Thursday 14 Oct 2021 | 22:40 | SYDNEY
Thursday 14 Oct 2021 | 22:40 | SYDNEY

Reader ripostes: The last word on Australia sea lanes


Sam Roggeveen


19 September 2008 13:30

Rejoinders from two previous correspondents on this topic. Below is Andrew Davies' reply to Mark O'Neill, but first, Robyn Lim:

This debate is getting really weird. It's obviously absurd to say that Australia can defend 'its' sea lanes, when 'its' sea lanes stretch around half the globe. It's Uncle Sam's navy that protects 'our' sea lanes, as well as the sealanes of China, Japan, South Korea etc. What we need to do is develop the maritime capabilities to be of some use to the US Navy, and that means capable surface ships, not just submarines.

 Rudd, in speaking to different audiences out of different sides of his mouth, was too clever by half.  It's a test of skill, of course, to carry this off.  And Rudd is either not smart enough, or didn't spend the time to think it through. But Rudd does seem to grasp the essentials — we are too small to defend ourselves, on the basis of our own resources, against a major strategic threat of the kind presented by Japan in 1942. Thus we are best defended, at a distance, in the company of more powerful allies. But if we expect the benefits that alliance provides, we can't get away with near-free riding.

Once an enemy is just over the horizon, it's far too late. And let's recall why the Japanese were just over the horizon in 1942. The balance of power had broken down in Europe. Hitler had overrun France and Holland, thus uncovering the defences of their resource-rich colonies in East Asia, a glittering prize that Japan was unable to resist.

While 'balance of power' might be unfashionable now, and no-one in our universities seems to know much history, our interests are the same as they have been for over a century — the maintenance of the balance of power in North Asia. That is also a key interest of the US, and represents the essential congruence of strategic interest that our alliance with the US depends on.

The Dibb/White doctrine, which was so devastating to surface navy and the army, was based on an exaggerated reading of the 1969 Nixon Doctrine — that the US was leaving Southeast Asia, and so were the British. Therefore we would retreat to the island continent, defending the so-called 'air sea gap'. And, in the wake of the Vietnam War, to avoid future entanglement in 'America's wars' — think Taiwan Strait — we would run down the surface navy so that if the US asked for our support, we would say 'sorry pal, like to help, but nothing to send'.

The problem with all that of course is that we still thought we were 'entitled' to US support, forgetting that alliance obligations are two-way streets. And that the US won't necessary see things — think Indonesia — the way we do.

The balance of power in North Asia is still our key strategic interest. This balance depends essentially on the US-China-Japan nexus. Rudd, I think, knows perfectly well that China is the big potential problem. Its signs of strategic ambition, especially maritime ambition, are rather hard to ignore. The Cold War was barely over, for example, before China was asserting its sovereignty (on the basis of a dubious reading of history) over the entire East and South China Seas. No government in Washington, and no government in Tokyo, could possibly afford to ignore that. (Although our foreign ministry at the time didn't understand it at all. Why anyone would think our diplomats have superior 'strategic sense' is a mystery to me. To the contrary, their instinct is very often for pre-emptive capitulation.)

Yet China and the US are not enemies, even though they are no longer the allies of convenience that they were in the latter stages of the Cold War. It all depends on whether China can resolve its central dilemma- how to reconcile capitalism with party control. Yes, it's all going to be very tricky, now that China is our leading two-way trade partner. And there are many odd elements of the current situation. For example, the US Navy is providing oil security for China.

But no doubt Rudd's speech was read in Beijing the way he intended it, which is that he does understand that China, and not Japan, is the big strategic problem in East Asia, and that the near-free riding inherent in the Dibb/White doctrine is in fact dangerous to our security. We need to develop the maritime capability to be an asset, not a liability, to the US. And to get rid of the Dibb/White doctrine that has been so lethal to our surface navy as well as to the army (as shown in East Timor, in spades.)  Twenty years of it is more than enough, surely.

And here's Andrew Davies responding to Mark O'Neill's post:

They say there is no such thing as bad publicity, but sometimes there can certainly be odd publicity. I can only encourage readers of this blog to download my paper on the implications of the Asian military buildup and draw their own conclusions. Since one of my main conclusions is that we should be prepared to make strong contributions to coalition operations far from Australia, I really wonder where those ‘strong echoes of the old DOA’ were emanating from.