The Turnbull Government was clearly caught flat-footed by the significant change in the Trump’s security strategy announced by Defense Secretary Mattis. Defence Minister Payne’s initial comment and background briefings had to be corrected quickly. All of which underlines the urgent need for detailed review of NDS18’s implications for Australian strategic policy.
An earlier blog “New US National Defense Strategy: Back to the Cold War?” posited that the new US National Defence Strategy (NDS18) , reportedy drafted personally by Secretary of Defense Mattis, marked significant change by the Trump Administration which would necessitate serious revisiting of the implications it bore for Australian strategic thinking. It followed the release of the more detailed National Security Strategy (NSS) in December and the leaked draft US Nuclear Posture review ( Richard Butler’s “The Real Danger: A New Nuclear Arms Race.“) and reports of similar reviews of Ballistic Missile strategy and other key areas. If there were ever a key policy topic for “deep diving”, much vaunted by Prime Minster Turnbull through the well fed Canberra media to kick start his political recovery in 2018, this would have to be one!
But what we came to witness was a dysfunctional government floundering again in public on a major issue. In her first comment on NDS18 Defence Minister Payne rushed to comment that Australia shared the US concerns about the threat from China and Russia – presumably on advice from her defence advisers. Her comments were reported in an ‘exclusive’ by The Australian’s National Security Editor headed “ Our strategy : All the way with the USA “ which clearly reflected backgrounding from government sources that Australia backed the strategic concerns presented in NDS18. Barnaby Joyce then chimed in with support for Payne’s comment.
The speed with which Foreign Minister Bishop sought to pull the government back from this was remarkable. She said :
“We have a different perspective on Russia and China, clearly. We do not see Russia or China posing a military threat to Australia. “
Then followed quickly the Prime Minister, consistent with some of the softer language he had used about China during his recent fleeting trip to Japan. said :
“ We don’t see threats from our neighbours in this region but nonetheless every country must always plan ahead …”
So where does this leave us? Objectively any considered analysis of threats to Australia cannot expunge completely the potential threat posed by China to our region and Australia. The White Paper was designed to undertake that analysis and its conclusions appeared eminently reasonable :
“The Government is committed to strong and constructive ties with China. We welcome China’s greater capacity to share responsibility for supporting regional and global security. We seek to strengthen our Comprehensive Strategic Partnership for the benefit of both nations.”
So why not maintain that line on this issue?
In trying to fathom the Government’s clumsy handling of this critical issue we cannot disregard the welter of hyperventilation about the “China threat” across the government and media spectrum (often based on leaks from government) to which we have been subjected in the past year or so. And with which Beijing has become increasingly irritated and any Australian seeking balance from the commentariat in Canberra have been branded as “apologists” for China.
A following contribution will seek to move on from the above and underline why even more than a deep dive is urgently needed by Australia on this whole issue. We cannot afford to continue sticking our heads in the sand. Trump and his military cabinet have made it abundantly clear that this constitutes fundamental change with serious implications for allies and partners. Ironically the Mattis diktat establishes clearly that it will be the US which will force the pace on the Australia/China bilateral relationship rather than China!
Mack Williams. Former Ambassador to the Philippines and Republic of Korea, Royal College of Defence Studies