Tuesday 24 Jul 2018 | 01:42 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 24 Jul 2018 | 01:42 | SYDNEY

Fighting a major power alone


Hugh White

14 September 2011 15:22

Sam's recent post on the Joint Strike Fighter made some good points about the relative priority of fighters and submarines. But it embedded a critical assumption that I think needs testing. 'Australia would only ever go to war with China by America's side', he said. How sure are we that this is true?

It certainly has been almost always true in the past that Australia would not contemplate independent military operations against a major Asian power. But in the past there has been no need to, because we have almost always enjoyed the protection of an Anglo Saxon ally exercising clear maritime primacy in Asia. 

Sam's confidence that we will never have to fight a major power alone seems to presuppose either that this will remain true indefinitely, or that if it does not remain true we would be prepared to demote ourselves to small-power status and surrender to any major power that applied military pressure against us.

I've argued elsewhere (most fully in Power Shift) that we cannot assume that the US will remain the dominant maritime power in Asia indefinitely. Indeed, the risks are rather high that the US will either run down its engagement in Asia, or maintain it solely on the basis of a bitterly contested and very dangerous power struggle with China for reasons which we did not consider justified. Either way we would find ourselves without a great and powerful friend.

Sam might believe that in that situation we would have no choice but to become a small power. But that is a big and risky step, and not one to be taken until we are sure that there are no affordable and acceptable ways we could establish ourselves as an independent middle power. 

Indeed, the great question for Australian defence policy today is whether we can conceive and implement an affordable and sustainable defence posture which would give us the independent strategic weight of a middle power in the Asian century. If, after full analysis, it becomes clear that we cannot, then so be it. But let's not simply assume away our future as a middle power. 

Photo by Flickr user peretzp.