain it. We have been able to spend less of our income on defence and pay little attention to the kinds of forces we have built. 

The core of my argument is that this order is challenged by China’s rise, because it challenges US primacy. Three important points here: 

First, the foundation of American primacy is economic, not military power, and China’s challenge is primarily economic, too. The growth of China’s maritime forces is only a symptom of China’s challenge, not its essence. 

And by the same token, America’s enduring military superiority will not preserve its primacy as economic power passes. I doubt that America can successfully enforce with arms a primacy which it no longer has the economic power to command. As China’s economy approaches America’s in scale, American primacy will loose credibility; if it overtakes America, US primacy is over. 

Second, there is nothing illegitimate or threatening in the fact that China’s growth challenges US primacy in Asia. I call it China’s ‘challenge’, but in a sense it is beyond China’s control, and indeed Beijing has been doing all it can to minimise the disruption that its growing power causes to the regional order.

Change will come nonetheless. The only way China’s growing power could be accommodated into the US led order would be for China to follow Japan’s example of strategic subordination to America. It would be unrealistic, and unreasonable, to expect that.

Third, we do not know what kind of new order will emerge as US primacy fades. There is no reason to assume that US primacy will be simply replaced by Chinese primacy — if only because unlike US primacy, Chinese primacy would not be uncontested. 

A new order may emerge which is just as peaceful and harmonious as the past forty years. That would be in everyone’s interest, but this does not make it inevitable, or easy. There is a risk that Asia will instead slide into a more dangerous and contested regional order, with active strategic competition between major powers.

Whether that happens is not just a question for China, but for all the major powers. China’s economic growth is akin to a force of nature, and everyone has a responsibility to help build a new regional order which accommodates China’s new power peacefully. 

If that fails, Australia’s strategic risks will increase over coming decades. We cannot predict how exactly those risks might materialise. They may arise from a drive by China to establish regional hegemony. But equally they could arise from efforts by other major powers to deny China a legitimate role as a regional major power, or from conflict between two major powers for spheres of influence in Southeast Asia. These possibilities seem remote from the realties of Asia in recent decades, but that has been because of a regional order which seems likely to be passing. We need to recognise the possibility of discontinuity.

Some people will think this is too vague. They will think that we cannot base defence policy on broad concerns about the future regional order, but must be able to identify specific threats before we start thinking about spending more money or building different forces. But many of the same people will also say that we have no way of reliably predicting specific future threats far enough ahead to be able to build forces to respond. That leads to a kind of catch-22. If we wait until a specific threat does emerge, it will be too late to adjust defence priorities, and if we try to guess in advance we will most likely get it wrong. On this basis defence policy seems impossible.

I’m not sure we have the luxury of giving up that easily, and I do think we can build a bridge between uncertain strategic futures and current capability choices. We can indentify broad trends in the international order which will affect the probability and seriousness of armed conflict involving Australia, and we can make some broad judgements about the way we might need to use armed force in response, and on this basis we can make robust judgements about the kinds of forces we might want to build. That is what my paper aims to do.


I agree with Jim and others who worry about the Defence organisation’s ability to deliver advanced military capabilities effectively. Behind acquisition bungles and crewing shortages lie deep and long-standing institutional weaknesses which go well beyond mere bureaucratic bungling. Our Defence organisation today is probably incapable of delivering the kinds of forces that we need to have a middle power’s strategic weight over coming decades.

But unlike Jim and others, I do not think these problems should monopolise our attention at the expense of thinking about long-term directions. Indeed I do not think the deep management problems can be fixed without getting a clearer idea of what our armed forces are for. 

One of the key reasons why Defence does things badly is that no one in the organisation has a clear idea of what exactly it is trying to do and why.  Without a clear sense of strategic purpose, for example, it is hard for Navy to work out why keeping the submarines fully crewed is an absolutely top priority. Nor is it easy for those managing acquisition projects to know how to balance priorities between performance, schedule cost and risk.

But more broadly, I am very sceptical of the idea that Australia’s strategic objectives should be forever limited by the current failings of the Defence organisation. To argue that we should not expand our submarine fleet because navy today cannot manage the present number effectively presuppose that we are incapable of doing better. I do not believe that.


Both Peter and Paul raise questions about my views on the future of Army. I would agree with Peter that we should provide our land forces with the equipment they need to fulfil the tasks we give them effectively and at minimum risk. But that does still beg the question about what those tasks are. 

I argue in 'A Focused Force' that as Australia’s strategic objectives are now defined, the most important role for Army is stabilisation operations in the immediate neighbourhood, and that we need more deployable forces to do that. I agree with Peter that they will need some ‘heavier capabilities’ to do that, but clearly these forces should be much lighter than we would build if Army’s main purpose was to join US Army divisions in continental conflicts. For such conflicts, size will always count for more than weight.

So my question to Peter is whether he accepts that Army’s main role is stabilization, not state on state conflict.  If I may presume, I expect you will respond by mentioning the three-block war, so let me offer a little pre-emptive scepticism. Of course stabilisation operations can range in intensity from placid to intense, but nothing in Iraq or Afghanistan compares with the pace, intensity and lethality of full-scale combat between large-scale conventional armed forces, and we should not assume that the same kinds of forces are cost-effective for both roles. 

The need to choose which we want to be able do is therefore critical to effective force planning, and we should be absolutely clear which it is.  My focus on stabilization roles for the Army is based on the view that land-forces do not provide cost-effective strategic options for Australia in conventional conflicts in Asia. I would not be surprised if Peter did not agree with that, and would be keen to hear his arguments to the contrary.

Paul detects an incoherence in my argument on Army’s requirements, and I know him to be a careful reader so I thank him for highlighting something I have not made clear. The paper presents arguments both about our strategic objectives and about the capability needs that flow from them. On p 39 I am arguing that the present force is too small to meet our current objectives, in response to which we can either shrink the objectives or grow the force. On p 46 I am suggesting what growing the force to meet current objectives would involve. 

Current v Future

Both Peter and Jim suggest that my analysis focuses too much on uncertain future risks and not enough on current real tasks. I think that misunderstands the nature and demands of defence policy, which must by its nature be bifocal. We fight today’s wars with the forces provided to us by decisions ten and twenty years ago; we in turn have a responsibility to shape the forces our predecessors will have to work with in twenty years time. We simply cannot afford to say that the present is so important that we cannot spare the time to worry about the future.

That is especially true when the future may be a lot more demanding than the present. Peter says that the ADF is at war today, and of course that is true. But we should be careful not to slide from that to the much less valid suggestion that our experience of war today, no matter how challenging for those directly involved, is in any way comparable for the country as a whole or for the ADF to the terrible ordeals of our history. Nor should we slide into thinking that the wars we might fight in future will not be any more demanding than those we fight today. They could be very much worse.

All Alone?

Rory raises the important question of whether, in the event that US primacy in Asia declines as I suggest it might, Australia would remain all alone in the region, or whether we could not cooperate with other states to help protect our interests. The answer is that of course we could, and would quite possibly wish to do so. But I do not think that supports the conclusion he seems inclined to draw, that therefore Australia would not need more capable forces than those now being planned.

Rory’s point touches on a key issue which my paper itself does not fully explore, and that is the way in which Australia’s wider strategic posture might evolve if US primacy fades. I mention in Chapter 3 that we would face big choices about whether we would remain a US ally as its relative power declined, or retreat to isolation, or go the New Zealand route. 

But there are other options which I have explored elsewhere and on which I plan further work; alliance with a major Asian power, or the kind of fluid balance of power diplomacy practised by Britain for so long, for example. In other words there could be lots of options for Australia to cooperate with like-minded countries other than the US in a more contested Asia.  

But none of theses options would deliver Australia as much security at so little cost as the US alliance has done. Any of them would require Australia to be able to contribute much more strategic weight than our present and planned force allows. Our standing as a US ally in recent decades has been based on very little of real strategic substance, and we should not assume we can get away with this in future if the strategic stakes in Asia rise, either as a US ally or as anyone else’s.

To put the same point another way, we need to choose whether we would want to be able to contribute substantially to the collective efforts of the kind of coalition Rory envisages, or simply tag along for the ride. If the former, we will need to have strategic weight of a middle power, if the later, we are relegating ourselves to the ranks of the small powers. 

Finally, Rory wonders why I do not support closer cooperation with Japan, India and the US through the Trilateral and Quadrilateral dialogues if I am so worried that Asia’s future may turn sour. The answer of course is that promoting such groupings, clearly aimed at contesting China’s challenge to US primacy rather than accommodating it, are just the kind of thing that make the bad outcomes I fear more likely. 

Photo by Flickr user Robert H. Baumgartner, used under a Creative Commons licence.